For months, Mayor Mike Rawlings has made it clear that he's got his eye on Southern Dallas. This afternoon, as promised, was the first of three public presentations he'll give on his Southern Dallas Economic Growth Plan, which played to a packed house of bigwigs at the South Side Studios on Lamar. As he's done before, the mayor started by praising that part of town, which he called "the single greatest opportunity for growth in North Texas," and what he claimed is the potential for an increase of $8 billion in revenue for the city.
"It's real money," he told the crowd, adding later, to applause, "Southern Dallas is not a charity case. It's a business opportunity."
But the mayor also presented what he called a "top 10 list for leveraging this opportunity." He ran through a laundry list of to-dos, ranging from the civic equivalent of cheerleading to the very, very specific. It was an almost startlingly business-minded list, one that frequently sounded like a proposal to bolster up a flagging company. At one point, the mayor even referred to himself as "the city's top salesperson."
1. "Strengthen and engage neighborhood groups."
Rawlings wants to "create ownership of the community," including making "walkable" neighborhoods and areas with a "live, learn, work focus." The goal, he said, is to add 30 new neighborhood associations over the next 12 months and "activate" the current ones.
He also said he wants to grow what he termed "mixed-income" neighborhoods. "We have too many low-income affordable housing projects in southern Dallas." Although he's a proponent of affordable housing, he said, "we've got to balance this out." He wants to lobby for a change in state law that requires affordable housing projects to make a 40-year commitment in order to be eligible for any tax credits. "That creates the slums of the future, because the useful life [of the housing project] ends at year 15," he said.
2. "Create a culture of clean."
Rawlings called on the city to "get this area market-ready" by creating the "mindset and ethos that cleanliness is next to godliness." That means cleaning up litter and graffiti, he said, as well as "cracking down on code enforcement and holding negligent property managers accountable." He said council member Dwaine Caraway will spearhead an effort to demolish 250 blighted properties each year for the next three years.
"I've also asked outdoor ad companies to clean up their billboards," he said. "Some of them look like they've been there since the '60s. Clear Channel is in already."
3. "Strengthen schools."
The mayor said the focus will be on four specific schools: Zumwalt and Atwell middle schools and Lincoln and Adamson high schools.
"Todays middle and high school students are tomorrow's consumers," Rawlings said.
4. "Debunk myths."
"For too long, we've viewed southern Dallas as an obligation rather than an asset," the mayor said. He accused The Dallas Morning News of turning "the problems of South Dallas into a cottage industry," one that's won them numerous awards for what he termed "relentless editorializing" on income inequality.
"As the city's top salesperson, I will personally oversee a plan" to re-educate the city about the southern sector, Rawlings said. He promised to create a "dedicated brand manager" position, a city employee that will report to City Manager Mary Suhm and work at City Hall. They'll also be soliciting the pro bono services of local ad companies and create what he called "gateway signage" in southern Dallas neighborhoods.
"We need to push the reset button and retrain our audiences on how they should view southern Dallas," the mayor said.
5. "Create a private investment fund for southern Dallas."
The mayor said he's seeking to create a $20 million investment fund, drawing cash from dozens of investors. Every project, he said, "will be evaluated on a double bottom line:" whether it has a "good return of investment," and whether it's "good for the community."
6. Continue the revitalization of downtown and surrounding communities.
That includes continue to try to draw business to DART's green line, the mayor said.
7. "Implement the West Dallas design plan."
"Let's get this done," the mayor said bluntly. Especially that bridge part. He presented a video clip from Randall White, the West Dallas Chamber of Commerce vice chair, who called the Margaret Hunt Hill bridge both "an icon" and "a bridge to the future, a bridge of opportunity."
The mayor also touted the "creation of a new food and retail district" at the foot of the bridge -- Trinity Groves, of course -- which he said will create "1,000 new jobs and an impact of $100 million annually." Combined with a new pedestrian and cycling bridge on Continental Ave., leading to a planned park, Rawlings added, "we can safely say ... it could contribute $200 million in new economic impact for our city."
8. "Build out Lancaster corridor."
The mayor returned several times to the area around the VA hospital, which he said draws "30,000 visitors a day" to the area.
9. "Make Jefferson Boulevard a Main Street for southern Dallas."
"Unfortunately," Rawlings said, Jefferson is currently "a Main Street with pawn shops and a payday loan here and there." He called on the audience to help "return it to better days" and "create a gathering place."
10. "Infrastructure for the education corridor."
Rawlings said he wants to make the area around UNT Dallas and Paul Quinn "a University Park for southern Dallas," with "retail, grocery stores, gas stations" and other "everyday quality of life" features. He wants to help UNT Dallas get the funding it needs to expand their campus and build a planned two additional buildings.
The mayor said he'll need the help of "business owners, investors, and neighbors" to make the top 10 list happen. City staffers sat beneath boards at one side of the room that represented each of the 10 different items. "Go over there and sign up," Rawlings said. "We're gonna ask you to help us."
"I think one of the reasons I decided to give back for the next four years of my life is because I believe southern Dallas is something no other city in the country has," Rawlings told the crowd as he wrapped up. "Right in front of us is the biggest growth opportunity for the next two decades. All we have to do is buckle down and get it done. I know we can."
And, remember: You still have two chances to see the live show.