By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
It's another in a long line of sales pitches for Mayor Tom Leppert as he hawks his vision for a convention center hotel. Tonight the promoter-in-chief is going mano a mano against those who support a referendum for a city charter amendment that would put the kibosh on his proposed half-billion-dollar, taxpayer-funded venture. It's only a debate, a forum for civil discourse, but for both sides it's become damn personal. At stake is not only the future of the hotel but the political fortunes of the mayor who, nearing the midpoint of his term, has acquired a Teflon-like invincibility and seemed untouchable—at least until recently.
Marshaled against him this brisk March evening is Anne Raymond, the head of the hastily formed Citizens Against the Taxpayer-Owned Hotel. But there's no denying reality; she is merely the capable mouthpiece for the vested interests of the anti-hotel crowd. The real money behind their movement flows from Harlan Crow, her boss at Crow Holdings and the owner of the Hilton Anatole hotel, which stands to lose profits aplenty if a city-financed hotel opens its lavish doors downtown.
Leppert is not only a savvy dresser—baby blue French cuff shirt, multicolored tie and gold watch—but also a savvy speaker. He lashes out against Crow without naming him, as if he's just some faceless corporate profiteer who wants to deny the city its economic potential rather than the familiar son of one of its beloved real estate titans—Trammell Crow—for whom Leppert himself once worked.
The mayor mentions this "individual" several times throughout the evening, wagging his index finger each time. This person has poured millions into the campaign, he says, and his family has been fighting the hotel for 25 years to protect its financial interest.
"You have one person that is the opposition," Leppert says. "Anne works for that individual."
Raymond counters by saying she is more than Crow Holdings, touting her 25 years in the hotel investment business and her selection by two mayors—Leppert and Laura Miller—as a member of the convention center hotel task force. "As I've watched this unfold—watching the government try to compete in the private hotel business—they've made horrendous errors already," she says.
Two of the city's bigger gaffes, Raymond says, include buying the hotel's site for $42 million when it was on the tax rolls for approximately $7 million and striking a hotel management contract with Omni Hotels that's "totally favorable" to Omni. As Leppert watches, legs crossed, Raymond argues that the reason the private sector hasn't built the hotel is because it's destined to lose money. "But the city wants to get it done, and the taxpayers are left with losing money."
Leppert explains to these West Dallas residents why there are sound business reasons to support the hotel: Dallas has slipped out of the Top Five convention cities, and it needs a hotel adjacent to its billion-dollar convention center to get back in the game. And a hotel would stem the money hemmorhaging from the convention center—$3 million a year.
"That comes right out of your wallets, my friends, because that comes out of the general fund," says Leppert while holding up his black leather wallet—effectively providing the audience with a visual cue they can understand. "And that number's not going to go down. Keep in mind, that's your tax money...It's not unreasonable to believe over the next 30 years, it's going to be more than $150 million in taxpayers' money if we don't do something."
Leppert's on a roll, pacing back and forth, his steely blue eyes engaging the audience, his long arms waving to make his point: a hotel won't just save the convention center, it will increase tax receipts, prevent city services from being cut, create 3,000 temporary jobs and 800 permanent jobs. Kill the hotel, and Leppert makes it sound as if Dallas is doomed. "This is not about a building," he says. "This is about our economy and looking to the future."
At least one audience member isn't buying it; he calls the hotel a "boondoggle" and says, "Let us vote," referring to Leppert's attempt to nullify the referendum by funding the project before voters have their say.
The mayor offers no response.
Silence has been Leppert's tactic when confronted with difficult issues: He refused to speak with the Dallas Observer in April 2008 for a story about the hotel, claiming he wasn't ready to discuss the issue "until things have firmed up and we know which direction the city is heading." Again, the Observer requested comment for this story, but his chief of staff, Chris Heinbaugh, said, "Right now the mayor is focused on the two charter amendments, as well as issues in the Legislature and Congress."
Leppert also refused interview requests from The Dallas Morning News regarding his plans to take control of the Dallas Independent School District.
While he might not have much to say to the press, he's running a tireless public campaign to ensure the convention center hotel is approved, which will take a no vote on Proposition 1. Additionally, he's encouraging voters to also say no to Proposition 2, which would allow the public to vote on economic incentives of more than $1 million that the city gives to private developers, if 500 citizens sign a petition.