The facilitator

Christy Morrow is hard at work on this Tuesday evening inside the Munger Place United Methodist Church, where more than 100 people have gathered for yet another meeting about Albertson's request to change a zoning law so it can build a massive grocery store in Old East Dallas. Shortly before the meeting begins, Morrow spies a reporter and bounces to her feet. She's quick to perform the job she's been hired to do.

"Do you have any questions?" Morrow asks, her voice bubbling with enthusiasm. There are no questions at this time, but that's OK, the perky Morrow says, because she'll be right here, ready to answer any questions at any time. "We'll talk later," she says, winking and smiling. And then, Morrow bends her knees, gives a two thumbs-up gesture, and says, "Cool!"

Morrow, who is employed by the Uptown public relations firm of Gallier and Wittenberg, is the newest member of "Team Albertson's," and she's been brought on board to help get the latest story about the 3-month-old controversy out to the public. This is the scoop: Albertson's has created a whole new design for the store, and as a result, the neighborhoods' worries have been resolved. While there may be a few lingering complaints, Team Albertson's reports, the project now enjoys "overwhelming" support among residents, who agree that the store will reduce crime and revitalize the blighted neighborhood.

That's the story Team Albertson's is busy spinning and, judging from a couple of recent and well-timed media reports, Morrow is earning her paycheck.

The problem, store opponents say, is Morrow's spin-doctoring doesn't exactly convey the truth of what's happening or, to be more precise, what's not happening in their ongoing standoff with the Boise, Idaho-based grocery giant. They also say Albertson's new public relations campaign violates an agreement they and company representatives made not to debate the issue in the press as long as the two sides were participating in a voluntary mediation process, which began in mid-December.

"They are trying to convince the public at large that they have addressed our concerns," says Virginia McAlester, a member of the Swiss Avenue Historic District and a veteran of East Dallas zoning battles. "The only thing that has changed is the packaging."

Like all good flacks, Christy Morrow understands how important information can be and the advantages to be had when it is controlled. Thus, the Dallas Observer's phone rang shortly before Christmas. It was Morrow calling to let the paper know that she's an "East Dallas" resident and that, if a reporter were considering writing a story about Albertson's, she would be happy to discuss any ideas.

"I just wanted to let you know that I'm here for you," said Morrow, who lives on the eastern side of Dallas, though her Forest Hills home--located within blocks of White Rock Lake--is a considerable distance from the trenches of Old East Dallas. When asked, Morrow confirmed that she was handling public relations for Albertson's, though she didn't mention the new public relations campaign she would roll out in January.

Nowadays, Morrow is rather cautious when describing the work she's doing for Albertson's, preferring that she not be quoted in her professional capacity. "I'm just a facilitator; I'm not a spokesperson," she explains. "I'm here to interface with community media as needed. I think it's just for them [Albertson's] overall to do a better job in communicating the services they want to provide to the media."

In December, when Morrow offered her assistance in discussing any story ideas about Albertson's as a concerned East Dallas resident, neither company officials nor their critics were supposed to be bending reporters' ears.

During the second week of December, company representatives and neighborhood residents participated in voluntary mediation coordinated by the Greater Dallas Community Relations Commission and intended to find some middle ground before January 28, when the city plan commission is scheduled to make a decision on the application for zoning changes. During the hearing, three representatives from each side agreed to several ground rules that community relations commission member Patty Bates reportedly suggested. (Bates declined to comment on the matter, saying the details of the mediation are confidential.)

"One of the things we agreed to--that both sides agreed to--was we would not talk to the press," says Pete Vaka, a store opponent who participated in the mediation. "Since then, Albertson's has done very well [in generating media coverage]. That violates the agreement we had."

For her part, Morrow is a little foggy about the details of the mediation ground rules, but she kind of, sort of, denies the suggestion that the company is violating any real agreement.

