Tanking a Home for Foster Children May Help Enrich One County Commissioner's Kid

Commissioner Maurine Dickey tanked a land deal to house foster kids, and now her son is brokering the land's sale.

There's a reason I like Annie, but I don't like to watch it. I can never remember what the reason is, so I keep making the mistake of watching it again, because I like it so much. I'm sitting here alone in my half-darkened office with the shades drawn, having just watched the opening scene. OK, now I remember.

It makes me cry.

It makes everybody cry. You don't have to be a blubberer. The little kid with the red hair is sitting on a cold stone windowsill in an orphanage, gazing up at the moon and singing about having parents. C'mon. Who doesn't cry for orphans?

A project to develop this land would have provided housing for teenagers aging out of foster care. But Commissioner Maurine Dickey helped kill the project,and now her son is the broker for the land.
A project to develop this land would have provided housing for teenagers aging out of foster care. But Commissioner Maurine Dickey helped kill the project,and now her son is the broker for the land.

But I wonder sometimes.

Two years ago Dallas had a shot to do something really useful and important for orphans and those who were for all practical purposes orphaned because the state had removed them from their parents. We had a chance to build a transitional home for young people who "age out" of the state foster care system but are not ready to go out into the world. It was intended to be entirely self-supporting and cost-free to taxpayers.

We didn't do it. The plan fell through the cracks. Dallas County Commissioner Maurine Dickey, in whose district the home would have been built, said at the time, "That is not the highest and best use of that property."

I always wonder about that phrase, "highest and best use," as applied to land. Highest and best according to what? It's hard to imagine a piece of land having ideals. It's dirt. We're not trying to send it to seminary.

The reason I'm writing about this two years after the fact is that the parcel of land in question—the one on which we decided not to build the place to help orphans—came on the market recently. The broker offering it for sale is one Cullen Dickey, son of Maurine Dickey.

The property is at the corner of Carroll Street and the North Central Expressway Service Drive, just north of the Haskell exit on the east side of Central. The address is 4030 N. Central Expressway. It's four acres of bare dirt surrounded by a battered steel fence.

The Dallas County Appraisal District has it on the rolls at 15 bucks a square foot—exactly what all the nearby equivalent properties are appraised at. If Cullen Dickey sells it at that price, his commission will be somewhere around 5 percent or about $138,000. He might have to split with his partners and a buyer's broker, but his take won't be peanuts.

Is that the meaning of highest and best use?

Originally the county was to buy the land from the state and then partner with Bank of America to build an apartment tower. Eighty percent of the building would have been "market-rate" apartments, which, in that area, means high-dollar. The other 20 percent would have been used to house youths 18 and older, former wards of the state foster care system. They would have been able to stay there for varying periods of time, under a variety of arrangements, depending on their needs.

These are kids who didn't have stable homes or parents to teach them how to shake hands in a job interview, show up for work on time, pay bills, wear non-disturbing clothes and so on. The idea was to give them help and a little breathing space until they could get out on their own.

This is an especially tragic population, according to people who work in this area. Evy Kay Ritzen, director of a private social agency that works with young adults, says foster kids aging out of the system are the fastest growing segment of the Dallas homeless population. Larry James, president of Central Dallas Ministries, says 40 percent of those kids wind up on the street or in jail.

As Ritzen said, "They have been failed twice, once by their parents and once again by the system."

The point is, it's a very tough life for a kid. As Miss Hannigan says in Annie, "Why any kid would wanna be an orphan is beyond me."

The rents from the apartment tower, according to the deal, would have paid for the transitional home at no cost to taxpayers. After seven years the project would have thrown off an additional million bucks a year that the county would have invested in homeless care.

The project died at the county level in large part because of Maurine Dickey's opposition, based on her stated philosophy of best and highest use. When Central Dallas Ministries, which was to have been the developer and operator, saw that it was dead at the county level, it took it to the city for Round 2, James told me.

At the city, the project died again for the reasons everything dies there. City Hall dragged its feet and threw up a fog of red tape.

So it died twice—first at the county, then again at City Hall. Now it's Maurine Dickey's son who stands to pick up a sweet piece of change from the sale.

