Don't Bet on It

Your money, plus city council, plus gambling--it's enough to make your skin crawl

What happens when one of those beat-on-the-car-window street hustlers approaches you while you're stopped at a traffic light? And he starts fast-talking how he ran out of gas and he needs to get to Shreveport and he lost his wallet and his baby needs a prescription for the hole in her heart? I know what I say.

"WARNING. YOU ARE STANDING TOO CLOSE TO THE VEHICLE. WARNING. YOU ARE STANDING TOO CLOSE TO THE VEHICLE."

So imagine this. Pretend you're the Dallas City Council and you're stopped at a light. I approach and beat on your car window.

Hey. I got an emergency, man. I need you to sell Reunion Arena to Ray Hunt. It's 26 years old, and you still owe $19 million on it. It's worth $30 million. Just, just...don't interrupt. Now look: I want you to sell it to Ray Hunt, only I want you to swap it, actually, for some land nearby that's worth about the same. Then I want you to sell the land you get in the swap to these other guys for $30 million. But in order to get them to develop the land, I want you to give them $20 million in tax money. Then I want you to pay off the $19 million you still owe on Reunion.

You're gonna be rich!

What do you mean, you don't understand? It's simple. It's 30 for 30 even, then get 30 in the sale, give 20 in the incentive, pay off 19. You're rich! Hurry up! Sign the paper. This deal's walkin' if we ain't talkin'.

Believe it or not, this is exactly what they're telling your stalwart representatives on the council. It's all about this proposed entertainment district, rodeo, racetrack, polo field, nightclub and other hilarities that somebody--not sure who--is supposed to build near the Dallas Convention Center downtown. They're calling it "Dallas City Limits."

It's not that the basic idea is bad. Building an entertainment attraction of some kind next to the convention center might be right. At least one person involved in the project, Billy Bob Barnett, has a track record as an entertainment promoter. If that's a good thing.

But there is another even more inscrutably complex theme in the deal, along with the already overcomplicated real estate stuff and the pea-under-the-shell business with the money: legalized gambling! Barnett's main profile in recent years has been as front man for a million-dollar lobbying team in Austin that, so far, has been unsuccessful in getting a gambling law from the Legislature.

The gambling aspect is even murkier than the rest of it. Barnett's group wants to build a horse-racing track right across the freeway from the convention center with pari-mutuel wagering. The lobbying effort he has helped to captain in Austin is seeking a law to allow slot machines at horse tracks. A slot casino across from the convention center could pour hundreds of millions of dollars into somebody's pockets, even billions, according to people close to this deal.

Mayor Laura Miller is all for gambling. In fact, she has been saying the city should hold off until it sees whether a new law might allow something much classier on the property. Instead of a depressing tin-building slot shack next to a track, she asks, what if the city could land a full-fledged five-star Vegas-style casino/hotel? Think what that might do for the convention center.

And wait: We're not done getting complicated yet. Ray Hunt's people have said that Mr. Hunt absolutely doesn't want any gambling next to his own hotel, the Hyatt Regency at Reunion Tower. But he wouldn't try to stop someone from putting a casino closer to the convention center with a sky bridge to the Hyatt.

The quintessential Dallas approach to sin: "Get thee behind me, Satan, but remember to leave the back door unlocked."

Can you tell what's really going on? Nobody can. But last week your stalwarts on the council were ready to sign anyway.

Oh, oh, are you sure? OK, give me the pen. But it's worth 30, and then we get some land worth 30, and then somebody pays us 30, but we give them 20, but we owe 19 and...uh...what is it for again? It's for the gambling that's not legal, the slot machines or the casinos, nobody knows, but something might become legal, but we have to keep whatever it is away from Mr. Hunt, but we want to keep it close to us, and Mr. Hunt gets a sky bridge.

Uh...sure, we'll sign.

Do you ever wonder how we could have so many potholes, not enough cops, park department crews driving trucks that can't even pass inspection, and they have an annual budget down there of $2 billion? Do you think it could be because the city council chamber is a grifter's paradise?

The whole pitch last week was one big hurry-up, with city council member Don Hill leading the charge. Hill angrily accused the mayor of endangering a wonderful deal for the city with her weird egomaniacal nitpicking.

So what were her nitpicks? Here's one. She kept saying all week what she has said about the principals in this deal for the last several months: They have no money.

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