The racer's edge

Hunt alliance gives weaker track developer big edge

Paul Fielding remembers the moment his antenna rose on this racetrack business.
It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the end of a long holiday weekend. The Dallas city councilman was at home in North Dallas, dredging leaves out of his swimming pool. He had taken his cordless phone outside and, sure enough, around noon it began to ring.

"It was Stimson," recalls Fielding, referring to fellow council member Bob Stimson. "He was inviting me to a press conference at 3:30--in three hours. Which was ridiculous. It was a Sunday afternoon, the end of a four-day weekend, and I just didn't feel like schlepping out there for that deal--without any warning."

"That deal" was a press conference that an Ennis drag strip owner named Billy Meyer was holding to announce plans to build a $60 to $75 million major-league auto speedway at Pinnacle Park in west Oak Cliff. The mayor would be at the press conference to embrace the proposal, Stimson told Fielding, and so would Stimson, whose district this was in.

Fielding didn't know much about this racetrack situation. It had only been in the newspapers a few weeks, it wasn't near his district, and the city staff had yet to give the council any kind of briefing. But he did know this much: there was some kind of competition going on to build a racetrack in Dallas.

On one side was racing heavyweight Bruton Smith from Charlotte, N.C., who owned giant speedways in Charlotte and Atlanta, both of which host big-time races for the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR). Smith was scouting locations for a racetrack site. On Monday, according to news reports, Smith was going to make a formal announcement that he had picked Dallas-Fort Worth over St. Louis as the future home of his track.

Which is why it was strange to Fielding that Bartlett and Stimson were hosting this last-minute press conference for someone named Billy Meyer, an award-winning funny-car driver from Waco who owned one small drag strip in Ennis--a short, straight track, not a giant oval like Smith's--albeit one of the best in the country for drag racing. Clearly, Meyer's hastily arranged press conference was meant to beat Smith to the punch.

"I couldn't figure out why Bartlett was pushing the guy," Fielding said of Meyer. "It was like comparing Ross Perot to me--it was like picking me for a computer contract when you have Ross Perot standing there, too. The other guy had all the credentials."

Fielding, though, didn't have to think about it too long. He was a sharp guy. He'd been on the city council a while. He'd watched the mayor do some pretty impressively contorted softshoe on other big development issues--most recently the new sports arena.

As Fielding turned his phone off, and Dallas' latest good-ol'-boy deal came into full, expressive color, Fielding fumbled--dropping his phone into the swimming pool and capping a now-irritating end to an otherwise relaxing weekend.

"It came to me pretty quickly," Fielding said. "This was Ray Hunt--chapter 37."

War is hell. But it's easier if you happen to be Ray Hunt--and your battlefield is Dallas city hall.

Hunt has an incredible track record of capitalizing on taxpayer bounty to do his deeds--most notably, his Hyatt Hotel-Reunion complex. He's now poised to cash in on the new arena, also slated for the Reunion area that he controls.

Now a new taxpayer-subsidized bonanza looms on the horizon--Pinnacle Park, the doomed horse track site in Oak Cliff that Waco-based Billy Meyer wants to transform into an auto speedway.

Meyer plans to do it with the ultimate political ally--Ray Hunt's Woodbine Devel-opment Co., which is going to build the track and any surrounding development, possibly including a hotel. Also on the Meyer team is George Schrader, a Dallas business consultant who just happens to be the former Dallas city manager who cut the generous deal that gave public land, air rights, and developmental control of the 50-acre Reunion development for a period of 100 years to Hunt.

As the years pass, it gets more and more difficult to see Hunt's fingerprints on his handiwork. He still prefers to negotiate privately with city officials, strictly behind closed doors, until a deal can be sealed. And he has emissaries who do it for him.

That is, in fact, how the Billy Meyer racetrack was being done until Smith screwed it up. Meyer had gone to Mayor Steve Bartlett and City Manager John Ware last May to begin negotiating his deal. The public knew nothing about it until November, when Smith happened to come to town to consider building a track out at Alliance Airport, for which Ross Perot Jr. had been courting him for several years.

Michael Carrancejie, a Dallas real estate broker and a former employee of Smith, had asked him to look at some alternative sites in Dallas. Pretty soon Smith was standing at the edge of a 1,000-acre tract at Interstate 20 and Lancaster Road in south Oak Cliff.

"He told us that evening, if you can get me that site, I'll come to Dallas," says Ray Ballard, a real estate investor and principal with Metroport Development Partners, one of 81 owners of that Oak Cliff tract. "And we went out and pulled it all together."

Which promptly brought Ray Hunt out of the negotiating closet--into the harsh, uncompromising light of pesky citizen scrutiny. And, thanks to his overeager errand boy, Mayor Steve Bartlett, and the overly Hunt-enthralled city staff, it's turning into a beautiful catfight.

