Harlan Crow Ain't the Only One With Self-Interest in the Convention Center Hotel Debate

(Helping Dallas secure a convention center hotel earned DCVB President and CEO Phillip Jones a bonus larger than most people's paychecks./Sam Merten)

When Harlan Crow launched a petition drive to give Dallas voters a say in publicly financing a $525 million convention center hotel, proponents of the project cried foul, citing Crow's ownership of the Hilton Anatole Hotel. Because the Anatole would compete with a new city-owned hotel, they claimed Crow was merely covering his own bottom line and could care less about the taxpayers.

"I groused a few weeks ago about Harlan Crow's naked self-interest in bankrolling the current campaign against the hotel," wrote DMN columnist Steve Blow. And during the Build the Hotel press conference, council member Tennell Atkins referred to Crow as a "Park Cities billionaire with very deep pockets," who had been working for more than 20 years to protect his own asset and was creating "another false election."

Yet there's plenty for several pro-hotel peeps to gain personally from the erection of this hotel, including Mayor Tom Leppert. As council member Mitchell Rasansky said, "It's a résumé-building tool for whatever he has on his agenda." Leppert's agenda is unclear at this point, but it could include taking a stab at Kay Bailey Hutchison's senate seat when she inevitably runs for governor.

While Leppert has been the driving force behind the hotel project, his right-hand man had a more obvious incentive to pimp the hotel: the almighty dollar. After the jump, find out how much Phillip Jones, president and CEO of the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau, took home last year on top of his phenomenal salary.

Jones was awarded a $215,000 bonus and 5 percent merit increase at the October 22 DCVB Executive Committee meeting, according to records obtained by Unfair Park. The bonus was structured in his contract, which called for an incentive payout of 35 percent of his salary for meeting five goals and $4,000 for each one percent above the goal set for room nights booked.

The five goals included meeting the objective for room nights, increasing hotel occupancy taxes received, advancing Dallas to become a top 5 U.S. destination, providing staff training and establishing and implementing a strategy to advocate the city's announcement of a convention center hotel.

We're waiting to hear back from Jones' office for confirmation regarding his salary, but we've done the math, and it looks like Jones didn't need the bonus to get him through these tough economic times as his salary is already approximately $375,000, or $374,285.71 to be precise. You see, we were able to calculate his compensation because the goal for room nights booked was 806,000, and the DCVB reported 1,040,751. This 21 percent increase netted Jones $84,000, leaving $131,000 representing 35 percent of his salary.

So Jones raked in approximately $590,000 last year, and his salary was bumped up to around $393,000. The 5 percent salary increase was not part of his contract. For reference, City Manager Mary Suhm earns $278,460 and received a $10,710 bonus in November.

"If he meets all of the goals, then, hey, a contact's a contact. We have to fulfill those goals as a board of directors, and guess what? He not only made his goals, but he exceeded them," says Laura Estrada, chair of the board of directors for the DCVB. "We had a very successful year. We're very, very happy right now with him, and he deserves what he's receiving. And we hope that he'll stay with us because, by all means, he did so well that he might be stolen from us."

The DCVB also approved $100,000 to be spent on information, education and advocacy regarding the convention center hotel on May 12, and on October 22 it gave Phillip Jones the authority to provide up to $200,000 to assist in funding the Build the Hotel campaign.

So what am I getting at here? Glad you asked.

If Phillip Jones has an incentive built into his contract to meet certain goals that result in him making big bucks, then doesn't he have "naked self-interest" in meeting those goals? And when one of those goals is pimping the convention center hotel, how does that make him any different than Harlan Crow?

Jones also has admitted publicly that the convention center hotel has already resulted in more booked room nights and will continue to produce more room nights, and part of his incentive plan gives him $4,000 for each one percentage over the goal for room nights booked.

Additionally, board chair Laura Estrada, who was appointed by Leppert, has to recuse herself on votes regarding the convention center hotel because her brother's investment company is involved with the project. Bob Estrada of Estrada Hinojosa & Company, Inc. isn't personally working on the project, but his partner, Noe Hinojosa, has been working closely with city staff as a financial adviser.

"I happen to be the chair of the board of directors the year we're trying to get this done, so it's kinda really coincidental," Laura Estrada tells Unfair Park. "But just so that it didn't look inappropriate...I said, 'By the way, I know they're involved in it, and they're one of the investment bankers that are doing the deal.'"

Since Leppert and the council are moving forward with plans to begin construction on the hotel in April, I'm not sure how relevant the May 9 referendum on the issue will be, which is exactly why they're doing what they're doing. But as the vote gets closer and the debate continues, let's hope the Build the Hotel'ers finally drop the bullshit about how Harlan Crow is only looking out for Harlan Crow because now we know the other side ain't squeaky clean when it comes to self-interest in this sucker.

And, for what it's worth, I don't think Crow is only in this fight for himself. Am I naïve enough to think the Anatole has nothing to do with his funding of the referendum? Absolutely not.

However, I believe the driving force behind Crow's passion to fight against public ownership of the hotel has a lot to do with a core belief he shares with many Republicans -- the hotel biz is a private sector venture, and the government should stick to things it knows how to do.

And, honestly, for any business owner, how would you feel if the city used taxpayers' dough to build competition down the street from you? It just doesn't seem right or fair.

One final non-convention center hotel related tidbit we found out whilst looking through DCVB records: They dropped $2 million on a suite in Jerry's new stadium, which they will share with Arlington's Convention & Visitors Bureau. Arlington will pay their $1 million back to Dallas in annual payments, according to documents.

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Sam Merten
Contact: Sam Merten