Golf Course Plan Needs a Strong Long Game
Last week when the Dallas City Council was deciding whether to donate public land for a private golf course venture in southern Dallas, I listened hard to council member Tennell Atkins. It's easy for me to get dismissive about what I hear from Atkins sometimes. Maybe I need to listen harder.
Atkins was pitching his colleagues on the idea that allowing a major corporation to create its own private golf course with membership fees estimated north of $150,000 will bring economic benefit to the very poor, mainly minority part of the city surrounding it.
Ticking off other amenities already in place nearby — a nature center, paved trails, a horse park — Atkins spoke of the golf course as part of an "entertainment center" that will draw investment to southern Dallas.
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"People who play golf generally have money," he said. "People who generally play golf do invest. When people play golf, they don't play at as fast a pace as football, basketball and baseball. They play at a slow pace. They have a chance to enjoy the neighborhood and the atmosphere around where they go, and they are looking for an opportunity of investment. If you play golf, you will probably invest in a horse park. They probably bring more charities who are going to play there."
He and his fellow black council members from southern Dallas are adamant and passionate in their belief that anything — any kind of attention or investment or other sign of respect — is better than the utter neglect their part of the city has suffered since Reconstruction. Later in the council debate he said, "Please do not rain on my parade. It's a great parade for the city of Dallas, and people are out there looking at us. And you are raining on our birthday. This is a birthday and a celebration for the city of Dallas."
That's a tough challenge. It means, "Don't be cruel. Please give me what I want." And the council did, a little bit. They voted provisionally to allow the city manager to continue to pursue a deal. Later when the manager has a deal to show them, the council will vote it up or down.
When they do vote on that deal, we have to hope they will return to Atkins' words. This golf course idea is being justified solely on the basis of its value as an economic boon to the surrounding area. The council, one hopes, will think hard about how that may work. Or not.
For a week prior to the council debate, I was trying to track down a particular phenomenon in the area around the proposed golf course. I first came across it when for an earlier column I looked at the census tracts including and immediately adjacent to the site. Later I expanded my view to census tracts in a longer radius from the site. When you put it on the map, the phenomenon is absolutely staggering.
It's called "not in the labor force." Not "unemployed." That's different. Not even "long-term unemployed." According to the federal agency that measures these things, people counted as "not in the labor force" are "neither employed nor unemployed."
We know what employed is. That's people who have a job. But the term, unemployed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, isn't for anybody and everybody who doesn't have a job. It only applies to people who used to have a job and are still looking for another one.
Get it? It sort of means dis-employed. The term unemployed doesn't apply to you if you have never had a job and you aren't looking for one. That is called "not in the labor force."
In an almost unbroken circle centered on the golf course with a radius of five miles, more than half of the population is not in the labor force. In the tract just south and west of the golf course site, 63.2 percent of residents are not in the labor force.
On top of that number, unemployment in this part of the city is high, well more than 10 percent. So the total percentage of people not working at formal jobs in this part of the city is somewhere between 60 and 70 percent.
I also spent some time looking at what is known nationally about the phenomenon. The general consensus of economists and sociologists seems to be — I don't think I'm over-simplifying too much — that the phenomenon is a little bit connected to cycles in the economy but only at the margins. In other words, the number of people who are not in the labor force does go up a little when the economy is bad and does go down a little when it gets better, but there is a hard core in the center, a lion's share, that never budges no matter what's going on in the economy.
Didn't have a job. Don't have a job. Not gonna get a job.
I came across several indications that not having a formal job does not necessarily mean not working. The Reverend Gerald Britt, a vice president of CitySquare, formerly called Central Dallas Ministries, knows the area I'm talking about from both personal experience and formal study. He told me that many of the people counted as not in the labor force are actually carrying out some kind of small business or hustle, from selling CDs in the barbershop to mowing lawns, in order to survive.
"If you put a major employment center in that area, many of them would not apply," Britt said, "because they don't believe they would be hired, and they just don't see themselves as included in that kind of enterprise."
In casting around, I came across a fascinating graduate school study of the car wash at Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Interstate 45, a place I know well because of the city's unremitting efforts to shut it down as a neighborhood nuisance. The author of the paper described it instead as a kind of street bazaar where people outside the labor force nevertheless are able to earn a subsistence living by buying and selling everything from wigs to barbecue.
At the end of last week I drove to Bibleway Bible Church about two miles due west of the golf course site to talk to the Reverend Eddie Lane, an emeritus member of the faculty at Dallas Theological Seminary and for 47 years a pastor in this very tough part of town. Lane was frank about the people in the area who are not in the labor force because they dwell in a criminal underworld, in and out of prison from a very early age.
"A lot of young people are in trouble, on drugs and alcohol," he said. "Their parents had jobs and worked. But these young people are the ones who are functionally illiterate. They cannot read or write."
Lane described a quick path to prison for many children growing up in the area. He said they often come back from prison determined never to return. "But there is no opportunity for them, whatsoever."
The same things that sent them to prison in the first place offer the only chance they see to earn money. In not too long, they are back behind bars.
I asked Lane, of the thousands of young people he had dealt with in his 47 years, how many have managed to turn it around and make a decent life for themselves. He paused for a long while. "Very, very few," he said.
But here was the big surprise for me. Lane is a supporter of the golf course idea. "Not if all they do is build a golf course," he said. His dream is of a full-service rehabilitation center for young people getting out of prison, where people they trust from their own community can teach them to read and write and teach them how to have a life.
But Lane believes with Atkins that creating a golf course to draw wealthy powerful people into the area will help, first by making the place no longer invisible to them, then by opening their eyes to the mere possibility of value. He believes land value itself "is in the eyes of the leaders."
"Wherever those values are projected," he said, "that's where business goes."
While I was doing this reporting, I heard Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings interviewed on NPR about a finding by the Brookings Institution that Dallas is one of only three American cities to have officially escaped from the national economic recession. Rawlings was buoyant and convincing in describing Dallas as the biggest, best, job-creating, people-hiring, opportunity-offering market in the nation.
Of course I couldn't help being struck by the bitter contrast between this news and the numbers I was looking at in southern Dallas. How can that be? If this is the best place in America right now to get a job, how can more than half the people living in a broad swath of the city be "outside the labor force"?
It seemed to me that maybe somewhere between Gerald Britt and the graduate school paper and the Reverend Lane — maybe I should include Tennell Atkins — there was a larger picture I was missing in my focus on the golf course. I keep thinking, "Golf courses don't create jobs."
But the problem here may not be jobs. Not yet. Not exactly. The real problem, the force pushing up that plaintive note in Atkins' plea, is the utter separation of this whole part of the city from the rest of Dallas, from the rest of modern American society.
Sure, they need jobs. But they need to be brought back into the fold of mainstream life first. And for that to happen, someone has to see them. Someone has to know they are there. If that's what this golf course is going to do, more power to it. But it would be nice if somewhere in the process the City Council at least considered the depth and breadth of the real problem.
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