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Leppert's Big Downtown Plans -- And They Don't Include a Reunion Casino

Tom Leppert to Urban Market crowd last night -- something about, "Look into my eyes, like a shark's eyes ..."
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When I found out Mayor Tom was speaking at Urban Market last night, I was so there. After all, I frequent the Urban Café next door, during lunch breaks from council meetings, and how could I pass on the free drinks and food? So I called my wife, and it was a date.

It turned out the free drinks amounted to a couple of wine and beer samples, and the free food consisted of a few sampling stations set up throughout the store. The wine and beer weren’t anything to write (or drive) home about, but the ribs were good. I topped it off with a brownie and ice cream served in a cup the size of my big toe, then I rushed to see Leppert.

He was introduced as a man who had recently been in Mexico, Washington D.C. and now Urban Market. “With all due respect to the other places," he said, "I’m glad I’m here.” Leppert, wearing his signature look (white shirt and dark blazer with no tie), asked how many people in the audience lived downtown. Of the approximately 75 people there, who represented a very diverse spectrum of Dallasites, nearly all of them raised their hands. He said he’d keep his comments short and “broad-brush” the issues. This is Leppert’s specialty, painting with broad strokes and not worrying so much about the details.

He said he is “awfully excited about downtown” and wants to make it “the finest downtown of any city in the United States,” with the exception of New York. Leppert then gave his two-, four- and seven-year goals downtown. The two-year horizon included the development in the Arts District, and he said the Uptown/Victory area should be sorted out in four years, highlighted by the Woodall Rogers Deck Park.

Then came the big one: “We can’t stop there,” he said. The convention center area was his third anchor to downtown revitalization. The city has invested $1 billion in the convention center, but Leppert said “it’s not competitive in today’s world.” He then went into a 15-minute sales pitch for building a convention center hotel -- the missus, overcome with nausea, left to grab a drink in the café.

The Trinity River Project was on the seven-year horizon -- Leppert promised a day when people will canoe and whitewater raft. Oh, and drive on the new shiny toll road, although he forgot to mention that part. He said this will help bring in conventioneers from places like Chicago, where Lake Michigan is not utilized.

Leppert was generous with his time, fielding questions from the audience past his 8 p.m. commitment. Questions ranged from concerns about Deep Ellum -- from a guy with mutton-chop sideburns and a long ponytail -- to an elderly woman complaining about an injury suffered when she tripped on an exposed pipe in the sidewalk.

Leppert kept most of his responses vague and yielded the floor to John Crawford, president and CEO of DowntownDallas, for more specific information. When Deep Ellum was brought up, Leppert mentioned that some of the video games that his kids play were developed there and simulated using a joystick with his hands to let the olds in the audience know what he meant by “games.”

The most interesting question was about the potential use of Reunion Arena as a casino. Leppert said while a bill that would have potentially allowed this failed in 2007, a new one will appear during the 2009 legislative session. He said the premise of the bill would grant 12 licenses for gambling throughout the state -- with two in the DFW area, two in the Houston area, two on South Padre Island and one each in Austin and San Antonio, with economic viability as the determining factor for each license.

Me, I think turning Reunion into a casino is a great idea. Leppert, not so much. “I personally don’t think that’s our answer,” he said. “I think Reunion Area, for all practical purposes, has served its day.” He said the land is “worth an awful lot,” and will be used for new development.

I was left fairly unimpressed with everything, but I gotta hand it to Leppert for spending so much time addressing questions, especially from those in the audience who were plugging their new downtown magazine, trying to make Sheriff Lupe Valdez look good or asking repeated questions. And although his responses raised more questions than answers, I give him credit for talking with me about Willis Johnson when he was done speaking.

And now this added bonus: When it was over and I went to find my wife, she was in the middle of getting the full-court press from some slick guy looking to score. She was reading the paper version of Unfair Park when he approached, and his pick-up line was, “I hear there’s a really big story this week.” Assuming he was talking about the Shaw story, she began talking about it only to find out he knew absolutely nothing. And somehow, even after he saw her wedding ring and was told I was next door, he kept telling her about his nearby bachelor’s pad. Wanted to show her his DSpot, maybe?

When I walked up, he hit the panic button and talked about how famous I was, even though he didn’t know my name. He said he’d look in the Observer to e-mail me sometime. Dude, you try to move in on my wife, then want to e-mail me? Stay classy, DSpot. --Sam Merten

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