Priced to sell out

City Manager John Ware ramrods a patched-together arena deal

There it lay, staring up at me from my front lawn, as appealing as a dead possum.

It was the Saturday front page of The Dallas Morning News--on this day, a truly nauseating sight. It featured a gigantic color photo of Mayor Ron Kirk, Dallas Mavericks owner Ross Perot Jr., and Dallas Stars owner Tom Hicks. All three sported huge grins, expensive silk ties, and those big, frat brother-type shoulder squeezes.

They were clearly happy about something. I figured they'd either bought the winning lottery ticket or finally made their deal with the devil to build a new arena.

Unfortunately, it was the arena.
I should have seen it coming: I'd covered the city's frenzied pursuit of a new sports arena for three and a half years.

I'd watched City Manager John Ware lie and cheat to get an arena deal done. I'd seen him go to embarrassing lengths to cater to the arena dreams of team owners and downtown developer Ray Hunt. I'd seen his staff go through the motions of soliciting bids for a supposedly independent $500,000 arena study, only to let Mavericks owner Don Carter hand-pick the consultants and the consultants and Carter hand-pick a site owned by Ray Hunt.

It had always been about Hunt. Hunt had started this quest for a new arena, and Ware wanted to give it to him. In fact, lest something go awry and Carter's consultants not choose Hunt's property, Ware's top staffers commissioned their own secret arena study to shore up Hunt's position. In order to avoid telling the city council about the study, the city manager's office ordered the surreptitious transfer of $50,000 in leftover convention-center construction money to fund it. Later, when this newspaper discovered the secret study in a box of documents in the city public works department, Ware & Co. panicked.

In a closed-door meeting with the city council in November 1994, Ware and his top assistant city manager falsely accused a low-level public works employee of single-handedly commissioning the study. The lie was quickly exposed, and Ware's assistant took the rap--and "early retirement" from the city.

People who'd go to such lengths to ingratiate themselves with the monied and powerful--people who think nothing of destroying an innocent person's career to suit their own misguided purposes--are not the ideal people to negotiate a major real estate deal with taxpayers' money.

Still, I'd held out hope until the end that common sense would prevail, that city leaders would begin to pay attention to the ever-louder chorus of public dissent about this smelly project and its rich cheerleaders.

Well, leave it to a newspaper columnist to think she has her finger on the pulse of the city.

Instead, the mayor and city manager cut a deal for a $230 million arena, and the city's nonrefundable contribution of $125 million was nearly twice as much as anybody had ever envisioned. (Even Kirk had scoffed when a reporter asked him earlier this year if it were true that the teams wanted as much as $100 million from the city.)

The city's share of construction costs--54 percent--was inexplicably large, especially given the fact that the teams would get to keep all the revenues from the new arena in exchange for their 46 percent participation, or $105 million. True, the teams were committed to stay in Dallas for the next 30 years, and they were obligated to maintain the new arena while paying the city $3.4 million a year in rent. But that was the extent of their pain.

The teams like to point to the generous rental payments they'll be paying, but in truth it's a paltry sum. It's actually less than what the city makes now off of basketball and hockey--and that's in saggy, old, inferior Reunion Arena. For the 1995-'96 season, city records show that the Mavericks and Stars paid $1.2 million in rent; but the city also received an additional $3.2 million from concession sales and parking fees. In a new facility, the city won't get parking and concessions, only the rent, and the amount will never waver over 30 years, no matter how rich the teams get off the deal.

And they'll clearly do extremely well: They'll rake in millions from luxury-suite rentals, club seats, ticket proceeds, restaurant and retail sales, concession stands, parking fees, broadcast rights, and sponsorship deals.

It's a sweet deal, all right--for the teams, at least--and the only consolation is that the citizens of Dallas can single-handedly kill it if they want to. Come January, they'll have to approve some new taxes at the polls, or the deal will fall apart.

But standing on my front lawn last month, staring at that smarmy picture of Our Hometown Rascals, it was too soon to think about the January vote. Right now, all this semi-retired writer wanted to do was head for the house to scrounge through drawers in search of that long-lost key to the office.

Until now, I'd had little interest in returning to column writing.
It was a pleasant surprise to feel that way. Shortly before I left my job last January to spend more time with my husband and three children, I had begun secretly fearing a major identity crisis.

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