By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
For more than a year, elected officials have agreed that Dallas needs a Hispanic cultural center. After all, Hispanics are the fastest growing segment of the city's population, and not having a center dedicated to their cultural contributions seems a huge oversight.
The prerequisite feasibility study has already been performed, and voters have OK'ed nearly $3.5 million in bond money for the project.
So where's the cultural center? Where, indeed, is the problem.
City staffers have recommended that the center be built on a nearly vacant lot in the 2600 block of Live Oak just a few blocks north of Deep Ellum. But the Dallas City Council is not so sure it will accept the staff's recommendation. Council members are split along distinctly geographic lines.
Those from north of the Trinity River (the usual dividing line) like the Live Oak spot; they say it would be easy to acquire and very visible.
But southern council members want the center closer to their home turfs--at Burnett Field, the old Dallas Eagles ballfield south of the river and bounded by Interstate 35 and Jefferson and Colorado boulevards. Still bickering, the council has delayed making a final decision.
At least one man figures there needn't be any fighting at all if the city would allow him to finish the job it originally hired him for.
Edward Rincon owns Rincon and Associates, a market research firm specializing in Hispanic consumers. In January, his company won a $10,000 contract from the city for a survey to find out--among other things--where people wanted to put the cultural center.
But a few months later, Rincon was told that the survey was dead. Rincon says he was given no reason for the cancelation.
"I suspect that [a survey] would just be a complicating factor, because when engineers and politicians get together, many of them have their minds pretty much made up where something ought to be located," Rincon says. "No one really knows what the Hispanic community wants. That's my bottom line."
City staff members say they do know what the Hispanic community wants, at least as much as the city needs to. Jay Macaulay, program manager for public works, says city staffers held 10 public meetings in the city in April and May trying to assess what people wanted from the center. Only about 200 people, many of them repeats, showed up at the meetings. Macaulay says that, despite the low turnout, he's confident staffers had ample opportunity to sense the public mood.
Citizen preference was evenly divided between the northern and southern sites, he says. The staff ultimately recommended the northern site based on factors other than public preference--things such as cost, accessibility, and room for the center to grow.
"We felt we had enough information from the public meetings that we did not need to proceed any further to the [survey]," Macaulay says.
The money that was to have been spent for the survey is still in the center's budget and will be used for something else, Macaulay says.
Rincon believes that something more nefarious is at work. He says city staff just isn't interested in letting public preference--especially the wishes of Hispanic citizens--interfere with a politicized selection process.
Rincon scoffs at the notion that the poorly attended public meetings offered any significant insight into the opinions of the Hispanic community.
"It was pretty clear to me that there weren't too many people that wanted to see a representative sample of the Hispanic community," Rincon says.
Besides, in one week, Rincon says, he could sample twice as many people, Hispanic and non-Hispanic, randomly by phone to find out what they truly think.
"I think overall we were going to end up with some sense of what the community wants," Rincon says.
But some council members say the survey would have been redundant, and note that Rincon has already performed one survey regarding the center for the city.
Councilman Steve Salazar, whose district includes the Burnett Field site, notes that Rincon's preliminary study showed people preferring a site near downtown. Although the preliminary study didn't include the specific sites now under consideration, Salazar believes that either the northern or southern locations satisfy that preference. Salazar favors the Burnett Field location, but says the selection process is open for anyone to put their 2 cents in.
"Everyone is already aware of the two sites," he says. "Anyone with interest can contact their council person and send their letters."
Councilwoman Mary Poss says she didn't even know Rincon was supposed to perform a survey. While turnout at the public meetings was low, Poss says, it wasn't for lack of trying.
"I think that the public input is always invaluable," says Poss, who favors the northern site. "We did hold all those public meetings, but only 200 attended, and some were the same over and over again."
Rincon's griping could be seen as sour grapes, he admits. After all, he is out $10,000 for a quick survey. But he says his concern isn't with the money. What is upsetting is that the wants and needs of the people who will presumably be served by the new Hispanic center are being ignored, he says.
"I don't think this is self-serving," Rincon says. "They came to me because they know I am a Hispanic market expert. I think my own interest is in making sure Hispanics and all taxpayers get what they are paying for and not let a small group of city employees or politicians or private people decide these things.