Money for Nothing

Two years ago, Ronnie Crayton believed his restaurant, located just across the street from Fair Park, would succeed for myriad reasons--chief among them, its proximity to Deep Ellum and downtown plus an "elegant atmosphere" that would allow its patrons to "unwind after work with specialty cocktails and a happy hour buffet." His business plan, which he handed over to city of Dallas officials in the fall of 2003, laid out a handful of strengths: Crayton's "perceived reputation" as a top-notch restaurateur, as former co-owner of the Bay Leaf in Deep Ellum; a "unique menu...of French, Asian and Caribbean blends"; and a "very convenient working relationship" with the Women's Museum and Music Hall across the street. Then, last but certainly not least, he insisted that "moderate pricing will allow customers to enjoy a great experience without digging too deep in their pockets."

As it would turn out, Crayton was dead wrong about that last promise.

Used to be Crayton's Restaurant and Bar, which began serving in November 2003, was open for lunch, but not anymore--not even on Fridays, when the sign outside still says it's serving, much to the chagrin of a few folks trying to get in one recent afternoon during the State Fair of Texas. Crayton can save more by locking the doors than turning on the grill. It's open for dinner only--and even then, the place isn't exactly out hustling for business. Mayor Laura Miller insists she recently called to make reservations, left her number and never got a call back.

And right now, the mayor's one of the last people Crayton needs to make angry, considering the city of Dallas, through its South Dallas/Fair Park Trust Fund, sank $50,000 into his restaurant two years ago and has yet to get much of its investment back.

Crayton insists he wants to make good on his loan that came from the embattled South Dallas/Fair Park Trust Fund, created by the city council some 17 years ago to allow for investment in a part of town sorely in need of new businesses, new jobs, new everything. Crayton claims he's embarrassed by the situation in which he finds himself, owing most of his original loan plus the 3 percent interest that accrues with every passing day. But thus far he hasn't been shamed into paying the city back the thousands he owes. After all, you can't pay back what you don't have.

"The trust fund board did their due diligence," Crayton says, "but it took a long time to get the loan. I was open three months before I got the loan, and I had $125,000 from private investors, something like that. We anticipated getting the [trust fund] money between construction and remodeling. Fifty-thousand dollars to a cleaners or a Subway, where you have two employees in a little 800-square-foot box, you can work that out. But $50,000 in a restaurant is not a lot of money at all."

Perhaps it's not to a restaurant owner, but to a city forced to increase fees and taxes to balance its budget, it's a small fortune. And it might be one thing if Crayton's was the only delinquent loan on the trust fund's books, but that's hardly the case.

Put it this way: You, Dallas taxpayer, not only own a small part of Crayton's restaurant in Exposition Park, but you also have an interest in several lawn-mowing businesses, a dry cleaner, a few other eateries, an automotive garage, an art gallery, a funeral home and other assorted enterprises scattered throughout the Fair Park area. And many of them, like Crayton's Restaurant and Bar, owe you a lot of money--about $350,000, give or take a couple of bucks, on recent loans that date back to 1997. City officials insist that isn't out of line with the small-business loan default rate at many commercial lending institutions. Then again, those places aren't lending taxpayer money--much of which will never, ever get paid back. Hell, some of those folks are out of business. Some can't even be found.

In other words, Dallas taxpayer, your investments stink.

But does that necessarily mean it's time to chuck the portfolio into the wastebasket? Or is there, perhaps, a more effective way of investing in a neighborhood in need?

Crayton's Restaurant is just the latest, and highest profile, example of what's wrong with the South Dallas/Fair Park Trust Fund, a relatively small piece of the city budget that's been a huge source of contention ever since it was created in 1988. The trust fund, which has given out almost $6 million over the past 18 years, doles out not only commercial loans but also grants to nonprofits, schools, clinics and other in-need programs in the Fair Park area. And for almost two decades, there has been someone at City Hall trying to kill the damned thing, insisting that at best it just doesn't work, and at worst, it's little more than a political slush fund.
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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky