Mayor Tom Leppert paid a visit last night to Zubar on Lower Greenville to meet with the Dallas County Young Democrats to talk about crime, the Trinity River Project and the convention center hotel, but it didn't take long before the audience found themselves smack in the middle of a hotel sales pitch.
"The most amazing thing being said by the opponents on this thing is that we can't be successful -- the hotel can't be successful," Leppert told a captivated audience of about 60 people. "What they're really telling you is Dallas can't be successful -- that it's not an attractive place for people to visit, and there's no reason for people to bring conventions here. And that's just completely wrong."
Leppert, who was joined by his wife Laura and chief of staff Chris Heinbaugh, began talking about the reduction in crime but found no time to address the current financial mess with the Trinity Turnpike or any other Trinity issues for that matter. He was too busy jamming the hotel down the throats of these young Democrats, carefully tailoring his message by using President Barack Obama's support of the stimulus package as a comparison for the hotel project.
"The interesting words by the President in his press conference were very interesting because he was talking about the stimulus package and he said, 'You know it's interesting. If people want to work with me and talk about what we can do, then I'm willing to engage in that conversation. But if people don't want to do anything, then I'm just going to have to agree to disagree.' And that's where I really run with the situation with the convention center hotel because, to me, doing nothing is really not an option."
The room was full of elected officials including judges Elizabeth Crowder, Roberto Canas, Denisse Garcia and Carl Ginsberg, along with judicial candidate Hector Garza and Dallas County Schools Board president Larry Duncan, who is planning to make a run at Jim Foster's job as county judge in 2010. Duncan sat a few feet from Leppert and nodded his head repeatedly in approval as Leppert talked about the hotel.
LeVar "L.D." Thomas, a board member for the Dallas County Young Democrats and candidate for the District 8 council seat, wasn't buying Leppert's sales pitch and says he will lead the charge to set up a meeting with Anne Raymond of Crow Holdings so members can hear the other side of the issue.
"[Leppert] knows what he's doing, for sure. The guy knows how to sell a crowd," Thomas tells Unfair Park. "I don't think he'd be where he is if he didn't, but we need a fair and balanced presentation. It was clearly one-sided."
It appeared as though some of the questions may have been planted as David Hardt, president of the Young Democrats of America, drooled over seeing the convention center hotel at McCormick Place in Chicago last weekend while making preparations for the group's national convention.
"I'm sold now that I see what they have," Hardt said. "What can we do to help you get this done in Dallas?"
Leppert told him there were cards he and other supporters could fill out, calling his council member showing his support was important and letting people know through a grassroots effort would be helpful. The mayor promised to later give a helpful address and ended the night by announcing the Build the Hotel Web site.
Leppert also utilized that time to personalize the debate, although he was careful not to use Harlan Crow's name, saying the opposition was only one hotel owner with a financial interest. "Clearly the person who's against it is going to put a lot of money into it, and they can do it," he said. "They're a billionaire, and they can do that sort of thing, but this is an issue that's too important for Dallas."
Thomas stresses that he doesn't believe any of the questions were planted, but wishes he would have been able to have some of his answered. He says many people asked him questions afterward, such as why construction on the hotel is scheduled for before the referendum and why the city is making this investment in such difficult economic times.
Leppert maintained that the convention center is competing in a "competitively disadvantaged environment," and funding the hotel privately simply isn't an option because it has been tried for 25 years without success. He pointed out that the city won't be operating or building the hotel and said the risk associated with not building it is losing out on 800 permanent jobs and the potential tax base.
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Thomas says he's amazed how Leppert tries to paint the hotel opposition as against jobs when that's not the case. "Who the hell is against that? But the devil is in the details, and the details weren't fully explored."
The Dallas County Young Democrats remain "thirsty and desperate" to hear the other side, Thomas says. "It's really a crime, but you'd be surprised how many of the local citizenry don't know the nuances of this deal. So when you're only presented with one side of the story, it's hard to formulate hard questions."
Leppert was also asked about other topics, including what Dallas should expect from the stimulus package, the proposed University of North Texas Law School and the future plans for Reunion Arena.
He said the city should expect somewhere in the neighborhood of $20 million to $50 million from the stimulus, there is a "very good chance" the end of the legislative session will result in the new law school downtown and demolition for Reunion will take place soon. Then the land will be marketed and "could take a whole host of different forms."