Dallas city councilwoman Sandra Crenshaw knew from the beginning of this deal that something was very wrong.

One day in December, while she was talking to a real estate agent about some land near her neighborhood in south Oak Cliff, she stumbled upon the news that somebody had an option on an enormous tract in her district that, if developed as intended, would bring 3,000 jobs into the area.

Crenshaw was stunned. Why didn't she know about this? Certainly somebody at city hall had to know this. So Crenshaw began calling around --to the mayor, for example. "He told me it was confidential," Crenshaw recalls. "And I couldn't believe it. I mean, here it was my district, my neighborhood, and he wouldn't tell me what was coming here--was it a lead smelter, a manufacturing plant, a choo-choo train factory? I told him he better damn well tell the people who lived out here what it was." So he told her: it was Bruton Smith's racetrack.

Excited at the possibilities--this was, after all, the biggest development flirtation the southern sector had ever had--Crenshaw began talking to Ray Ballard and his partner Mike Rader about Smith's plans. And she began to see, immediately, that the plans were going nowhere.

Bartlett was backing Meyer, period. "He kept telling me, 'we've already got a racetrack being built--it's a bird in the hand,'" Crenshaw said.

As for the rest of the council, only Stimson understood the issue--he had been working with Billy Meyer, George Schrader, and Woodbine chairman John Scovell since shortly before their hurried November press conference.

As one might expect, Stimson was playing cheerleader for Pinnacle Park, just as Crenshaw was for Interstate 20--normal political jousting between politicians interested in bringing home the bacon.

What was not normal was the stance of the mayor, who should have been a neutral player, opening his arms to any and all takers. Bartlett not only wouldn't embrace Smith, he flat-out offended him.

According to Smith, he had told the mayor in confidence during their first-ever conversation the Wednesday before Smith's Monday press conference that he was coming to Dallas to formally announce his intention to build a new racetrack in Dallas. Smith says he even told Bartlett the sites he was serious about.

"Well, he didn't keep it in confidence," Smith says. "We heard on Saturday that Meyer was going to have a press conference on Sunday, and I called all over Dallas trying to find the mayor--he had given me his home number and his car number and all his numbers--and I never got him to call me back until 5:30 on Sunday, after the press conference. It was a cheap shot."

Bartlett has said publicly that he and Smith never discussed a press conference--a fact that Smith emphatically denies--and, anyway, Bruton's press conference plans had been in The Dallas Morning News on Thursday morning for all to see.

Bartlett insists he's never favored one racetrack developer over another--that he embraced Meyer merely because he was the first to commit to building in Dallas.

Regardless, it was clear to everybody that Bartlett had taken sides. His favorite hired-gun spin doctor, PR consultant Lisa LeMaster, had arranged the press conference. Today she's the official spokesperson for the Meyer team. (Unlike Smith, who gave easy access to the Observer and granted two phone interviews from Charlotte for this story, Meyer, who I met at city hall last week, refused to be interviewed unless I submitted written questions in advance to LeMaster.)

Bartlett has continued his Smith-snubbing with great abandon. For one thing, he never showed up--though he was invited--at Smith's press conference the following Monday. Nor did he show up at a party given that evening in Smith's honor at Drew Pearson's Sports 88 Grill in North Dallas. (In fact, on January 5, the only time Bartlett ever met Smith--supposedly to sit down with city staff and chamber of commerce officials to negotiate a deal--Bartlett walked out in the middle of the meeting, citing important "mayor business.")

But there have been other, more formidable problems than just the mayor playing favorites.

"Back in early December, Bruton Smith was saying he couldn't even get a phone call returned from city staff," recalls Crenshaw. "So I went to Cliff Keheley and asked why he wasn't working with Bruton Smith."

Keheley, who is first assistant city manager, was in charge at the time, in City Manager John Ware's month-long absence for cancer treatments. "Keheley told me that Dallas already had a racetrack--Billy Meyer's," Crenshaw said. "And that he had already been working with Meyer for four-and-a-half months, and he was a local boy, and all of a sudden here comes somebody from out of state at the last minute saying they're looking at Dallas."

Keheley says the councilmember's account is only "partially correct."
"We said we were not adverse to dealing with Smith, but we would not deal with him and disregard the Meyer group," he told me.

Meyer, however, was not ready to deal. He had not designed his track; he had not put together any numbers to give to the city. So Crenshaw put together an unusual resolution, passed by the council on December 14, forcing the city staff to stop jeopardizing an enormous economic-development project by playing favorites--and talk to Bruton Smith.

"The city manager is hereby directed to work with any entity that proposes to construct a NASCAR facilities within the corporate limits of Dallas..." the resolution states. "...the city of Dallas will offer the same level of incentives equally to all persons interested in developing a NASCAR facility in the city of Dallas."

Still, nothing happened. Smith produced cost estimates for the project, including the city's estimated share of infrastructure costs. But the city staff would not respond. No incentives were offered. Nothing.

