In West Dallas Yesterday, Propositions Were Debated, and Candidates Were Graded

Speaking of Proposition 2, as we were this morning, and Proposition 1, as we were yesterday, on Thursday the West Dallas Chamber of Commerce hosted a forum at Jack's Backyard, where both props were on the table. And it was an all-star cast: Harlan Crow's second-in-command Anne Raymond and Phillip Jones, president and CEO of the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau, squared off over the convention center hotel; while council member Ron Natinsky faced off against a Dallas Right to Vote rep. And city council candidates, vying for Districts 3 and 6 seats, also had themselves a showdown.

The forum -- presented in front of an intimate crowd of 50 -- was highly regimented: Speakers were allowed to respond in orderly, timed segments to two previously disclosed questions and one "surprise" question (which was rarely a big surprise). The audience was not allowed to ask the speakers questions. "We wanted to make sure they would all come," explained Victor Toledo, chairman of the West Dallas Chamber. He didn't think participants would have participated otherwise: "They might think it was a setup."

Which wouldn't have been necessary during the debate over Proposition 2, which demands citywide elections every time the council offers developers more than $1 million in subsidies or tax breaks. Soft-spoken Paul Osborn, repping Dallas Right to Vote, offered little in way of response to Natinsky's assertion that voting for on Prop 2 would be "a terrible thing ... just sheer insanity."

Said Natinsky, "I think the development community's gonna take a Marks-A-Lot and just draw a big ol' circle around the city of Dallas [if Proposition 2 passes]. They can go to Plano, they can go to Irving, they can go to Memphis ... They can go to all the other cities Dallas competes with, and they don't have this problem."

Natinsky then made the following point: If the city's definition of "mixed-use" includes retail, and if under Proposition 2 most of those projects will have to be approved by referendum before they're funded, will the concept of mixed-use simply become too onerous?

"We're not trying to be onerous," said Osborn. "We're pro-business."

"This is turning into government by referendum," Natinsky fired back. "If you want government by referendum, you should move to California ... and they're on the verge of bankruptcy!" At which point Osborn said, softly, something about transparency in government.

The real excitement came during the Proposition 1 debate between Raymond and the tag-team duo of Natinsky and Phillip Jones.

Most of each side's points are no doubt familiar to the Friends of Unfair Park. But in response to the "surprise" question -- Given the state of the municipal bond market, how will we actually fund this hotel? -- the Jones-Natinsky team struggled to find an answer.

Natinsky said, sure, the current financial crisis is the worst, like, ever. But he also insisted things are looking up:

"The market's coming back. We've seen two good weeks. The stock market's going up; things are getting ready to settle down. When the market hits that window, that's when we go out and sell [the bonds to fund the hotel]." Jones confessed he "really do[es]n't know anything about bond financing" but noted that the Dallas hotel business did better than Minneapolis, Chicago and Boston last month.

To which Raymond responded: "In the winter ... people don't really go to those cities," and argued that the economic downturn should have spurred city officials to revise their cost and revenue projections.

"Has our city council gone back and said, 'We need to be responsible here and look to see if the bet we approved 14 months ago before the world fell apart is still a viable bet'? Absolutely not," Raymond said, pacing in front the audience. "Mayor Leppert told me under coercion earlier this week in a debate that they have not updated those studies. That is completely irresponsible!"

Raymond didn't stick around for the council debates, during which former president of the Dallas NAACP chapter Casey Thomas II spoke of wanting change in West Dallas. Incumbent Dave Neumann spoke in favor of the Trinity River Corridor Project and the development he sees in West Dallas's future, but Thomas got nods of approval when he said he has concerns with the project, not least among them the possibility of gentrification and displacement in West Dallas.

"From every part of the district, I hear, 'Our needs are not being addressed,'" Thomas said in response to a "surprise" question about whether District 3 is on the right track. "It's fine to meet and greet and eat," he added -- a jab at Neumann's saying he meets regularly with community leaders -- "but we want to see results! Those who live in District 3, I have one question for you: Are you better off now than you were two years ago?"

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