That giant sucking sound

No, not The Dallas Morning News' arena coverage--but tax dollars being siphoned away for millionaires' pet projects

The council believed it, voting unanimously to embrace Hunt's plan.
"We approved it in concept--and you know what that means," recalls retired 5th District Court of Appeals Judge Charles Storey, who served on the council at the time. "It means we didn't know what we were doing."

The proof is the result--which we see every time we drive by Reunion Arena. Oh, the taxpayers fulfilled their part of the bargain. They dutifully built the $27.8 million Reunion Arena and spent many millions more on streets and underpasses and landscaping improvements around the hotel and arena--$5.7 million alone for Young Street, whose extension linked Hunt's hotel to both downtown and the freeway system. (Sound familiar?)

But Hunt never delivered. Yes, he built one hotel, the distinctive Hyatt, but he never built anything beyond that. To the contrary, in 1984, he couldn't help but stick the knife in the taxpayers one more time. In August of that year, Hunt unveiled plans to build twin, 28-story office towers between Reunion Arena and the Hyatt--on land that boasted 922 surface parking spaces for the arena. In order to cover the loss of parking, the city built the $22 million Reunion Parking Garage--but after it did, Hunt decided not to build the office towers after all. Consequently, the city has had too much parking at Reunion for a decade, and loses $2.2 million a year on the garage. Thanks to an incredibly one-sided, 69-page master agreement (sound familiar?) between the city and Hunt, Hunt has never been penalized for his failure to deliver on his many promises.

To the contrary, Hunt has wielded the master agreement--which his lawyers drafted, of course--like a sword against the city ever since. After a seven-year battle between Hunt and the taxpayers on various terms of the master agreement, which each believed the other had violated, the taxpayers wrote a check to Hunt in 1993 for $440,000. They also gave him additional air rights over the 50-acre area--all of which Hunt has total control over until the year 2074.

"If you don't have a sense of history," former councilman Storey told me in 1994, "you're going to keep making the same mistakes."

Like the one we're close to making today.
Mayor Ron Kirk, chief water carrier for the sports teams and downtown arena boosters, keeps assuring us that Ross Perot Jr. is going to live up to his empty promises. That Perot will definitely do those millions of dollars worth of fabulous, private development around the new arena.

"The man went out and put an option on 40 acres of land," Kirk has told the council on several occasions, as though such a purchase--if it ever takes place--would drain Perot's bank accounts. "People don't buy land in Dallas and use it for nothing."

(Actually, they do if they need 8,500 parking spaces to operate a new arena--and even with all 43 acres going to parking, they'll only have 6,500 spaces on opening day.)

But the voters have all the reason in the world to question Perot's integrity--in fact, according to a massive, four-part series that ran two weeks ago in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the people of Dallas stand more than a good chance of getting screwed on this arena if they pass it at the ballot box.

The newspaper series, called "Courting the Public Trust," depicts Perot as a ruthless, power-crazed 39-year-old real estate baron who never rests until his prey du jour is beaten into submission. "We're a pretty untraditional group on how we operate," Perot told reporters Mitchell Schnurman and Miles Moffeit in describing his company's business tactics. "...We look at the world basically, day-to-day, as a battle. This is not a game. We take this very, very seriously."

Which is why Perot went out and stole a 197-acre ranch from its 79-year-old owner six years ago in order to expand his beloved Alliance Airport in Fort Worth.

There are many Perot anecdotes to choose from in the Star-Telegram's lengthy series. I like the one about Sam Culbertson the best. It starts as they all do, with Perot Jr., the former Air Force fighter pilot, taking the elderly rancher on one of his testosterone-heavy helicopter rides around Perot's burgeoning Tarrant County land holdings.

Back then, in the spring of 1990, Culbertson's ranch was burdened with enormous debt, and according to the story, Perot dazzled the rancher with promises of a big sale price and generous advance money. On April 10, 1990, Perot sent a letter to Culbertson on personal stationery: "After reviewing our conversation Sunday, I believe that the following basic business deal would be appropriate. Purchase Price: Approximately $4 million...The attorneys will work out the proper structure for taxes and estate planning."

But when Culbertson received a written contract for the sale shortly thereafter, the price had dropped to $3.3 million. Then, after Culbertson reluctantly agreed to the lower price, Perot's people amended the contract, stating that Perot was only obligated to buy part of the land.

Nine days later, a Perot attorney called off the closing--suddenly there were concerns about several title issues, even though the title review period had expired. When Culbertson had taken care of the title concerns eight months later--he received, for example, an easement release from Mobil Pipeline Co.--Perot's people demurred again, claiming that the rancher's attempts to clear the title had only made things worse.

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