Flying blind

With the mayor and city manager leading the charge, the city council moves full speed on an arena deal that doesn't even exist yet

It had been an embarrassing week of missed deadlines: no master agreement, no arena site, no substantive communication from the teams.

City Manager John Ware had spent all day last Wednesday pacing the council chambers, nervously popping nuts into his mouth, waiting for the phone to ring--waiting for a green light from the teams that at least an arena site had been selected.

Finally, the big moment arrived. On Friday, the last day the council could vote to put an arena deal on the January ballot, council members got their much-awaited arena briefing. All the players descended: the throng of reporters, the overworked city staff, the pro-arena political consultants, the handful of City Hall gadflies who couldn't wait to see the fireworks.

Lights, cameras, action.
The briefing began.
Zoom to Councilwoman Barbara Mallory-Carraway, sitting privately--or so she thought--in her elevated seat at the council horseshoe. As debate swirled all around her, Mallory-Carraway stared intently at a document on her desk--not a schematic of the just-revealed arena site, but a bright red Christmas catalog called "Hostess," filled with pictures of blessed mangers, jolly Santas, and festive wreaths. She turned each page slowly, soaking in all the delicious holiday treats, her attention only occasionally diverted--usually to her hands, where she spent a good bit of time picking interesting bits of things from under her fingernails.

"I'm looking forward to Christmas..." she chirped gaily into her microphone at one point, when it was her turn to comment on the arena. "I'm looking for Christmas gifts while you all are doing this!" (Standing there watching this, I think everyone thought she was kidding.)

Then there was the Hon. Charlotte Mayes--a veteran councilwoman of six years who, unlike many of her less-experienced colleagues, had worked on this massive public project since the beginning. But here is what Mayes contributed to the debate last week:

"The city of Dallas still currently owns Reunion Arena, is that correct?" Mayes said, her face registering total confusion as she looked to John Ware for clarification.

Assured that the city did, in fact, own Reunion, Mayes offered this advice in all seriousness: "The current arena would be a good site for a mini-shopping center," she said. (Mayes is clearly a powerful shopper--shortly after she made this recommendation, she leaned over to Mallory-Carraway and borrowed her "Hostess" catalog.)

Then there's Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Steve Salazar. A lawyer by profession, Salazar somehow managed to sit through three public discussions of the arena deal last week, and all he had to say was how much he really likes the project. In fact, he likes it so much that at the October 6 arena briefing, he began his remarks by saying, "This is like the movie, It's a Wonderful Life..."

Try as I did, I could never come up with any connection between the movie and the arena--and got no help from Salazar. A pearl of wisdom from Salazar just last Friday: To those anti-arena folks who label the city's $125 million contribution "corporate welfare," Salazar says, "I think the people who use the term 'corporate welfare' should look at where they work."

Actually, Salazar, I suggest you take a harder look at where you work: Because last Friday's city council performance confirms the taxpayers' worst fears that the sports teams are toying with them--reneging on commitments, blowing deadlines, asking for more and more and more money.

Worse, John Ware and Mayor Ron Kirk think it's just fine, and the majority of the city council is too weak to put a stop to it.

Read their lips. Because what Ware and Kirk and the teams are saying changes every week--and if you start pulling all their statements together, you'll quickly see lots of contradictions.

Councilman Bob Stimson has been trying to warn the others. He implored his fellow council members last Friday to vote against calling for a January special election on the arena. "I want everyone on this council to take a strong position that a deal's a deal when you sign it," Stimson said. "Stick to it."

But the teams aren't sticking to it, and nobody else seems to care. The letter of intent that the teams signed last month has turned out to be virtually worthless--many of its supposedly ironclad points are already being ignored or renegotiated.

"The City and ArenaCo shall enter into a master agreement on or before November 12, 1997, subject to approval of the City Council and ArenaCo," the letter of intent clearly states. (ArenaCo is the company that the Mavericks and Stars are forming to build the new arena.)

But there was no master agreement on November 12, as promised, and there is no master agreement today. In fact, there won't be one until December 10--unless that's just the next deadline to be missed. There was also no announcement of a site by November 12, another promise the teams made to the city when they signed the letter of intent.

And, to add insult to injury, the teams have now decided that the gaggingly generous $125 million in tax dollars the city manager and mayor agreed to fork over isn't enough--the teams are now asking for $22 million in additional street improvements, expanded trolley service to the site, a DART station on premises, millions of dollars in tax abatements, and no doubt plenty of other goodies that will only become evident once the dirt is flying and the teams have the city over a barrel.

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