That giant sucking sound

Thank God Ross Perot Jr. thinks we're all idiots.
And don't think he doesn't. How else to explain last week's lunatic Times Square proposal--his most recent, most flatulent offer to privately develop the area around the publicly financed sports arena.

In case you missed this gust of hot air--disguised as a serious news story on the front of the December 3 Dallas Morning News Metropolitan section--it went like this:

"Ross Perot Jr. said Tuesday that he would like to create a 4-acre public plaza and other amenities that would turn a proposed $230 million arena into a 'Times Square' for Dallas," according to the short piece that somehow required two reporters to craft.

Accompanying the story were two artists' renderings of Perot's proposal--the first looked strikingly similar to a scene from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, in which the lowly peasants gather in the crowded cathedral plaza, pushing rickety food carts and peddling cheap wares. The second drawing was a bit more up to date: Fast-forward to Boston's airy, canopied Faneuil Hall, filled with food stalls, shops, and restaurants. Alas, this rendition was a bit misleading--because instead of a charming old city on a historical harbor serving as a backdrop, our quaint public plaza will be surrounded by 43 heat-seared acres of black-top parking.

"I've asked a lot of people, 'Where is the place in downtown Dallas--Where is the place that if something great happens, we all go?'" Perot Jr. mused to a group of reporters he'd summoned to his North Dallas offices for this presentation. (I, unfortunately, was not invited--even though it would have been the highlight of my week.) "I don't think Dallas has a visible place like a Times Square...Times Square will be this plaza out in front of this arena."

Located, no doubt, between the massively impersonal, concrete fortress that will be the sports arena and the supremely creepy brick monstrosity that will be the abandoned TU Electric power plant. I'm sure Mr. Perot will spend a lot of time strolling through the plaza with his children--on those mysterious days when "something great happens." (Don't you just want to rush down to the local sports arena when something great happens in your life?) If I were Perot, I'd certainly choose concrete over the lushly landscaped, tree-shaded Turtle Creek, where his Highland Park home is located.

Now rewind this arena tape to a mere nine months ago--before city officials happily sold our souls to the devil. Same newspaper. Same reporter, Todd Gillman. (Only one this time.) Same drooling prose. Same generous play on the news pages--this time page 1. "The Dallas Mavericks asked the city Monday to pay half the cost of a new $220 million downtown arena, vowing to create an ambitious urban renewal project in exchange," the March 11 article began.

"...Under the proposal, Hillwood Development Corp., owned by Mr. Perot, would buy 50 acres downtown and set aside 10 for a new arena. The remainder would be used for a planned development that would include a hotel, office space, shopping areas, other entertainment, and housing."

What's really insulting about all this is not so much that Perot utterly reneged on the $1 billion promise that got him a signed, sealed, delivered deal--it's that he is now trying to sweeten that supremely bad agreement, just six weeks before the voters determine its destiny, with his penny-ante Times Square proposal.

Which he's not promising to carry out, of course. "When you say the word 'commitment,' that is a hard word," Perot lamented when he unveiled the plans for "Times Square" last week.

Which is precisely why I believe that on January 17, the village idiots--that is, the voters of Dallas, empowered as we are to shut down Park Cities pipe dreams--will tell Perot to take his commitment problems somewhere else.

We've been here, done that, been snookered before. The parallels are astonishing. (I laid this out in great detail in October 1994 when the arena proposal was in its infancy--even back then, pre-Perot, the similarities to Ray Hunt's rape of the taxpayers on Reunion Arena were striking; clearly, the two billionaires use the same playbook. Is it available at Borders?)

Twenty-four years ago, 30-year-old Hunt--son of rich oil baron H.L. Hunt--made Dallas City Hall a truly dazzling offer. He stood before the city council on October 15, 1973, and proposed a $210 million mega-development--a veritable Epcot Center of glitz and glamour--on a 50-acre, largely barren tract behind Union Station in downtown Dallas. If the city would build a symphony hall or sports arena in the middle of the tract, Hunt said, he would surround it with all the private development you could ever dream of: a hotel, office space, shopping areas, residential living, other entertainment, even a five-acre public park.  

Hunt's visionary on the project, Canadian urban planner Vincent Ponte--who had advised city leaders a decade earlier not to build the Dallas Cowboys a downtown stadium--promised the city council that Hunt's vision would save downtown Dallas. (Sound familiar?) This was "the only way for the city to compete with the massive flow" of people, retail stores, and office buildings to the suburbs, he told them. And it would generate competing projects in other parts of downtown--he guaranteed it. "It has to spill over," Ponte told the council that day.

