Caraway Not Exactly Carried Away with Facts About Convention Center Hotel

As mentioned in yesterday's wrap-up of the big convention center hotel vote, Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway made a motion to amend the item right after council member Vonciel Hill's motion to divide it narrowly failed. Caraway proposed changing the date for final approval of the land purchase from May 28 to either May 21 or May 28.

Dave Neumann said he was OK with the amendment, but he wanted an explanation from Caraway. Mayor Leppert quickly chimed in to explain that the paperwork might be ready in time for the May 21 council briefing, so this thing can get the green light one week ahead of schedule.

Why was Leppert answering for Caraway?

Well, the answer can be found in something else mentioned yesterday -- a tease about a conversation I had with Caraway on Tuesday afternoon. Let's jump to find out why Caraway's comments exemplify one of the biggest concerns many of the Friends appear have about the hotel project, which is: Most of the people voting on this issue have no idea what's going on.

While reporting this piece in this week's paper version of Unfair Park, I asked Sheffie Kadane, a member of the council's Economic Development Committee, about the hush-hush meeting during which it was decided that the hotel would be publicly owned. Kadane told me that despite previously opposing public ownership of the hotel, he changed his mind after city staff told him the city would actually make money by owning it. This was shocking news to me, so I asked him to explain how the city would be able to profit.

"I'm just not real clear on all of it," he said. "From what they showed us, they proved that by us owning it, we'll come out ahead on it."

Right after that comment, Assistant City Manager A.C. Gonzalez walked by. Kadane grabbed him to answer a question he could not. To Gonzalez's credit, he spent time walking me through the general argument for owning the hotel, which is included in the story.

What baffled me was how Gonzalez was able to explain to me what arguments were made, yet Kadane couldn't tell me why he cast a significant vote to move forward with publicly owning the hotel. Was it possible that committee members were clueless about what they had done?

So I called Caraway, also a member of the committee, who had previously told me he wanted more private than public involvement in the project. I asked Caraway what made him change his mind.

"In going through as much as we've gone through the process and looking at it, it now makes a little bit more sense for us to travel the road that we are traveling in order for us to get a convention center hotel," he said.

Caraway mentioned how Dallas lost out on big projects like Texas Motor Speedway, Lone Star Park and a new stadium for the Dallas Cowboys. This was the same sales pitch he used at the February 13 council meeting when he voted to put an option on the land for the hotel, and he also mentioned them in Wednesday's agenda meeting.

Yes, but a hotel is much different than a sporting venue, since, the people going to the latter are from around here. But how many locals are going to spend the night at the convention center hotel? He admitted that the hotel was more of a national draw, but said there will be plenty of local benefits -- such as the creation of jobs.

I then asked why he was convinced that it was best for taxpayers to own a hotel.

"I guess when you look in my area of town -- how we have suffered so with these little, raunchy motels -- anytime someone talks about a first-class hotel, folks like myself, we do get excited," he said.

Then he went back to how the hotel would create vibrancy and jobs downtown. Caraway was selling me on the hotel, but without addressing the benefits of public ownership. "When you look at it, we have the deadest downtown in the United States of America," he said, "and we gotta do something about it."

Once again, I wondered why the city should own the hotel.

"I don't necessarily feel that the city should get into this business to stay in the business," Caraway said. "I think as the negotiations continue, I think the city will find itself finding a way to ease backward a little bit, I'm sure. At this particular time, to get the project started, yes, I do see the city taking a lead role at this particular point, but I don't know how long that will take place. I mean, who knows? Once this thing gets going, who else might step up to the plate and take the city right out of the deal?"

Someone else stepping up to take the city out of the deal? At which point, Caraway was reminded of his vote in the committee meeting, in which he endorsed full public ownership of the hotel.

"We really don't have a choice if we're going to step forward," he said. "I think there are a lot of politics in the middle of this thing as well. Just as some of my colleagues, a couple of them, have problems and would love to see a referendum go before the people because of the magnitude of the $40 million for the purchase of property. Well, those same colleagues, unfortunately but fortunately, have a double standard on their thinking because the Mercantile was built with approximately $61 million. And those folks supported that, and never ever one moment suggested a referendum. Are you aware of that?"