Says Crenshaw: "When I asked what the holdup was this time, Keheley told me that because we had the word 'equally' in the resolution, it prevented them from entering negotiations with Smith because Meyer didn't have his numbers ready. They couldn't offer 'equal' incentives until they knew what Meyer wanted."

Keheley confirms this.
Crenshaw was furious. And the only remedy she had to halt such stalling was another resolution--another stab at forcing the city staff to do its job. "We get these smirks on their faces, which indicate to me they just love jerking us around," she says of the city staff. "We can't fight them because we're only part-time, and we don't have the power in the charter anyway, and they know that. Fielding and [councilman Don] Hicks warned me--they said, 'You just wait and see. They lie like you know what.' And it's true."

Last Wednesday, Crenshaw got her second resolution passed--this one again ordering city staff to stop playing politics. "...[T]he city manager is hereby directed to begin immediate and simultaneous negotiations with any party interested in developing a NASCAR facility in the city of Dallas..." the resolution stated.

But the city staff is clearly intent on continuing the games--they played them right up until the unanimous vote on the resolution last Wednesday.

For one thing, the council members had been given erroneous briefing documents on the racetrack--the first they'd ever received--the previous Friday. Although staff had received concrete figures from Smith on his infrastructure needs weeks earlier, Smith's dollar needs were left completely blank in the packet. "Costs have not yet been defined" the staff wrote.

For Meyer, the costs were given--even though Meyer had never provided any to the city. City staffers had worked hard to come up with their own set of figures for him. "Preliminary estimates provided by the city of Dallas public works department based on horse racing track," the staff wrote. What it did not write was that the figures were two-and-a-half years old (with some inflation tacked on) and pertained to a 300-acre horse track (as opposed to a 880-acre race track), thus resulting, of course, in insanely low figures on what Meyer's project would cost the city.

Crenshaw, the only councilmember besides Stimson who could see the dishonesty in the documents, cried foul over the weekend. At the Wednesday briefing, staff dutifully handed out new briefing packets--though they didn't alert council members to the change; in fact, they even slapped the same week-old cover letter from Assistant City Manager Ted Benavides on the top of it.

The new documents magically included the "undefined" Bruton Smith costs, which had been knocking around the city for weeks.

The new documents pointed out that Meyer's numbers were for a 300-acre horse track. Crenshaw also made sure during the briefing that her fellow council members understood the age of those numbers.

Still, Crenshaw is fighting an uphill battle, and she knows it. As she sat in that briefing, fighting the staff tooth and nail, she could see--as could every other council member--the very important person sitting just a few feet from her.

In the second row of the small spectator section, Hunt Oil vice president Jim Oberwetter sat quietly, as 800-pound gorillas do. Oberwetter--who told me this was only his third City Hall appearance in four years--didn't have to say a word, or throw a single fixed stare.

He didn't have to flash a fraternity sign to Bartlett--Oberwetter's old college roommate at the University of Texas, where a lifelong friendship was forged that helped convince Ray Hunt in 1991 to back Bartlett for mayor. He didn't have to wink at Councilwoman Donna Halstead, whose campaign treasurer is fellow Hunt employee Dan Petty, who, along with Oberwetter, spreads financial cheer to council campaigns on a regular basis.

"Listen, a lot of these people, like me, are facing re-election in May," one council member told me. "We're afraid to cross these people. I mean, this racetrack is not going to be built before the election--people aren't going to see the results by May--so there's too great a risk for a lot of us."

Sadly enough, Oberwetter didn't even have to think twice about Crenshaw, who, for all her good work trying to level this playing field, has never flat-out committed to backing Smith over Meyer. Oberwetter had smiled amusedly at me when I indicated that Crenshaw appeared to be backing the Smith site. "Are you sure about that?" he said, eyebrows arched. "That's not what I understand her position to be."

And, of course, he was right. When Crenshaw ran two years ago, Oberwetter took care of her campaign financing--to the point of sending her solicitation letters out to potential donors. "I didn't have any idea who to ask for money," she told me. "He did it all."

Does that mean her owns her?
Hang tough, Sandra Crenshaw. Do the right thing--for the citizens you represent.

Forget Oberwetter. Forget Hunt. Forget Bartlett. Fight the lying, cheating city manager's staff. This time, make sure we do a straight-up business deal with the man who has the bigger, better mousetrap. And no purchase power over the city council.

Last Wednesday, after the council had passed its second resolution aimed at leveling the playing field between Smith and Meyer, Bartlett took the floor and, in a stern, sanctimonious voice, laid some ground rules for the negotiations that lay ahead.

"This is really important..." the mayor declared. "This needs to be an open, public process with no inside dealing, no one on the council doing the negotiating...no politics, no sense of who we like or who we don't like. It needs to be strictly based on criteria."

At which point, members of the Dallas city council broke into laughter.

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