The council believed it, voting unanimously to embrace Hunt's plan.
"We approved it in concept--and you know what that means," recalls retired 5th District Court of Appeals Judge Charles Storey, who served on the council at the time. "It means we didn't know what we were doing."

The proof is the result--which we see every time we drive by Reunion Arena. Oh, the taxpayers fulfilled their part of the bargain. They dutifully built the $27.8 million Reunion Arena and spent many millions more on streets and underpasses and landscaping improvements around the hotel and arena--$5.7 million alone for Young Street, whose extension linked Hunt's hotel to both downtown and the freeway system. (Sound familiar?)

But Hunt never delivered. Yes, he built one hotel, the distinctive Hyatt, but he never built anything beyond that. To the contrary, in 1984, he couldn't help but stick the knife in the taxpayers one more time. In August of that year, Hunt unveiled plans to build twin, 28-story office towers between Reunion Arena and the Hyatt--on land that boasted 922 surface parking spaces for the arena. In order to cover the loss of parking, the city built the $22 million Reunion Parking Garage--but after it did, Hunt decided not to build the office towers after all. Consequently, the city has had too much parking at Reunion for a decade, and loses $2.2 million a year on the garage. Thanks to an incredibly one-sided, 69-page master agreement (sound familiar?) between the city and Hunt, Hunt has never been penalized for his failure to deliver on his many promises.

To the contrary, Hunt has wielded the master agreement--which his lawyers drafted, of course--like a sword against the city ever since. After a seven-year battle between Hunt and the taxpayers on various terms of the master agreement, which each believed the other had violated, the taxpayers wrote a check to Hunt in 1993 for $440,000. They also gave him additional air rights over the 50-acre area--all of which Hunt has total control over until the year 2074.

"If you don't have a sense of history," former councilman Storey told me in 1994, "you're going to keep making the same mistakes."

Like the one we're close to making today.
Mayor Ron Kirk, chief water carrier for the sports teams and downtown arena boosters, keeps assuring us that Ross Perot Jr. is going to live up to his empty promises. That Perot will definitely do those millions of dollars worth of fabulous, private development around the new arena.

"The man went out and put an option on 40 acres of land," Kirk has told the council on several occasions, as though such a purchase--if it ever takes place--would drain Perot's bank accounts. "People don't buy land in Dallas and use it for nothing."

(Actually, they do if they need 8,500 parking spaces to operate a new arena--and even with all 43 acres going to parking, they'll only have 6,500 spaces on opening day.)

But the voters have all the reason in the world to question Perot's integrity--in fact, according to a massive, four-part series that ran two weeks ago in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the people of Dallas stand more than a good chance of getting screwed on this arena if they pass it at the ballot box.

The newspaper series, called "Courting the Public Trust," depicts Perot as a ruthless, power-crazed 39-year-old real estate baron who never rests until his prey du jour is beaten into submission. "We're a pretty untraditional group on how we operate," Perot told reporters Mitchell Schnurman and Miles Moffeit in describing his company's business tactics. "...We look at the world basically, day-to-day, as a battle. This is not a game. We take this very, very seriously."

Which is why Perot went out and stole a 197-acre ranch from its 79-year-old owner six years ago in order to expand his beloved Alliance Airport in Fort Worth.

There are many Perot anecdotes to choose from in the Star-Telegram's lengthy series. I like the one about Sam Culbertson the best. It starts as they all do, with Perot Jr., the former Air Force fighter pilot, taking the elderly rancher on one of his testosterone-heavy helicopter rides around Perot's burgeoning Tarrant County land holdings.  

Back then, in the spring of 1990, Culbertson's ranch was burdened with enormous debt, and according to the story, Perot dazzled the rancher with promises of a big sale price and generous advance money. On April 10, 1990, Perot sent a letter to Culbertson on personal stationery: "After reviewing our conversation Sunday, I believe that the following basic business deal would be appropriate. Purchase Price: Approximately $4 million...The attorneys will work out the proper structure for taxes and estate planning."

But when Culbertson received a written contract for the sale shortly thereafter, the price had dropped to $3.3 million. Then, after Culbertson reluctantly agreed to the lower price, Perot's people amended the contract, stating that Perot was only obligated to buy part of the land.

Nine days later, a Perot attorney called off the closing--suddenly there were concerns about several title issues, even though the title review period had expired. When Culbertson had taken care of the title concerns eight months later--he received, for example, an easement release from Mobil Pipeline Co.--Perot's people demurred again, claiming that the rancher's attempts to clear the title had only made things worse.

In the meantime, desperate for money, Culbertson borrowed $600,000 from Perot--advance money for the sale, as Culbertson understood it; a mere loan, according to Perot when it all went to court.

