Dunce Cap

So once in a while I don't get something just perfectly right-on, 100 percent gold-plate correct. So, sue...uh, cancel that. In a case where I have been less than totally right I need to provide...well, I'm still not going to call it a correction...elaboration. I'm not talking about actual factual errors. I mean more like not having provided the fullest possible context.

For example: I wrote a column recently ("Cash Money," September 21) in which I suggested that an enormous rail yard and a nearby 6,000-acre commercial real estate development had sort of appeared as if by magic wand--boink!--out of nowhere and overnight in southern Dallas.

"A huge economic opportunity for the whole city, maybe the biggest thing to happen to Dallas in this century--and the previous one too--has just come our way," I wrote. "We didn't do squat to bring it here."


City Hall

Well, wouldn't you just know. Apparently vast rail yards and 6,000-acre commercial developments do not just pop up out of nowhere. There's a bit more to it.

The point of my earlier column was that southern Dallas--long neglected and ignored because of racism and the push to develop the north--suddenly now is at the epicenter of a tripartite continental rail and truck commerce between Mexico, the United States and Canada. And I admit I did take it for an example of opportunity knocking in spite of the best efforts of local government and local business leaders to bar the door.

So what was missing from my scenario? Aha! I was writing about the sequel, but I had skipped the prequel. I thought this all started about two years ago. Last week I spent some time talking to two people--one a local political leader and the other a real estate guy--who have been on this case since the mid-1980s.

Together they saw the whole thing almost happen once before and then crater. They suffered many false starts. But they stuck to it anyway, and that is a whole lot of why it's happening now.

Mike Rader, the principal in Prime Rail Interests, a commercial real estate company in Fort Worth, began focusing on southern Dallas as an international "intermodal" rail and truck hub fully 10 years before passage of the North American Free Trade Act: "I've been interested in that area probably since about 1984," Rader told me last week.

Even pre-NAFTA, Rader saw the right ingredients--a confluence of interstate highways and rail lines, availability of cheap land and proximity to workforce. All of this was within the reach of local governments with the means to provide the roads, bridges and other infrastructure industry would require.

"Over a period of time I figured out that none of the big boys were going to come down there and try to make anything out of that area, which is the best logistics location in all of North Texas," he said.

Rader, who thought the big boys in Dallas were missing a sure bet, found an ally in Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price. Price cut his political teeth back in the late 1970s fighting for black communities in southern Dallas County where people were still living in Post-Reconstruction Era peonage without public water, sanitary sewers, paved streets, curbs or sidewalks. Price has argued ever since then that southern Dallas and Dallas County need an economy, but they can't get one without infrastructure.

Price saw a good bet in Rader and went to work putting together the public money and commitments Rader needed to back up the big deals he was pitching to companies such as FedEx, Burlington Northern and Union Pacific. Now that it's all finally happening after two decades of false starts and disappointments, each man tends to credit the other.

"Mike Rader could have taken his money and run," Price told me on the phone last week. "Mike has been the single person who has stayed hitched. I can be the best damn road-builder in the world, but if I don't have a developer to stay hitched with me with the commitment on the land, it doesn't make any difference."

I asked Rader about the common perception that outside interests have to pay a certain "toll" to local officials lined up with their hands out in the south.

"The only toll I had to pay was what I had to do in buying land and the time and energy spent in trying to bring some development there," he said. "There have not been handouts. I have never been asked to deliver a handout.

"It's been very cooperative from the people there in Hutchins and Wilmer looking for and desiring some economic development. All of them have been very positive. Commissioner Price has been very positive. Congresswoman [Eddie Bernice] Johnson was very positive. Everybody has been supportive of the effort to bring economic development there."

Both men provided me with a very important piece of the puzzle. The boom in southern Dallas did not happen by accident or in spite of government and business. It took a business visionary from Fort Worth, not Dallas, and a committed hard-working politician from the county, not the city. There were lots of other people in the mix too--Congresswoman Johnson, local officials in southern Dallas County and state highway people, to name a few. The point is that a long-blighted area is now about to boom because human beings made it happen.

I'm putting a mental magnet note on the refrigerator door of my mind: "Jim: Very large rail yards are not delivered by the stork."

Got it. OK, then. What else do we have here on the list of Jim Schutze boo-boos? Oh, the Texas Horse Park. Yeah. Let's get that one off the books, too, while we're at it. If I sounded at all grudging before about admitting I had made a mistake, prepare to hear grudging given a whole new meaning.

In a column called "Check the Bill," published October 5, I complained that the 2006 bond package we will be asked to vote for in the November 7 election contains a whole lot of hidden money intended for the controversial Trinity River project. I said the city had slipped about $120 million into the bond proposals, tucked away here and there in the overall $1.28 billion program, without telling us we were being asked to boost the budget for the river project by almost 50 percent.

In the process of kvetching, I said the 2006 bond program included, for example, "$14 million to help some people set up a private horse park near the river."

So about this I heard from a friend, Diane Pitts, a lawyer and horse person who has been active in helping organize the "Texas Horse Park," a public-private venture planned for southern Dallas, where backers hope to build a $30 million equestrian center.

Pitts gave me chapter and verse on the enormous amount of community outreach the center will support, including one or more of the many nationally established horse programs for troubled kids. She said it also promises to become a premier destination for horse persons such as herself (she has one of those trailers you and your kids and your horse can live in, and this is supposed to be fun, even though I thought our forebears rode the oceans here from foreign lands to escape just such conditions).

Half the money will come from the city. That contribution will be a little better than evenly matched with private money. The center will be run by a nonprofit. And she and the people promoting it swear it will be self-supporting.

All to the good. I don't see how it can be bad.

And now for the grudge, which has nothing to do with the horse persons. I just want to point out that in 2003 after Mayor Laura Miller led an effort to redesign the Trinity River project, we were told the "equestrian center" in the river project would be paid for entirely out of the 1998 bond funds at a cost of $1.72 million.

Pitts told me the amount the city was talking about wouldn't have been anywhere near enough to create a self-supporting facility that would not need operating and maintenance funds from the city. I'll take her word for that. It's still my point that the budget for the Trinity project is all over the map, and the city keeps trying to slip more money into it here and there without being straight with us.

Case in point: When I asked her about it, Rebecca Dugger, director of the Trinity project, admitted to $50 million in Trinity-related items in the upcoming bond issue. Last week I came across testimony Dugger had given September 15 in a state hearing on a utility issue in which she was asked what the funding sources were for the project.

Dugger dutifully listed the sources from the 1998 bond money. Then she testified, "In addition, I anticipate that the voters will consider approval of projects [mostly flood and street improvement projects] in an approximate amount of $200 million in a bond election on November 7, 2006. These projects are in addition to the budget above."

Oh, so it's not $50 million more in bond money for the Trinity in the 2006 bond package. It's not even the $120 million I said I suspected was there. It's more like $200 million.

Dugger told me the $200 million was not all for the Trinity River project, in spite of her testimony. She said only part of it was. Maybe some lawyer needs to revisit that part for clarification.

Like I said, I'm not blaming the horse persons. Their project sounds worthy. If anything, everything I know about City Hall makes me think it's a great idea to have someone other than City Hall run the horse park.

Here's my grudge. I may be wrong some of the time. I may be wrong about some stuff. But I don't think I'm wrong about City Hall.


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