This almost happened once before, you should know. About a decade ago. An outside investor from Chicago—and maybe one other from "up north," though nobody can recall the specifics, maybe because they've tried to forget it ever happened—came in and tried to get the landowners to sell out. Only, the property owners couldn't agree on the deal. Typical. They never could agree on much, truth be told, which is how Deep Ellum went from boom to bust in about a decade's time—from a melting pot of grungy live-music joints and fancy eateries to a cauldron of crime and, finally, decay.
And Scott Beck's deal almost didn't happen. Just a few months back, it looked like his desire to buy Deep Ellum—where, he likes to say, he came of age when he was about 16, like every other kid he knew back then—had stalled.
No. Click. Not interested. Click. Thanks, but I'll pass. Click. You crazy? Click. No way in hell. Click. Click. Click. Again and again and again: No.
They were a stubborn lot, those longtime landowners who were all too eager to hang on to their dilapidated properties. Not one was interested in hearing what Barry Annino, who'd been brought in by the Becks to feel out the landowners, had to offer in exchange for their land. Most of them had been in possession of their parcels for years. Some names—Okowita, Rachofsky and Schwartz among them—have been inscribed upon yellowed land plats for decades. And they wanted to keep it that way. Wanted to keep their land. They wanted Annino to leave them alone.
"That's everybody's response," says Annino, who, as president of the Deep Ellum Foundation, has long made sure the landowners had City Hall's ear. He laughs. "'No' is always the first thing."
But Annino, who's also been brokering real estate in the beleaguered neighborhood for the past 16 years, had all the yes-men he needed—three, only three, but the three most powerful landowners in all of Deep Ellum. They're the men about whom people speak when they talk about Deep Ellum landowners: Don Cass, Don Blanton and Al Jernigan.
"The grandfathers of Deep Ellum as we know it," Beck says.
They are the three wise men who, way back in 1982, marshaled their forces to create what would become the Deep Ellum Planned Development District two years later. Theirs would become the blueprint for the neighborhood's success in the 1980s through the mid-1990s, when nightclubs and restaurants and retailers thrived and the sidewalks were thick with patrons and the tourists from Plano, and you would have sworn Elm, Main and Commerce streets were the center of the city. Theirs would become the most beloved venues spread amongst the historic neighborhood's hallowed grounds: Club Dada, the Green Room, Deep Ellum Café and Club Clearview, among others.
"I consider Deep Ellum my baby," says Cass, who came to Dallas from Paris, Texas, in 1957 and began buying property in Deep Ellum in 1980, when it was little more than a ghost town full of empty shells. "It needed someone to breathe life into it, and I did that. I can say I was there when the Green Room was doing $350,000 a month. I saw that. It was wall-to-wall people down here, all of 'em having a good time. But that time went back over the hill and down in the valley."
And over the course of the last three years, all three men said, Yes, absolutely. As in: Yes, they were ready to get out of Deep Ellum. Finally, after all these years, it was closing time. Time to sell to Scott Beck, who, along with Annino, wouldn't stop pestering till they sold, willingly and, finally, gladly.
That, ultimately, is how Annino got the holdouts and skeptics to sell their properties—because Cass, Blanton and Jernigan were doing it. Simple as that. Though most everyone could see the writing on the wall, and it wasn't just graffiti: It's time to go. Because there was some kid standing on the corner with a big wad of cash in one hand and a promise in the other to make Deep Ellum great again.
"All of us who own a chunk of Deep Ellum have our own ideas about how it ought to be developed, and, as you know, that creates a problem simply because everybody's not going the same direction," Cass says. "We all talked about this before we decided to do it. We believe the Becks will come in and do some things that need to be done. Some of this stuff down here needs to be saved, some needs some TLC, and some needs to change. You keep all the new, it's not good. You keep all the old, it's not good. You need a good mix. That's my philosophy. And I think the Becks are just the people who will do it."