If the Deep Ellum Public Improve-ment District survives what likely will be a contentious public hearing in city council chambers August 25, Barry Annino may get some of the credit. If it fails, he'll take most of the blame.
Annino has spent the last year putting a face on the improvement district: his face. He's president of the nonprofit Deep Ellum Association, which favors the special taxing district. If the district wins city council approval, property owners within its boundaries will pay an additional $100,000 in taxes annually over the next seven years to upgrade maintenance, security, marketing, and landscaping.
But as Annino has found, winning political support from the varied collection of businesspeople in the neighborhood is a hard sell. The Deep Ellum Association first tried to create the PID last year, hiring a consultant and mailing out petitions to each business owner.
None of the petitions was returned.
"The rules are that we have to get enough owners to sign to represent 50 percent of the value and 50 percent of the area," says Annino, a former tennis pro who sells commercial real estate in Deep Ellum with the Delphi Group. "We got the legwork done, and it moved down the line, but it couldn't get over the hump."
Temporarily thwarted by the apathy that might be expected from the kind of iconoclasts that gravitate to an area like Deep Ellum, Annino says he spent this year doing what he's good at: a quiet kind of face-to-face negotiation and gentle arm-twisting for a cause he believes in.
"A fairly small investment now will eventually pay off for everybody," he says, summing up his pitch to the neighborhood. "And the city's not going to help us if we can't get this passed."
Annino visited every property owner on the city's tax rolls within the district to encourage them to sign. He persuaded the major owners to sign on first then used peer pressure to get the balance he needed for the proposal to reach City Hall. He even changed the map of the proposed district -- now a strangely whale-shaped outline of a neighborhood bounded by the Texas & Pacific Railroad on the north, Taylor Street on the south, Exposition on the east and Pacific and Central Expressway on the west -- when industrial property owners on Canton wouldn't play. He cajoled, then he compromised, and now he'll speak on behalf of the project next week at City Hall. He hopes the people who still oppose the PID won't bother to show up. He hopes he can still show his face around the neighborhood after it's all over.
Apathy and skepticism may have plagued the improvement district proposal at first, but real opposition in Dallas' "alternative" neighborhood followed.
"It's always the money," Annino says. To pay for the district, property owners would be taxed an extra 12 cents per $100 in property value, and Annino computes the hit for a $1 million property at "only" $1,200 annually. But as unhappy as opponents were about paying more taxes, he says, they had other gripes that characterized something more intensely unique to the area that Annino calls the soul of Dallas. That was the Deep Ellum mentality -- an in-your-face inner being that encourages independence and discourages conformity. PID opponents in the neighborhood didn't want to fork over any more money for taxes, and they didn't want to work together, and they didn't want to turn Deep Ellum into Sundance Square, Fort Worth's squeaky-clean, family-friendly antithesis of Deep Ellum.
"It'll never be Sundance Square," Annino says. "For one thing, they put $10 million into Sundance Square, and the PID won't generate even $1 million over seven years."
Still, Annino and the Deep Ellum Association want curbside, directional kiosks for tourists, and they want to get rid of graffiti, stickers on streets signs, and the nails and old club fliers that cover utility poles. He supports a neighborhood cleanup that could bring more traffic to the arts and entertainment district that's hopping by night, deserted by day. He wants the growing number of people who live in Deep Ellum to feel safe. And he wants to put the neighborhood's best foot forward to new developers.
He wants to do all that yet preserve the bohemian soul of the city. He thinks the Deep Ellum Association can do it with an extra hundred thousand each year, plus the leverage the neighborhood will have with the city once it proves it can get organized, stay on task, and get something accomplished. "Let me tell you what it really means," Annino says. "For the first time, we'll be able to go over to the city and do deals and share costs. Every time I went to the city and asked for money before, they'd say we've got other places that need money, and you're just one guy. They're telling me you're one neighborhood and we've got all these neighborhoods that need a lot more than you do."
When Annino talked to the city, he spoke to Dallas Assistant City Manager Ryan Evans, who oversees planning and economic development. Evans says Annino's tenacity appears to be paying off. "I think this is the first time they tried really hard," Evans says of the latest attempt by the Deep Ellum Association to organize a PID. "I know they made inquiries previously and met some resistance. When they met some resistance, they basically gave up. This time, under Barry's guidance, they got the necessary signatures. I think it's partially because I told them I would enhance their services for a few months, but I really wanted them to get together as a neighborhood."
