The mayor and city council have used secret meetings to devise a plan to fund a convention center hotel with millions in taxpayers’ dough, and its time to give voters a say, since they’re the ones assuming the risk. At least, that’s what Crow Holdings’ executive Anne Raymond told approximately 50 people this morning while announcing a petition drive by the political action committee Citizens Against a Taxpayer Owned Hotel.
Raymond outlined three main reasons why using public money to build a hotel is a bad idea: The Dallas hotel market isn't good (which we've mentioned before), the hotel isn’t economically feasible, and national trends regarding convention business are troubling. She mentioned that Dallas had more than one million empty hotel rooms in downtown’s top seven hotels last year, and Dallas ranks only ahead of St. Louis and Detroit among the strongest hotel markets.
Nationally, Raymond cited that convention center space has doubled while demand has remained steady, leaving only destination cities such as Las Vegas, Orlando and San Diego as areas able to thrive in such a flooded market. “The city needs to stay focused on improving the desirability of the city as a destination, and when that goal is accomplished, the private sector will build a hotel, because there will be demand,” Raymond said.
Raymond mentioned that Crow Holdings has also gained support from The Warwick Melrose Hotel (the site of today’s announcement), Prism Hotel and Resorts and Aimbridge Hospitality. She also unveiled the group’s Web site and motto: “Safer streets, not hotel suites. Let the taxpayers decide.”
Raymond was introduced by CATOH treasurer Vance Miller, who is chairman of Henry S. Miller Commercial. Miller talked about his plans in 1983 to build a 1,200-room Marriot hotel in front of the convention center, where the bronze longhorns are now located. He said that Trammell Crow warned him that such a project would break him, but the deal was only derailed when the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which removed tax shelters for real estate investments, was announced the following year.
Noticeably absent from today’s big announcement was Harlan Crow, who Raymond tells us was at his office. “It’s not about Harlan, and it’s not about the mayor. Taxpayers want to know about this. People that are trying to personalize it about the two of them -- it’s silly. Taxpayers are smarter than that.”
Speaking of Crow, I wondered how it felt for the tables to be turned on a man who just last year was using his bank account to stop people from voting instead of encouraging it.
“I think that just shows that people have convictions, and people can have honest disagreements about things. Harlan supports efforts all the time, and they’re philosophical,” Raymond tells Unfair Park. “The Anatole is going to be fine, but, philosophically, it kinda makes us all crazy to watch the City of Dallas think it can be in the hotel business.”
So, would it be cool if a hotel proponent hired blockers to stop people from signing this petition?
“Oh, sure,” Raymond says. “Of course that’s fair game. It just shouldn’t be personal.”
As for how much of Crow’s money will be spent on the effort, Raymond says CATOH is still analyzing how much it will take, but she told Unfair Park that the coalition will do what it takes to raise whatever that number is.
Raymond also addressed why the decision was made to wait to put this on the May ballot as opposed to getting this started earlier in order to make it on to the November ballot.
“There’s going to be a lot of noise around the November ballot, and it was too much of a risk,” Raymond says. “It’s a complicated issue, and it needs some time for voters to really understand what they’re being asked to do, except they’re not being asked.”
Perhaps the largest obstacle for CATOH is the obvious self interest that Crow Holdings has regarding its ownership of the Hilton Anatole, which competes for convention business. In the press conference and at a recent forum where I heard Raymond speak, she seemed to downplay the potential conflict. “People can think what they think,” she says. “People don’t have to believe me. I don’t care. I just know a lot about it.”
One person with a conflict of his own is Jack Matthews, who is the developer for the hotel project. Matthews takes issue with Crow Holdings hiding behind the name Citizens Against a Taxpayer Owned Hotel.
“I’ve got an interest in this thing as well, so I can’t say my opinion isn’t disingenuous just as their opinion isn’t disingenuous, but if it’s truly Harlan Crow against the hotel, then let’s call it that,” Matthews tells Unfair Park.
Matthews is adamant that Dallas needs an attached convention center hotel to survive in the market, and says the elected leaders should be allowed to do their jobs.
“I’m not sure if you’re letting people do their job if every time you turn around, we seem to be having a referendum,” he says.
Matthews has been working to secure approximately $100 million in equity for the ancillary development around the hotel, but says his investors are committed to the project, and today’s announcement will have no bearing on his plans.
“We’re proceeding until someone tells us not to,” he says.
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It might be a different story if the council vote was closer, Matthews says, but with only a couple of dissenters, there is no need for a public vote. He says the announcement was frustrating, but after visiting with several advisory groups, he is convinced that many conventions won’t come to Dallas until it offers an attached hotel.
“In our minds, it’s happening,” he says. “We’ve got a schedule, we’re on the schedule, and we’re just going to keep marching toward it.”
As for Raymond, she’ll likely continue to spread the message as she did at The Rotary Club of Dallas meeting we mentioned a while back. Here is a copy of her presentation for those interested. Much like The Dallas 40 event, Phillip Jones of the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau was invited to attend, but he declined the invitation to present his argument in favor of the hotel.
Becky Mayad, DCVB spokesperson regarding the hotel project, offers up this explanation from Jones: “The discussion is not whether we need a convention center hotel but how it should be financed, and that is an issue currently being handled by the Dallas City Council and city staff.” --Sam Merten