Under the old rules at City Hall, the term “economic development” meant “friends of City Council members looking for money.” Dallas pursued an economic development strategy based on heavily subsidizing grocery stores, funding race car museum startups and making large grants to chicken joints, even though similar concepts had not worked out very well in the Soviet Union.
The good news is that we’ve got new rules. Our new city manager, T.C. Broadnax — the first city manager anyone can remember to come from outside the all-cousin community of City Hall — continues to turn City Hall’s head outward into the larger world beyond, this time in a proposal to hire a professional consultant to devise an economic development strategy for the city.
And I’m sorry. I know the topic of a new economic development strategy for the city probably sounds boring to you. You’re probably thinking, “Wow, Schutze, you need to put a warning on here not to operate heavy machinery after reading your columns.” But I don’t think it’s boring.
There’s a bigger picture. This proposal comes on the heels of a successful effort by Broadnax to impose a new housing policy based on nationally and internationally accepted best practices. That was huge. The old policy was based on heavily subsidizing apartment projects built by friends of council members. Every once in a while, somebody got sent to the pen, but, hey, no policy is perfect.
I call Broadnax’s new housing plan the Nobody Goes to the Pen Plan. Well, only if they just want to. Based on principles pioneered by a Philadelphia nonprofit called The Reinvestment Fund, the Nobody Goes to the Pen Plan ties decisions about public investment in housing to a matrix of measurable factors related to the market, the law and the greater social good. It’s all stuff you can defend in court a lot better than, “Councilmember Jaspers told us to write the guy a check.”
The city manager’s new economic development proposal, worked up by top assistants Raquel Favela and Courtney Pogue, takes off from the same concept that underlies the housing policy — a thing they are calling “market value analysis.” It’s really a glorified mapping tool that divides the city into zones based on what those areas need and what they can reasonably be expected to support.
The core idea comes from the Philadelphia outfit, The Reinvestment Fund, based on its experience in cities all over the country. The Reinvestment Fund calls it “building from strength.”
You don’t just parachute truckloads of cash blindly into the economic desert. You look for oases where some things are already blooming at least a little bit — a government facility, a big church, a transit hub, something alive and green. You make your public investments there or nearby, and then you try to build from there by stepping stones out into the economic desert.
According to a briefing Monday by Pogue, the city’s new director of economic development, the consultant Broadnax wants to hire will look for this pattern of nodes of strengths on which the city can build. The consultant will look for economic “clusters” and try to identify the ones that are strongest.
Then the consultant looks for local assets that can be leveraged to “give specific industries a competitive edge in Dallas.” The briefing didn’t go into any detail on what those unique local assets might be, and I want to be helpful, so I have one suggestion to offer: not chicken joints.
I think the chicken-joint industry is spread around the county pretty evenly, possibly around the whole world by now, with the obvious exception of North Korea, and who knows with Trump? I just don’t see Dallas becoming the world-famous capital of chicken joints with a gigantic plastic chicken out in front of City Hall. A giant chicken would be nice, of course, because then we would have something to show to visiting relatives, especially if you could go up in its head and look out, but I don’t see it happening.
Instead, I assume the consultant would look at much bigger and more original assets that really could give Dallas a continentally competitive edge, like the one City Hall completely muffed, missed, blew past and got played out of 13 years ago in the Inland Port fiasco.
California shipping magnate Richard Allen tried his best to turn Dallas into North America’s greatest warehousing hub. Allen, whose company is a major player in the logistics industry all over America, studied a map of the nation’s road and rail infrastructure and spied something Dallas had forgotten about itself. In the late 19th century, Dallas was a shipping, warehousing and wholesaling hub to the entire American Southwest into northern Mexico.
As a legacy of that era, Dallas today lies at the bull’s eye of an immense intersection of continental highways and railroads. Allen wanted to use that web to wire Dallas into new global realities involving deep-water ports in California and Mexico and Chinese goods trying to find cheaper routes to the American Northeast and Canada.
We blew that off. Were you here? Do you remember this? Do you remember why we blew it off? If you remember this chapter, please tell other people who don’t remember it that I’m not just making this up to get clicks. We blew it off because Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price was worried that Allen’s plan might interfere with a water pipe one of this friends wanted to build. And the wealthy and powerful Perot clan said it already had a warehousing and rail yard outfit in Fort Worth and we didn’t need another one.
OK, I’m not making that up. It’s not a theory. All of this came out in testimony when Price was tried and acquitted on federal bribery charges. And in the wonderful and healing fullness of time, I have even overcome some of my more personal sense of betrayal on the parts of Price and the Perots.
Look, if a city has no larger strategy for what it does, if all it’s doing anyway is going around cutting checks to failed furniture stores and chicken joints, then I guess maybe it’s even sort of fair to stick up for your buddy’s water pipe or your own warehouse in Fort Worth.
In the utter absence of any larger vision, Allen’s strategy would have become the one big plan for the entire city, the sun and the moon, and maybe that was just too much for everybody else to take. I think everybody would have made a lot of money, but what’s money, after all, when people have psychological problems to take care of?
So what Broadnax, Favela and Pogue are really doing is sort of preparing the canvas for a new big picture. They aren’t painting it in. They’re not saying what it should be a picture of by any means. It’s more like they’re measuring the canvas and counting the colors and the brushes.
The same assets Allen saw here are still here and still could be exploited to give Dallas an edge, as are many others. A richly blooming economy of tech startups, many of them authored by immigrants who came here first as students, swirls around the city in a great golden ring, and the old regime always behaved as if it weren’t even there. Hopefully the consultant will see it and offer some theories on how the old city proper can productively connect to it.
Have you noticed that gleaming new hospitals and laboratories now occupy a footprint that feels as if it’s bigger than downtown? That ought to be the jumping off point for something or other.
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And, no, I’m still not coming up with a unifying vision. And why should I? In case you haven’t noticed, I’m not exactly in the unifying business.
But City Hall can be in that business and should be and should have been all along. Somewhere it got lost. Weakened and cynical, it satisfied itself with survival, dealing in cheap tricks and two-bit favors.
This whole vista that the new regime is preparing for us — first the housing plan, now economic development — is a great raising of the curtains, allowing us to look out and see the rest of the world. It’s an opportunity for Dallas to paint its own grand vision for the future.
I’m on edge, I admit, a little jittery because I have no idea how this ends. Broadnax and his posse get the clean canvas up there. They lay out the paints and brushes. They ask the city what it sees. The city puts its chin its hand. Squints at the canvas. Toys with a brush. And says, “A really huge chicken?”