Last night, Mayor Mike Rawlings hosted a community forum at Cedar Crest Golf Course, billed in the invitation as an "update on the City of Dallas." Backed by council members Dwaine Caraway and Tennell Atkins and a large supporting cast of other city officials, he tried to reassure the crowd: City Hall hasn't forgotten about the southern sector. But the audience pressed him on many issues -- flow control and access to groceries stores, among them -- that seem to suggest otherwise.
"There's no agenda," Rawlings told a predominantly black audience of around 100. "We're not voting on anything. We're just talking." But everyone who stood up to ask the mayor a question had to follow one ground rule: "Start with what you appreciate about Dallas," the mayor said. "There's got to be something."
Rawlings himself was pretty bullish on the state of the city, telling the crowd, "You're very blessed to live in Dallas." He referenced the recent presentation by the GOP's favorite pollster Frank Luntz, saying, "In Dallas, 65 percent of people believe the best days are ahead of us. ... And the minority community are more optimistic than the Anglo community."
Rawlings talked a lot about new development coming to the city that he feels should reinforce that optimism: the recently opened Omni Hotel, the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge opening in March that will connect west Dallas to downtown, a new performing arts center and improvements to the parks system.
"I'm from the advertising business," Rawlings said, where, he added, he learned that people seem to like the phrase "new and improved." "Dallas is even more new and improved. ... Our places, things and objects, we seem to be doing OK there. The things are there, but we've got to have the people." And people, he said, are attracted to a city "by economic development. ... That's where I'm going to be spending a lot of my time."
And he promised that a lot of that development will be in the southern part of town. "When people ask me 'Why did you decide to become mayor?'" Rawlings said, "I say, because South Dallas has so much opportunity. Everything I look at, I ask, 'Is it right for southern Dallas?'"
Rawlings acknowledged some of the most pressing issues quickly, saying "we've got to get" grocery stores in the south and demolish some of the "trashy houses" there. Caraway and Atkins praised him for his concern for the southern part of the city. "We didn't have to push the mayor to call this meeting," Caraway said.
The first questions Rawlings dealt with from the audience -- reading from green comment cards people had filled out ahead of time -- were all about blight, as people wondered how they could get substandard houses in their neighborhoods torn down. Assistant City Manager Joey Zapata, in charge of code compliance, urged them to call 311 to get inspectors to come out, something Caraway echoed. "What we have to do is pick up the phone," he said. "If we continue to be complacent and allow that raggedy house to stay on our street, then that concentration will go somewhere else." (Though, as Colleen McCain Nelson proved only last week, not even the mayor can get City Hall to clean up southern Dallas's trash with a phone call.)
Atkins added that too often residents "talk to your neighbor and your friends, but we don't get the message." Rawlings went a step further, saying southern sector residents should "call 311, call your city council person, and call the mayor's office. Let's get this on." He is, he said, "so proud of Paul Quinn students, who stood up and said, 'We feel this way about something.'" (Throughout the night, a large contingent of Paul Quinn students, many wearing matching yellow T-shirts, looked less than impressed. After the meeting, they declined to comment.)
On the grocery store issue, director of Economic Development Karl Zavitkovsky acknowledged, "We've had some success, but it's limited." He promised that the city has had "a lot of dialogue" with major grocers; he promised at least one new Wal-Mart -- you know the one, near IH-35 and Ledbetter -- soon, and said the city is negotiating with a "neighborhood grocer" as well.
"I think there's a perception by the investors that you can't make money in southern Dallas," Rawlings said. "It's not true. ... There's a lot of mythology we need to bust."
But Rawlings wasn't shy about saying that "urban development" might require the city to take advantage of eminent domain. "I am by nature someone who if a person doesn't want to step up and do what's right for the neighborhood, I become an enemy of that person," he said. "That's just me personally. That's not the attorneys talking. Frankly, I think at times we're a little too shy on that issue."
When flow control came up next, Rawlings defended that decision too. He called McCommas Bluff "the best landfill in the state of Texas," adding, "It's world-class. It's a beautiful place." And he wants it to make as much money for the city as possible, he said. "I'm a Dallas person. I don't like somebody making money off of us. I've been accused of caring too much about money, but I want that money for Dallas." He promised too that flow control would act as a "checkbook" for economic development in the south, including those grocery stores. "We need money to spur that economic growth," he said. Plus, he added, "They're turning trash into energy. This could be the greatest green project the city of Dallas has."
Sanitation manager Mary Nix promised that there is "no expansion of the landfill planned. That's a piece of disinformation that's gotten out there." And Atkins and Caraway defended flow control as something that benefits city revenues without harming residents.
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"Safety first," Caraway said. "If this were something that was going to kill us, that's another thing."
In addition to garbage, residents made it clear they feel burdened by the city's group homes, which many said are disproportionately located in the south. Again, Zapata and Caraway urged residents to call 311 to report the bad homes. "We do our best to try and track them," Zapata said, adding that it's difficult because they can "spring up overnight," and disappear just as fast. Rawlings too said the city council is "frustrated" by the number of bad homes, and trying to address the issue.
Overall, City Hall representatives tried to cram a lot of reassurance into one night. Rawlings closed by urging south Dallas residents to "get involved."
"Make the phone calls and vote," he said. "The things that breaks my heart is how few people vote. ... This is our future, and we've got to make sure we have great people like this leading."