Well, the "sale" dragged on for over three years. Perot always had some excuse not to buy the property--he was out of the country, he felt the land had lost its value, he saw additional title defects. Perot began giving Culbertson low-ball offers, which Culbertson refused. Finally, the $600,000 note from Perot became due, and Culbertson could not pay. Perot offered to take title to the land for what Culbertson owed--but the rancher refused.

In fall 1993, Perot's people called the note, and the ranch was sold in foreclosure--to Perot, for $637,361.

Culbertson sued, but died before the case could go to trial. His family subsequently settled the case for a reported $1 million.

Perot aide Frank Zaccanelli, a notorious business shark who, by the way, negotiated the Dallas arena deal, told the Star-Telegram when asked about the Culbertson lawsuit: "The last thing we want to do is get in a fight with an 80-year-old guy that we loaned money to, that we tried to help out and say, 'Listen, pay our bills; here's some money, we just need some collateral.'"

And if you believe that, have I got a great deal for you--a new sports arena in downtown Dallas that won't cost the taxpayers a dime. (This arena is going to cost Dallas taxpayers so much money that I guarantee, if the vote passes, you'll instantly hear the giant sucking sound--to use one of Perot Sr.'s little witticisms--of tax moneys being diverted from other, much more worthy projects around the city.)

Dallas residents who find the seven-year-old Sam Culbertson story instructive should wonder why they've never read a word about it in The Dallas Morning News--the Pulitzer Prize-winning daily that mints money but feels far more comfortable publishing an endless series on Death-Row criminals than one instructive story about the hometown boy--raised on Strait Lane, educated at St. Mark's--who is about to surpass Ray Hunt on the public thievery thermometer.

Instead, The News' idea of covering the proposed arena is this: Print a front-page lead story on December 4, the day after the master agreement is unveiled, titled: "City could pay $20 million beyond tab for building arena." Despite the accuracy of the assertion--hell, reporter Todd Gillman was at the council briefing; he ought to know--the pro-arena faction comes unglued at the bad publicity and complains to the newspaper's brass.

The following day, a longer story is printed to correct the first. It's not labeled a correction, mind you, but is positioned in the same ultra-prominent place on the front page, under a headline precisely as large and bold that reads: "Arena backers say costs haven't grown."

Although Gillman declined to comment on the sausage-making process that is utilized at The News--I know it well; I used to work there--three co-workers of his were too disgusted not to comment, albeit not for attribution. "It started out in the morning with, 'Do a story that fleshes out the details of the deal,'" says one reporter. "Then it becomes something [Publisher] Burl [Osborne] wants. And later in the day, it was the editors going up to see the muckety-mucks. When I picked up the paper, I was surprised it was so obvious a turnabout. They didn't even try to mask it. It sucks."

Says another News reporter: "We did some pretty serious crawling away from our story." (Burl Osborne did not return calls for this story.)  

Despite the hometown newspaper's lengthy Jekyll-and-Hyde coverage of the arena master agreement, it managed to leave out one little point on page 6 that I found most instructive, vis-a-vis Perot's true intentions.

Perot, it seems, specifically asked to be allowed to build an arena with as few as 18,000 seats. And, like everything else he asked for, his wish was granted.

That means we could easily spend $125 million in taxpayer money on a new arena--and an additional $20 million and counting on surrounding infrastructure--so we can get an extra 500 seats for our pathetic basketball team, which can't fill the house now.

That's right--500 seats. (Reunion Arena currently has 17,502 seats for basketball.)

All pro-arena hyperbole to the contrary, this is reality: If the taxpayers vote yes to the new arena, they will be moving their professional sports teams a quarter-mile down the freeway, to an equally remote tract of land, separated--just as Reunion is--from downtown proper by roadways and railroad tracks.

The new arena, like the old one, will be completely surrounded by ugly, uninviting, asphalt parking lots--only this time, patrons will emerge from a new, world-class arena to stare at an abandoned power plant.

All this for a building more than twice as big as Reunion in square footage--with potentially only 500 more seats inside.

So what's going on here? What is this about? It's about money--money for Perot and Dallas Stars owner Tom Hicks, neither of whom want low-priced seats for the masses as much as they want the room to build 120 corporate suites, 135 snack stands, two food courts, 20 merchandise stands, a pro shop, a 200-person restaurant, a 200-person sports bar, and 20,000 square feet of retail space. And the taxpayers won't get a dime of the proceeds.

To use Perot's own words to the Star-Telegram: "We are creative, we are focused, we are aggressive, and we really don't care about the traditional view of the world."

We notice. And on January 17, we'll let you know what we think about it.

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