As far as they were concerned, economist Mark Rosentraub was just another distinguished speaker, addressing just another monthly breakfast meeting of the 49-year-old group--one made up of architects, planners, builders, and concerned citizens interested in studying and trying to positively influence how the Dallas area grows and develops.
True, the council prided itself on its compelling monthly programs on timely issues (all of which are open to the public). And true, unlike other high-brow civic groups in town, this group had no political agenda, no downtown real estate agenda, no establishment agenda. They just lay it on out there. Just like they did on the morning of January 26 at the Top O' The Cliff Club in Oak Cliff.
"My view is Mark's stuff is reasonable and objective," shrugged council vice-president Royce Hanson, a professor and economist at the University of Texas at Dallas. "It's very mainstream in terms of urban economics...Our group wanted to do this topic, and we simply tried to find someone with a strong national reputation who is a good objective analyst of this situation."
The "situation" being, of course, the current crusade to build a new sports arena. Rosentraub's speech was titled: "If You Build It, Will They Come? If You Don't, Will They Go Away? Cities and Professional Sports."
It was a seemingly mild topic, and Rosentraub himself--though he carries an impressive title as director of Indiana University's Center for Urban Policy and the Environment--is an unassuming man of 44 years with curly hair and a natty suit. But after eating a bountiful breakfast of scrambled eggs, hash browns, and hot biscuits, Rosentraub wiped his moustache clean and rose to deliver a surprisingly potent message. His delivery was folksy--tinged with a bit of Borscht Belt humor (he's originally from Brooklyn).
But his message was downright murderous--at least to the cause of building a new arena.
"When you talk about sports and economics, people will say that sports are an engine that will drive the economy. I respond 'Get Out of My Dreams and Into My Car,'" Rosentraub told the group, referring to a well-known pop tune. "I want to get you out of your dreams about sports."
But it was real hard to do--as the surprised, at times pained, faces of the 60 people in the audience made clear. They stared silently at Rosentraub as he rolled chart after chart onto an overhead projector to buttress his argument that the return on a city's up-front investment on a new sports palace is never worth it.
This was a stunning message. After all, the city council, the city manager, the city-paid consultants and the city's daily news media had all been claiming just the opposite for more than a year. Lose the teams, they had all intoned, and it would be economic doom for Dallas.
"There was sort of a stunned silence in the room," recalls one listener, Cherryl Peterman, the acting director of the city of Dallas' economic development department. "A woman in front of me kept turning around and saying, 'Very sobering. Very sobering.'"
Oh, you could say that.
The most striking thing about Rosentraub's speech to the planning council last month was the absence of three important players in the arena negotiations: members of the Dallas City Council, City Manager John Ware and anyone from The Dallas Morning News.
All but Ware were explicitly invited. Only a single council representative--Mayor Pro Tem Domingo Garcia--showed up.
If they had deigned to appear, they would have learned some exceedingly useful things about the lousy economics of sports arenas, the strong-arm tactics of major-league sports franchises, and the best way for cities to beat the bad odds on both when they sit down at the negotiating table to do an arena deal.
Domingo Garcia not only attended, he listened and took copious notes. Unlike his brethren, he was eager to seek out new information on the topic--information he knew he would never get from the city manager's staff, which is bound and determined to build a new arena.
(This week, City Auditor Dan Paul confirmed what the Dallas Observer has been reporting for three months: the city manager's staff not only withholds crucial information from the council; it lies to the council and plays coverup when it gets caught doing it.)
"We have not heard this side," Garcia told me after Rosentraub's speech. "We just hear that the Mavs and the Stars will have this kind of impact on the economy. And sales will go up in the West End. But we never hear the concerns--that when we make such a heavy investment in the sports sector that we are foregoing other, more profitable infrastructure initiatives."