Litter control is the biggest carrot the city has given to Deep Ellum in the short term, and Evans says that if the PID passes, some of the money will be earmarked for continuing the cleanup. Neighborhoods around Dallas have sought relief with PID funding for special needs, but "Deep Ellum is a different kind of animal because it's an entertainment district," Evans says. "After a weekend of entertainment, the litter problem the next morning is scary. We've been trying to help them out, but establishing the PID makes more sense. Why should I be doing it for Deep Ellum and nowhere else?"
With Evans' encouragement, one source says Annino "bulldogged" PID petitions through the neighborhood to get the project before the council on August 25. Looking at him -- stocky build, short stature, broad shoulders over a barrel chest -- you can imagine Barry Annino sauntering through Deep Ellum with dogged determination. He's got something of the look of the breed, but his face is smooth; his countenance calm; and he speaks quietly, using simple and direct words.
"There have been a lot of battles," he says, "but we have mutual goals down here, even if they sometimes go in different directions. I remember when no one would come to Deep Ellum. We had a shantytown under the bridge, a bunch of broken-down buildings, and a few bars. Now, there's great housing down here, and the real estate is probably five times more expensive than it was when I got here. That's changed, but I would say the soul hasn't changed. The PID won't change it, either. It will just keep us moving forward."
Bob Gammon and his family bought into Deep Ellum early, in 1968, but now he's just about sold out. He's not planning to attend the public hearing on the proposed PID before city council on August 25, but he's already sent in his protest letter. "I think it's a joke," Gammon says, "because I think Barry and them are trying to get somebody to pay for their deal. I didn't like their deal. They're not trying to put it together right. They didn't take the whole area in, because they couldn't get the votes. They all get to benefit, because now it's just the area where they and their buddies are."
At one time, Gammon's family owned 14 buildings in the neighborhood, operating the growing Gammon Clothing business. Now, the business is closed, and Gammon says he's sold off all but one parking lot. But his dwindling real estate interest doesn't dampen his ire. "Why should I have to pay for it, when they're the ones with all the bars and clubs? I think they should take care of their own property, mow their own grass, and stop trying to get somebody else to pay for it."
Harvey Earp has similar questions, and he convinced Annino to exclude his and other warehouse and manufacturing properties from the district. Earp owns the J.W. Davis Building on Canton and says his type of business won't benefit from a PID.
"If we were to sell the property, we would realize some benefit from it," he says. "We don't anticipate doing that anytime in the next several years."
Earp's problem with the current PID gets to the root of Annino's and the Deep Ellum Association's difficulties in trying to organize a diverse neighborhood. Industrial manufacturing and distribution businesses don't need the same things as restaurants, nightclubs, and bars. "As long as the district is homogeneous, I think public improvement districts serve a good purpose," Earp says. "If they're not, there's a real problem."
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Frustration with this kind of thinking shows in Jeff Swaney -- 15 years of frustration, he says. Swaney owns the Delphi Group, a Deep Ellum real estate company specializing in property management, commercial leasing, and commercial sales. "We want to get it on, not sit and squabble and argue and bitch," says Swaney, for whom Annino works. "That's what we're about. We've had immense frustration with some of these owners down here, who are T-I-G-H-T to the point of self-destruction. They're not broke. They're wealthy. But they are very tight."
Annino says major Deep Ellum property owners Don Cass, Don Blanton, Al Jernigan, Susan and Lew Reese, and Joe Beard of Westdale Asset Management support the PID. Sharon Nicholson, PID chairman for Deep Ellum Association and secretary/treasurer of the Deep Ellum Foundation, which will manage the funds if the PID passes, says that's when she knew the PID had a fighting chance this time. "Once Barry joined, what I saw was that the major owners in Deep Ellum stepped up to the plate. Perhaps Barry had a little bit more to offer. He got the city's attention."
Going in to the council chambers on August 25, Annino will have about 10 percent more support than he needs to meet the statutory requirements of the PID. Even if dissenters show up, and even when protest letters are read, City Councilman John Loza believes the PID will pass.
"We down at City Hall have an interest in making sure Deep Ellum remains economically viable," says Loza, who represents the neighborhood. "If it doesn't, it not only hurts Deep Ellum, but it hurts all of Dallas. Our resources at the city are stretched pretty thin, and a lot of what they would like to do is appropriate for a PID. Barry did the work and got all of the owners together." Loza pauses and corrects his statement. "Well, not all of them. Most of them."