I asked if he thought voters should have a say in such a massive project.

"It's another cost of $1 million of taxpayers' money to hold a referendum, as it was with the Trinity," Caraway said. "With those $2 million, we could do a whole lot across the river. We could do a whole lot in the southern part of our city."

Caraway went back to telling me why Dallas needs this hotel, mentioning the development around the American Airlines Center as an example of taking a chance and seeing it pay off. I reminded him that the $125 million for the AAC was approved by voters.

"I understand that," he said. "That was something that the voters had to deal with."

If the voters had a say in the AAC, then why would he not want them voting on a much bigger project? He said this project was smaller than the Mercantile, and then said he'd rather spend $40 million to clean up Oak Cliff and Pleasant Grove.

Somehow, the elephant in the room in the form of a $500-million publicly-owned hotel was not being acknowledged. He clearly was talking about the land purchase, so I redirected him back to the hotel project, asking about the risk of taxpayers losing money.

"I don't think you go into all deals thinking that you're going to lose," he said.

I said maybe he should look at St. Louis, which followed a similar path as Dallas to hotel ownership, and now taxpayers there are burdened with covering the hotel's debt because it isn't coming close to meeting expectations.

"But who wants to go to St. Louis?" Caraway said.

"Who wants to come to Dallas?" I said.

"Everybody," Caraway said.

So, I asked him, since he claimed Dallas' downtown was the worst, then why would people want to come here?

"It's coming back to life now," he said. "Downtown Dallas is about to pop wide open again. It's just like the stock market. One day it's dead, the next day it's alive."

And still, he hadn't addressed the issue of why the city should own a hotel. One last shot. And ...?

"I think that there are going to be some other people that are going to have risk involved," he said, mentioning that the hotel's operator would also bear some risk. I reminded him that the city would be owning the hotel.

"Is it going to be 100 percent?" he asked.

"That's the way it is now," I told him.

"Oh, then I don't know," Caraway said. "I don't think it's going to end up being 100 percent."

OK. So. One more time: Why should the city own the hotel?

"We're in a situation here where you're damned if you do and damned if you don't," he says.

All right, this wasn't working. Time for a new question. I asked if he felt city staff convinced him that publicly owning the hotel made the most sense.

"I think the city staff convinced us of the need for it," Caraway said, "and we'll attack that with the urgency of trying to move this process forward so that we can achieve that goal."

The need for it? I wanted to know if staff members did a good enough job of convincing him about the importance of owning it.

"I mean, we're losing, man," he said. "We're losing."

Caraway then talked about all the business that the convention center is losing because it lacks an attached hotel, claiming that conventions are saying they won't come to Dallas without a convention center hotel.

I offered up an analogy about swimming pools that I put in the comments of a previous blog entry, basically asking if Caraway's friends told him that they wouldn't come to his house anymore because he didn't have a swimming pool and all of their other friends had one, would that mean it was time to install a pool in his backyard as a knee-jerk reaction?

"Well, buy a rubber one," he said. "I'm not arguing with you. It makes all the sense in the world."

Much like many of the council members, Caraway aligned himself with Mayor Leppert after last year's elections. When Leppert first took office, everybody was talking about how, with a new mayor and seven new council members, it was going to be a new day at City Hall. So far, becoming one of Leppert's closest allies has been great for Caraway and the other council members; for folks like Angela Hunt, not so much.

The vote yesterday approved purchasing the land, along with directing City Manager Mary Suhm to pursue negations to build a hotel owned by the city. Yet these two items moved forward, with blinding speed, behind closed doors.

Angela Hunt understands this flaw in the process. So does Vonciel Hill. Even The Dallas Morning News will not endorse this kind of rash decision-making.

Caraway once told me:"I don't really know more than what I've been presented, but if I find that something presented was not true, I'll be the first to scream."

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Sam Merten
Contact: Sam Merten