This just in: Democracy actually works if you let it. And that’s why the Dallas Park Board shot down the deal last week with the private rowing club that wanted to build a clubhouse in a city park.
The demise of the Dallas United Crew floating clubhouse on White Rock Lake was not, as most of the news coverage painted it, out and out class warfare. It was only maybe partial class warfare.
For newcomers: The classes involved here would be the people of the city Of Dallas versus the people of Highland Park and University Park, two adjacent enclave communities commonly called collectively, “The Park Cities,” where residents tend to be more affluent than typical city people.
Dallas United Crew used to be called the Park Cities Rowing Club. It changed its name three years ago when it began approaching Dallas about building a clubhouse on White Rock Lake, which is city of Dallas property in East Dallas.
A whole lot of really great class warfare has happened since then at Dallas City Hall, the kind I love, but not so much the upstairs/downstairs kind between rich and regular people but more, I would say, between people who stick up for the city’s interests versus people who think the city should be a doormat. The best example of the doormat mentality was the incredibly bad deal the city entered into with promoters of a “horse park” near the Trinity River — I still don’t know why horses need a park — chronicled here last year by Eric Nicholson.
The first proposals for a Park Cities — excuse me, “Dallas United Crew” — rowing club smelled a lot like the same sort of one-sided, good-for-them, bad-for-us transaction.
Three years ago, however, people on both sides of the rowing club idea devoted a good deal of time and effort to getting to know each other. Some differences were ironed out. A scheme emerged that looked hopeful to most parties. Sadly, not much has happened since then, either in the way of fund-raising or construction.
But I was taken aback last week when I saw that the Park Board had voted to kill the 3-year-old contract for the deal. I was taken further aback when I read the news coverage making it sound like a straight-up shoot-out between haves and have-nots. I really thought we had moved beyond that aspect of it.
So it turns out we had. This really wasn’t a rich people versus poor people deal. Well, not exactly. It was more of a public rights versus private rights issue, expanded and exposed through a more rigorous democratic process than what we were used to seeing at City Hall just a few years ago. This process was driven by the presence now of more people down there of a mind to stick up for the public interest rather than just roll for the money.
Call that class warfare if you want. I call it democracy.
I spoke to Mark Clayton, who represents East Dallas and the White Rock Lake area on the Dallas City Council. “From my perspective, I’m still willing to help them [Dallas United] have a presence at the lake," he said. "But my opinion is, and I won’t back off this opinion, that you do not use public land for private enterprise when the public cannot benefit.”
His definition of public benefit is more robust than what that horse park, for example, has offered — always something in the line of a feel-good charitable event like Poor Kids on a Horse Day. Clayton wants to see some kind of walk-up public portal to the rowing clubhouse, maybe boat rentals, for example, where the public doesn’t have to be awarded a scholarship in order to use its own lake.
Now, I’m aware that I’m adopting a certain supercilious tone here that might confer the impression the boat club people have been stinky snobs about this. That’s not true. They’ve been trying to figure this thing out and get it right from the beginning.
Belinda McDonnell, president of Dallas United Crew, told me she thought her organization had been doing what the city wanted it to do:
“What we heard from the Park Board and the City Council back in 2012 was that we needed to be able to provide programs as part of this that could engage a broader aspect of the community. So we have done tremendous work in the last three years to do that.
“All of those things I have just highlighted were free programs at great cost to Dallas United Crew, but it shows our commitment to the community. Our goal for our project was not to be a private rowing club but to really be able to offer programs to Dallas and the community that could help aid the health and vitality of the community and have a very open door policy.”
But it is, after all, a private club. And rather than just hand them the keys to a major public asset, as was done with the park for horses, the public’s representatives in this case scrubbed the deal a little harder and pressed for more detail. Which wasn’t easy.
When the contract was reviewed by the finance committee of the Park Board in the first week of December, the assistant city attorney assigned to committee for some bizarre reason told the board members on the committee that they were not allowed to ask questions. So they sat on their hands and watched while Dallas United Crew showed them a pretty PowerPoint presentation.
Well, you know, pretty PowerPoint presentations are to public bodies what the poisoned apple was to Snow White. They induce “The Sleeping Death.” After that meeting, the committee voted overwhelmingly in favor of the pretty PowerPoint and probably went home thinking it had all been a dream anyway.
A week later, however, when the contract came before the full Park Board, members of the board began asking the tough questions they had been forbidden to ask in committee. Park Board member Becky Rader told me she had a list of questions saved up: “Why haven’t you been able to raise the funding? Where are you in the funding? What’s the percentage of minorities?”
Rader told me she and Clayton had met with Dallas United Crew before that Park Board meeting. Clayton, she said, was patient and polite but dogged in pursuing certain details. When the club told him they offered scholarships to rowers, he wanted to know the total amount of scholarship and then the average cost per person for people who pay the full freight. He and Rader thought the total amount of scholarship money looked much smaller once they understood how few places it would pay for.
There is also a certain high volatility factor about White Rock Lake, a thing that is not to be denied or foolishly ignored. A constellation of watchful community groups and activists keeps tight watch over everything that happens at the lake and anything that comes near it. They include, for example, the White Rock Lake Task Force , one of whose members is Dallas Plan Commission member Michael Jung, an attorney at Strasburger & Price LLC who happens to be one of the sharpest infrastructure and land use lawyers in Texas.
Jung hangs on to notes. While we spoke on the phone yesterday, he used his talking-to-you-but-looking-something-up voice.
“OK,” he said at last, “here’s my notes from May 8 of 2014.” These were notes he took during a meeting where Dallas United Crew made public representations about its fund-raising efforts.
“‘Have raised $200,000," he read from the notes. “And then the cost was $2.4 million, and it says, ‘Expect to have half the money by end of year.’”
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So they said they would have $1.2 million in hand by the end of 2014. Now it’s the end of 2015. Now the total cost for their plan has risen to $4 million. And they told the recent meeting of the Park Board, in response to sharp questioning, that they have $230,000 in hand.
Look, that doesn’t make them bad people. Send Jim Schutze out there and see how fast he can raise $4 million. And if he does raise any of it, don’t let him go to the airport unattended.
But Clayton and Rader and Jung are doing all of the things that should have been done before we got sucked into the horse party thing. They’re asking tough questions and pressing for answers, not PowerPoint slides. It’s called due diligence. We should be delighted we have some people down there sticking up for the public interest instead of grinning like a bunch of place-warming suck-ups.
And this does not mean the Dallas United Crew thing is dead or should be. It means that the project needs to come back better prepared for a tougher test at City Hall than it must have expected last time. Nobody ever said democracy was beautiful. It’s just a whole lot better looking than the alternatives.