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Look, You Don't Need to Know Jack Squat About the Convention Center Hotel, K?

Assistant City Manager A.C. Gonzalez, more than willing to spend between $40 and $100 million of your money
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As we noted yesterday, Angela Hunt and Mitchell Rasansky are the only council members fighting for more information before the city uses taxpayers’ money for a proposed convention center hotel. During this morning’s Economic Development Committee meeting, the two continued their demands to slow down this process until it is known just how much money this thing is gonna cost the public.

Hunt tried to pry the amount of public investment from Assistant City Manager A.C. Gonzalez, who said, “At this point, it’s really unclear.” After a long-winded answer, Hunt asked for a guess, and Gonzalez said it would likely be in the $40- to $100-million range. He protected himself by adding that it may be less (yeah, right) or more (ding, ding, ding!).

Hunt also asked Gonzalez something she pondered on Unfair Park yesterday: Um, why don’t citizens get to vote on this? She cited the $128-million expansion to the Dallas Convention Center that was approved by voters in 1998. Gonzalez didn’t say why there wouldn’t be a vote, but he did indicate there wouldn’t be one on the land purchase or any amount that would be needed for the hotel. Like, do we have to have a damned referendum every time the citizens want say in how massive amounts of money is spent? Apparently not.

Hunt also expressed her concerns about the difference between DCAD’s value of the property ($7.3 million) compared to the amount the city will be paying ($39.8 million). Gonzalez said the City Manager’s Office is “crafting a letter to DCAD about the discrepancy.” Rasansky was also outraged at the $32-million difference and that the two appraisals for the property were for the exact same amount of $110 per square foot.

“I’ve never heard of that before in my life,” he said. “The tax rolls aren’t way off -- we’re way off.”

Rasansky blasted CFO Dave Cook because this issue hadn’t come up in the Finance, Audit & Accountability Committee, which Rasansky chairs. Rasansky wants to move forward with refinancing the convention center to get a better rate (approximately 3.87 percent compared to the current 4.94 percent rate), but said adding debt for a possible hotel is “a bad deal for the City of Dallas.” He mentioned a packet received in his office Friday from developer Larry Hamilton, CEO of Hamilton Properties Corporation, which outlined his company’s purchase of property near the convention center for one-fifth the price.

“I’d love to delay this for about 110 years, because I don’t like it,” Rasansky said. “I just don’t like it. It’s not right.”

Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway told the panel of city officials -- which included Gonzalez, Cook, Director of the Office of Economic Development Karl Zavitkovsky and Dallas Convention and Event Services Director Frank Poe -- that their jobs were on the line on this project. Caraway then asked each one of them to answer a basic question: Do we need a convention center hotel? Predictably, they all replied “yes,” as Mayor Leppert hid underneath the table with a gun pointed at them.

But the key part of this exchange happened when Caraway asked Poe if the land about to be purchased was the best location for the hotel. After saying he thought it was the best, Poe added, “But that does not necessarily mean that some of the other proposals that have been submitted may not offer a better arrangement, but we’ve not looked at that in-depth at this point.”

He's kidding, right? Right? They haven’t looked in-depth at the alternatives, yet this thing is being moved ahead like it was the most important thing in the history of Dallas? At one point, Gonzalez said the convention center hotel was something that had been researched for decades. So, in all the decades of research, they don’t know if this is the best site, don’t have any data to support the claim that Dallas needs one and don’t have a clue how much it will cost taxpayers. Brilliant.

Caraway also responded to Hunt’s assertion that there needs to be a vote on this issue. He citied the $60 million for the Mercantile redevelopment from 2005, and said, “So many projects have been completed and done without a vote.” However, there is a difference between this issue and the Mercantile: That was a tax incentive done via tax increment financing, not money that came directly from taxpayers.

Ron Natinsky, chair of the committee, tried to keep debate on this issue to a minimum, interrupting Ransasky and Hunt and telling them to “wrap it up.” Hunt wanted the records from Chavez Properties Ltd. (now CP-Dallas L & Y LP) regarding any requests to get the DCAD appraisal lowered. She said that if that had been done in the past, it would be irresponsible to pay nearly six times more than the DCAD amount. When trying to dispute the issues concerning the appraisal discrepancies, Natinsky noted that the appraisals were done assuming the hotel would be on the land, not based on its current use (which is a parking lot). Rasansky responded, “A bank isn’t going to loan money on a track of land hoping there’s a pyramid on top of it. They’re going to loan you money based on the value of the property that is there.”

Although they were enemies on the Trinity vote, Hunt and Rasansky have emerged as two council members unwilling to sit by while this convention center hotel gets built before the taxpayers know what hit 'em. Why are things moving so fast? Well, primarily to get this thing opened in Fall 2010, in preparation for Jerry Jones hosting the Super Bowl at his new Arlington stadium. Another reason is because if the land purchase takes place before May 31, the $500,000 from Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau will be applied toward the price. If it happens between May 31 and September 30, half of the money will go toward the price and the other half will go to the property owner, who will also get to keep the property for six months after the closing date.

The committee approved moving this to the February 27 addendum for a full-council vote. Ransansky was the only one voting no (Hunt isn’t on the committee). Once the bonds are in place, the council will vote April 23 to pull the trigger. If this is approved, the city will receive the money on May 22, just in time for the deadline to apply the DCVB money to the cost.

Something very wrong is going on here. Both Rasansky and Hunt are open to the idea of building a convention center hotel, but they simply haven’t been given enough information to make a decision. Given what little has been provided to the council, you can’t blame them. Many questions surround this project that haven’t been answered, with several of them fundamental issues -- such as the project cost and amount for which taxpayers will be on the hook.

Rasansky said he’ll pay, out of his own pocket, for Dr. Heywood Sanders to come brief the council -- repeating his offer made yesterday on Unfair Park. In today’s meeting, Hunt asked him about this, and he said, “I’d be happy to foot the bill if the chair would allow it.” Natinsky chimed in and said it wouldn’t be appropriate for a council member to fund any research. And why not?

If the City of Dallas won’t get their shit together and bring this guy in, why should Rasansky be stopped from bringing in an expert with an opposing viewpoint? I think we all know the answer to that. Natinsky showed his willingness to deceive voters during the Trinity debates, so why would he stop now? --Sam Merten

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