By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
There was a buzz March 12 at Urban Market, and it had nothing to do with the beer and wine samples at the front of the store. Downtown residents were gathering near the meat and cheese section, where chairs were set up in front of a microphone. An elderly couple sat patiently, claiming back-row seats in anticipation of hearing Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert give an "update on downtown."
Leppert arrived shortly after 7 p.m. wearing a blue blazer, no tie and accompanied by his wife, Laura. He greeted several folks with a handshake and a "Hi, I'm Tom." Grabbing the mic, he asked how many among them lived in downtown. Almost all of the nearly 75 audience members proudly raised their hands. Leppert told them he wanted to turn Dallas' downtown into the finest in the country "with the exception of New York." Calling the crowd "pioneers of downtown revitalization," Leppert described his plans to turn his vision into reality.
He outlined three anchors to the future of downtown revitalization: the Arts District, Victory/Uptown and the convention center area. In just two years, the Arts District would be the finest of any in the nation, he said, and in four years, the Woodall Rodgers Deck Park would highlight the continued success of Victory/Uptown. The third anchor, he said, was the convention center area, which he emphasized was "an important element not only for downtown but for all the city."
The mayor spoke with passion in his voice and a grin on his face, stretching out his long arms as if to punctuate his big ideas. The crowd seemed captivated, heads bouncing up and down in agreement like bobbleheads. But he was just warming up for his big sales pitch:
Despite more than $1 billion invested into the convention center, more than 1 million square feet of exhibit space and Dallas annually ranking among the top convention sites in the country, Leppert said the Dallas Convention Center "is fundamentally uncompetitive in today's environment." He said building a convention center hotel is the solution.
"It is the right thing to do to keep ourselves competitive in an important industry. It's the right thing to make sure we keep having investment in the downtown," he said, as if still on the campaign stump. "And it's the right thing to make sure we have a strong tax base throughout the city."
And then he talked about "tiers."
For Dallas to be a Tier 1 city, it needed a hotel attached to its convention center like other Tier 1 cities such as Las Vegas or Orlando. Without a hotel, it would drop to a Tier 3 city because many of the Tier 2 cities already were building them. The American Heart Association, he added, had already canceled its 2009 annual mega-convention because Dallas lacked an attached hotel.
For those downtown residents who didn't care about Dallas' tier level, Leppert offered another reason to support the project: A hotel meant jobs, restaurants and retail for downtown—and it would keep their residential areas attractive.
Leppert spoke in generalities, but offered just enough insight and information to sound as though he had mastered the subject. His Harvard MBA cum CEO image, carefully crafted by top political advisor Carol Reed during his 2007 mayoral campaign and the Trinity toll road referendum, seemed to win over the audience.
After he wrapped up his speech, Leppert took questions from the audience, discussing, among other things, Deep Ellum, dirty sidewalks and the homeless. But the conversation quickly returned to the convention center hotel, which Leppert estimated would cost $300 to $450 million and would require some form of public financing. Few seemed to wince when Leppert spoke about basis points, tax abatements and debt service—perhaps because they may not have understood that he was asking taxpayers to pick up the tab. For those who were following him, Leppert insisted that the risk of operating the hotel would not fall on taxpayers; and no, the city wasn't getting into the hotel business either.
So just where did Leppert want to build this hotel, asked one downtowner?
"I actually want it to go wherever it is recommended and wherever the facts say that it will be the most effective for the convention center and for downtown," he said.
The answer amounted to little more than political sleight-of-hand.
A month earlier, the city council by a 10-2 vote approved spending $500,000 on an option to acquire 8.375 acres of land in front of the convention center for $42 million, which would presumably be the site for the hotel. The city's chief financial officer Dave Cook explained that the property, owned by Cincinnati-based Chavez Properties Ltd., could also be used for more convention center parking or meeting room space. The city, however, commissioned two appraisals for the property (View one appraisal in its entirety). Both valued the land—over the doubts of council members Mitchell Rasansky and Angela Hunt—at $40.1 million. And on March 7, the city issued a Request for Proposals from real estate developers to submit "a full detailed proposal for a hotel development on the Chavez parcel." Proposals for alternative sites would be considered, the RFP stated, but only if a proposal was submitted for the "Chavez parcel." Because the proposals are confidential, it is unknown whether the six developers, who are each bidding on the project, will insist that the city give them the land as part of their development deal, or require other public subsidies to build and operate the hotel.