Quarterback sneak

How Ron Kirk secretly pulled the strings in city's Big 12 deal

"One of the most interesting things about this is that, through this entire period of time we talked about this, one of the best parts of the deal was they weren't asking the city of Dallas to do a doggone thing," Stimson says. "The chamber's package did not call for any city inducements. And I liked that."

For all those months, Stimson remembers Kirk encouraging the chamber people to be aggressive in their attempts to pursue the Big 12. But never for a minute did Stimson think that Kirk was directly involved in a back-room chamber scheme to do so.

According to Steve Hatchell, the team that put together the Big 12 bid consisted of Kirk, Ware, Rick Douglas, Dallas Stars owner Tom Hicks--a member of the University of Texas board of regents--and UT booster Bob Utley, who is CEO of First Southwest, the city's financial consulting firm.

"Rick Douglas at the chamber was terrific," says Hatchell. "I worked more with Rick than with the mayor. But I think they met a lot. In between Rick Douglas and the mayor, they got a lot done in a hurry."

That's not to say that Hatchell didn't meet with Kirk. "Oh, sure," he says. "He's one of the ones when you call and say, 'We have to meet.' He says, 'My calendar is full, but I'll see you at 5:45'--and you go. It's great. He's at the top of the list."

Hatchell says Kirk, whom Hatchell knew before Kirk became mayor, jumped into the Big 12 fray almost as soon as he was sworn in last May. "There was enough to keep them in the hunt from the beginning," says Hatchell. "We had major bids from other cities, but the big push came after December 1. And Ron was right there to say Dallas needs to be counted in."

Which was fine until December 1, when Kansas City's bid was $1 million better than Dallas' offer. For Kansas City, winning the Big 12 headquarters was serious business--a matter of civic identity. Buildings had been lit up to impress Big 12 officials; the governor had flown in to lobby; citizens had worn buttons of support. More important, 23 corporations had ponied up $2.5 million in cash to give the Big 12, no strings attached.

Dallas, by contrast, had only the promise to raise $500,000 from the private sector to cover the costs of finishing-out office space for the Big 12 offices. The rest of our package consisted of free or discounted goodies, such as office space, telephone equipment, computers, accounting and legal services, airfare, cars, and office furniture.

So, in the 11th hour, with the Dallas business community unwilling to put cash on the table, the chamber turned to the taxpayers. And unbeknownst to them, Kirk and Ware agreed to hand over $1.25 million--$250,000 a year for five years--that they would take out of a fund the council was setting up to spur economic development south of the Trinity. The fund does not even exist yet--and never mind that the Big 12 has absolutely no intention of locating south of the river.

And what would the Big 12 use the taxpayers' money for? With most of its overhead being covered by local companies, it would seem unlikely to actually need much. "We'll use it for operational expenses to stage the [sports] events," Hatchell told me. "These are huge enterprises."

All of which is hugely upsetting to the man Kirk appointed to chair the business and commerce committee--the man who dutifully sat there, in front of the stoic mayor, carefully examining the chamber's weekly handout on the so-called private-sector progress of the Big 12 wooing.

After almost a year of those meetings, Stimson was incredulous when reporters began calling him last month about the whopping public subsidy. "I said, 'No, this isn't right--you all need to get your story right. We're not putting any money in this,'" he says. "Well, as it turned out, I needed to get the story right."

Stimson is a good councilman--in fact, if you look at his entire body of work over three years, he's often the best of the entire bunch. He does all his homework, takes all the city's complicated issues apart like a jigsaw puzzle, is always ready to jump in with a battery of detailed questions that the more cerebrally limited staffers often can't answer. He's the only CPA on the council, which has been a tremendous asset for the citizens. What's more, he's a reasonable guy who, despite shenanigans like this, manages to keep a Dudley Do Right view of public service.

Stimson knows what it's like to be bamboozled. Eighteen months ago, in a public briefing on the sports arena, John Ware told Stimson and his fellow councilmembers that the proposed site for the new arena--a site that had just been announced with much fanfare, with the help of a $500,000 consulting study--was going to be changed immediately because the council, led by Stimson, had made some wise criticisms of the property that was picked.

Stimson preened in the meeting--as he should have after spending weeks collecting facts and trying to change Ware's mind. In truth, though--as the Observer found out later by sifting through internal City Hall memos--Ware changed the site because oilman Ray Hunt ordered him to do so. Hunt, who owned the proposed arena site, had decided that he much preferred the arena on a different piece of his land that allowed him better development opportunities in the future.

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