"Patty said she hoped nothing happens between now and the next meeting that would have an effect on the mediation or whatnot. She did say I hope there's not any--," Morrow says, pausing for some time while she searches for the right response. "What did she say? She did say something about nothing in the media. It wasn't anything formal. I can't emphasize enough that immediately I started to call and get [another] mediation set up."  

That mediation hasn't happened yet, but Albertson's has achieved some success in getting out its side of the story. From the looks of a news story aired on Channel 8 (WFAA-TV) two weeks ago, Albertson's new spin is how its store will revitalize a crime-ridden neighborhood.

That report opened with footage of what appeared to be a homeless person, a plastic garbage bag slung over his shoulder, walking past a boarded-up building near the site of the proposed Albertson's store. In a voice-over, reporter Byron Harris informed viewers that they were a mile and a half from downtown Dallas, and he asked them to "listen carefully." After a brief silence, the sound of five crisp pops rang out.

"Those were gunshots," Harris reported. "This block near Live Oak and Collett is home to vagrancy, drug deals, and prostitution. But this story is not about crime. It's about a grocery store."

After a close-up shot of empty beer bottles scattered on a vacant lot where Albertson's hopes to build the store, Harris and Albertson's architect Tony Callaway casually strolled the site and chatted about how Albertson's has altered its plans for the store in order to meet neighborhood concerns.

Days later, on January 11, an op-ed piece appeared in The Dallas Morning News under the headline "Albertson's alters design to fit neighborhood." The article was penned by Albertson's senior real estate manager Bob Rissing, who informed the public that Albertson's "sincerely appreciates the open discussion" with neighborhood residents, and that's why the company is "participating in a mediation program with its most ardent opponents." Rissing also reported that its proposed project enjoys "overwhelming support" and that its redesign will "address many of the expressed concerns."

The article appeared a day before Albertson's redesign was unveiled to East Dallas residents during a January 12 meeting at the Munger Place United Methodist Church. To prepare for the meeting, Morrow and her teammates prepared a fancy, fold-out brochure as well as a 46-page, neatly bound information packet that included pictures of the store's new design and lots of fluff about such things as "Albertson's corporate philanthropy" and examples of its "continued neighborhood involvement and environmental contributions."

As part of the makeover, Albertson's is reducing the size of the store, designing it to fit architecturally into the neighborhood, adding more landscaping, and creating a park on a sliver of grass left over at the corner of the site along Live Oak Street.

"It's not expressed as one big store. It's a series of smaller stores that reflects what's inside Albertson's. Inside it's going to be expressed as a marketplace. The bakery will look like a little bakery inside the store," Morrow explains, adding that the store is also being "expressed as a two-story building because almost everything in the area is two stories."

Does that mean the store will be two stories?
"No," Morrow says. "It's a one-story."
In other words, the company has added a façade to the front of the building, which will still be one big, four-sided brick building. It also relocated the store's position on the site and reduced its size from 63,000 square feet to 59,943 square feet. The layout was revised on December 2--about a week before the first mediation took place.

City Plan Commissioner Rick Leggio, who met with Morrow to review the redesign, says the differences he sees are minor, while the fundamental complaint neighborhood residents have with Albertson's--its request to turn back zoning laws they've spent nearly three decades fighting for--remains unresolved.

"Number one, they want to take residentially zoned land and make it commercial. That has not changed," Leggio says. "In my mind, the scale [of the store] hasn't really changed. With scale goes things like traffic. Impact on traffic, to my mind, has not significantly changed."

Leggio, who won't say how he'll vote when the case comes before the commission next week, says he was curious about why Albertson's felt it necessary to hire a public relations person to explain the redesign to him. "When [Morrow] came in the door, I said to her, 'Nothing personal, but why is a PR person here to brief me on a zoning case?'" Leggio says. "She got all upset when I said that."

Although he did not attend the mediation, Leggio says he, too, understood that both sides had agreed not to try the issue in the press while the mediation was ongoing. Responding to the pro-Albertson's reports that appeared days before the company unveiled the redesign, Leggio says that it's "funny how that works."  

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