Why Saturday's Vote Wasn't the Most Significant on the Hotel and Fighting Mayor Tom Leppert and City Hall is Futile

Now that I've had some time to reflect on Saturday night's narrow loss at the polls by Harlan Crow and the 41,287 Dallas voters opposed to a taxpayer-owned hotel, I realize the most important vote on this issue took place almost 15 months ago.

Dallas will get its convention center hotel. The only question left is what it's gonna cost taxpayers. But don't worry about that. They'll figure it out later.

That's what I wrote in February 2008 after the city council approved placing a $500,000 option on a plot of land in front of the convention center known as the Chavez parcel. Even though the council's official approval of the $42 million purchase of the land wouldn't take place until May of that year, I knew it would green-light the hotel project and feared it would be publicly owned.

In fact, the council's purchase of the potential site for the hotel was so significant that we tackled the issue in an April 2008 cover story, in which Crow predicted the hotel would be publicly owned. He also said, "They don't want a vote. They'd lose a vote."

It's safe to say the pro-hotel'ers didn't want a vote, but they didn't lose it, although it was much closer than they would have liked. And in trying to find the good in Proposition 1's outcome, I immediately thought back to the land buy, which would have been one of the negative fallouts had the anti-hotel'ers won.

If voters approved Prop. 1, taxpayers would be stuck paying for a $42 million plot of land that serves no purpose. Of course, this is why Mayor Tom Leppert and the city moved so aggressively to purchase the property as a potential site for the hotel.

The money to pay back the certificates of obligation on the property is coming from convention and event services until the bond issuance on the hotel. If there's no hotel, there's no bond issuance, and then payment for the land comes straight from the taxpayers' pockets.

Surely the city could have changed the site back into a parking lot, but paying that much dough for a parking lot that won't pay taxes makes absolutely no sense. This probably would have made a great argument to convince folks to vote no had it not exposed how ill-conceived the decision was to put the taxpayers in such a dicey situation.

Raymond said "the matter is settled" now that citizens had their chance to have a say.
Raymond said "the matter is settled" now that citizens had their chance to have a say.
Sam Merten

At Saturday night's shindig at Tucker, Harlan Crow showed no signs of bitterness. He proudly looked on as Anne Raymond addressed what remained of the crowd around 10 p.m. and read a prepared statement, which Crow sent today as a letter to Leppert and the city council. The only difference between Raymond's statement and his letter, which you can read below, is Crow's reference to his friendship with Leppert.

"This has been a difficult campaign for both sides," he wrote. "Over the last 20 years, we have had a good mutual friendship and it is my hope that despite the heat of the election that friendship can be restored, maintained and enhanced."

Crow, who was wearing his customary golf shirt and khaki pants, didn't seem fazed by the loss or drain from his bank account, which will be north of $5 million. "I'll get over it before I get home," he told Unfair Park.

Brooks Love, campaign manager for Citizens Against the Taxpayer-Owned Hotel, said starting a new coalition against one that has been in place for decades proved difficult.

"It's the establishment, and it's hard to beat them," Love said. "They're big, there's a lot of them and they're very well organized."

Love has battled the establishment before as campaign manager for TrinityVote and said there isn't anything he would have done differently. "Ultimately, at the end of the day, you're talking about a hotel. You can only get people so energized."

When you have a gap of just 2,095 votes, it suggests a campaign maneuver here or there may have been the difference, but let's assume they ran a near-perfect campaign for the sake of argument. Even though a $500 million hotel resonates with only so many people, what does it say about the wisdom of anyone challenging the city in the future?

The anti-hotel side had:

  • The ability to outspend the city.
  • An issue that could be easily summed up in one sentence: Do you believe the taxpayers should own a $500 million hotel?
  • The benefit of having a referendum on a big-ticket project during one of the worst economic times in U.S. history.
  • Mayor Leppert and other council members lying about money that the convention center would lose if the hotel wasn't built, and DCVB CEO Phillip Jones lying about a convention booking contingent on the hotel.
  • Leppert's credibility questioned after he clearly mislead voters during the Trinity River toll road campaign.

Certainly there are other things that they had in their favor (and the pro-hotel'ers had plenty on their side too), but those are five biggies that are hard to overlook. And, again, assuming no significant tactical errors were made in the campaign, you have to look at Saturday's outcome and wonder who would dare fight the city again -- especially the Leppert regime, which enjoys the support of the Dallas Citizens Council and nearly every politician in the city.

If the referendum was indeed on the mayor, then it looks like he's poised to win a second term in 2011. Even though selling the bonds on the hotel will prove difficult, he'll continue to face challenges with the Trinity River Corridor Project and the council has more than a $100 million budget deficit, Leppert will find a way to come out on top.

Because that's what he does. He wins. Harlan Crow's letter to Mayor Leppert

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