There are some things I need to stipulate. There is nothing illegal about any of this. The property belongs to the State of Texas. The Texas General Land Office told me the deal meets all of its legal requirements.

Jim Suydam, press secretary to Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, said the Cullen Dickey/Maurine Dickey connection was not an issue for the GLO. "We didn't know that there was any relation," he said. "I'm not sure it would have mattered if there was."

Suydam said the GLO chose from a list of brokers who had gone through a lengthy pre-qualification process. "He was pre-qualified beforehand," he said. "He was certainly the most enthusiastic agent to take this listing, and that's what we look for when we get a broker for these things, because we're looking to move the piece of land."

I did call Cullen Dickey. We spoke very briefly. He promised to call me back but did not. I called his mother's office and left my work and cell phone numbers with her assistant. I explained the call. She did not call me either.

David Little, founder of David Little Real Estate where Cullen Dickey is a principal, did call me. I guess he was speaking for Dickey and also for his firm, which is an old and respected Dallas company.

Little assured me that the GLO deal was something he personally had arranged. "I was awarded...David Little Real Estate was awarded the right to try to sell that property," he said, "and I assigned Cullen Dickey the opportunity to try to sell that."

Fair enough.

Little told me several times that he knew nothing about the orphan deal. "I don't know about that, Jim," he said.

He said he does know Maurine Dickey. "I've known Maurine Dickey. They used to be neighbors of mine for 10 years. I've known them 15, 20 years, but I've never talked to her about this property. I didn't know what the county was doing with it."

He said he also knows Jerry Patterson, the commissioner of the General Land Office, a political appointee. "I know Jerry Patterson real well, but Jerry's not going to give anybody anything. He's going to be fair with everybody."

And he said he has been looking at the orphanage property for many years. "I have seen that property for many, many years. I just stayed on top of it and followed the deal for years.

"We were awarded the right to try to sell it, and that was it, but Maurine Dickey didn't have anything to do with it."

The David Little Real Estate Company Web page describes Cullen Dickey as continuing to play a key role in the Dickey family business, an international restaurant chain: "Additionally, Cullen oversees the site selection process for his family business, Dickey's Barbecue Restaurants," the bio on the Web page states. It goes on to say, "Further, Cullen is a major supporter of his mother's (Dallas County Commissioner Maurine Dickey) campaign and civic efforts in Dallas County."

Jerry Patterson, the Texas land commissioner, is a popular figure in conservative Republican politics, best known for obstructing a deal to add the Christmas Mountains Ranch to Big Bend National Park.

This is a down market, of course, but in a better market, the Central Expressway property has an extremely valuable city zoning designation. A developer could cover 80 percent of the land with buildings as high as 20 stories. A commercial developer who spoke to me on a not-for-attribution basis described the property as "basically a political deal," because it's owned by a state agency.

The General Land Office, he pointed out, isn't playing with its own marbles. It only has to sell at a price slightly higher than the appraised value in order to show that it has done a good job. He called the appraised value of land in this area "absurdly low" and drew a comparison with downtown land: Last May, when a political debate over a proposed convention hotel put downtown appraisals under a microscope, the county appraisal district had to admit that most of downtown had been appraised at unrealistically low values.

What does that mean for the Dickey deal? I think it means the amount of Cullen Dickey's commission on the deal may be the least important element. The real question is going to be who buys this land and at what kind of price.

I called former County Judge Margaret Keliher and asked her what she thought about it. I explained that I was calling about Cullen Dickey being the broker for the orphanage land. The phone went dead so long I thought the call had dropped.

I said, "Hello." She said, "Yes, I'm still here."

Then she said, "I am still very sorry that that project didn't get done and that the county did not continue to address the needs of children who age out of foster care."

I said, yeah, sure, but what about a member of the Dickey family being in the middle of this whole deal?

"I doubt there is anything illegal about that," she said, "but it just doesn't look good."

Me? All I know is, I'm never watching Annie again. Damn movie. Gets you all soft on orphans, when you need to be thinking about what's highest and best.

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