Sticker Shock

Last week the Mavericks came close to winning an NBA championship, and the W, an elegant new hotel, opened in the development surrounding the city's new sports arena. So now we hear a certain drumbeat: Dallas Mayor Laura Miller and the people who opposed city subsidies to the arena have been proven wrong.

Dallas Morning News columnist James Ragland wrote last week: "I shudder to think what that part of downtown would look like these days if the arena deal had fallen through."

Morning News architecture critic David Dillon last week remembered the entire plan to develop the area around the arena as an effort by Ross Perot Jr. to rid the city of pollution. In tones of Genesis, Dillon described Perot's act of creation: "And then he turned his attention," Dillon wrote, "to acquiring the 75-acre brownfield that TXU wanted to dump and that the city was willing to subsidize with $135 million in bond money.

"The strategy worked. Victory Park, which includes American Airlines Center, is now a 75-acre boomtown, with a 251-room superluxurious W Hotel, opening today, plus condos, restaurants, shops and bars sprouting like mushrooms after a spring rain. (Dillon did come back Sunday with a very thoughtful piece in which he raised the question whether Victory, which is outside the freeway loop, may be bleeding downtown.)

Even our own Robert Wilonsky, editor of the Dallas Observer's blog, "Unfair Park," rhapsodized last week about the opening of the W and suggested broadly that Miller had been wrong.

Between Ragland, Dillon and Wilonsky, I'm not sure I've heard this much bullshit in my life.

Where to begin?

The development around the arena is called "Victory," as if it were a Broadway musical. Victory is now at 33 percent the size backers promised it would be back when they talked the City Council into signing a very one-sided contract with them.

The projections called for the total taxable value of property in the development--excluding the arena, which is nontaxable--to be $384.4 million this year. According to information provided to me by the city's Department of Economic Development, the Victory development is worth about $128.7 million now, one-third of what was expected.

Before we all start doing the hula and losing our pants over what a wild success it is, could we at least wait for it to do what it promised?

Point Two: We are beset by some kind of municipal mind-block over the question of whether properties in Victory pay local property taxes. The bottom line is that the properties within Victory do pay local property taxes at the same rate we all do, but most of that money gets diverted back into the pockets of Victory before the money can get to City Hall.

The new W Hotel pays full taxes, just like you and me. People who buy condos or other property in Victory pay full property taxes. But 85 percent or more of that money doesn't go into the city's general fund like the money you and I pay. Instead it goes into a special fund dedicated to Victory.

No wonder they call it Victory.

This brings us to two key issues: How much money have we either already given to Victory or promised to give them in years ahead, and what is that money for? In 1997 when the new taxes were to go before city voters for approval, Mayor Ron Kirk swore, "Our costs on the arena are $125 million, and they're not going to go a penny higher." That was never true, not even for a split-second.

In 1998, we--you and I, the taxpayers--took on $141.2 million in debt in order to finance the construction of the arena, which cost $230 million to build. Our $141.2 million went to pay $110 million toward construction of the arena, $15 million for "infrastructure" and $16.2 million for interest on the bonds. We agreed to pay for this debt by putting a new 5 percent tax on car rentals and a 2 percent tax on hotel rooms within the city, making us that much less competitive for convention business with surrounding cities.

Partners Ross Perot Jr., who owned the basketball team at the time, and Tom Hicks, who owns the hockey team, put in $105 million.

But we're not done with the subsidy. Perot and Hicks said they couldn't possibly develop the area around the new arena if the city wouldn't agree to pay them back for even more of the new streets and sewers needed to service their own development. So in a separate deal, the City council agreed to chip in yet another subsidy of $25 million, putting the taxpayer tab so far for Ron Kirk's promised $125 million deal at $166.2 million.