Now We Like Belo

So I guess this is the new post-ECAOBM era at the Dallas Observer, in which ECAOBM stands for Eric Celeste's Article On Bob Mong ("Snooze Alarm," February 13). Celeste, a talented young editor, a former student of mine at SMU who regularly addressed me as "Professor Schutze," now one of my bosses, attended Dallas Morning News staff meetings, interviewed DMN Editor Robert Mong at length and wrote an intriguing piece for us arguing that the Morning News is a better newspaper under Mong than we like to admit.

Personally, I think they put one of those big scary seed pods in the basement of the Observer, it turned into Eric, and the people who run the Morning News ate him. Then again, I wasn't a real professor. (I'm sorry, Eric, but you had to find out some day.)

I confess I have been slowly, grudgingly conceding to myself over the past year that the News is maybe no longer mangling local stories the way it did under former Editor Burl Osborne, whose involuntary physical reaction to a hot truth-telling local story was what most people do when they see a big sassy roach in the middle of the kitchen floor. The castanets, please! Of course, every time Osborne danced his mad fandango on the head of another young reporter, it was Pay Day!! for me (ka-ching ka-ching). I miss the old dude, darn it, the same way I miss former school Superintendent Waldomar ("Headline") Rojas. If I could play the guitar, I would put on my old tie-dyeds and sit around with misty-moisty eyes singing "Where Have All the Good Targets Gone?"

But the devil wants his due.

There's a limit. For all this rebirth at the News, the piper must still be paid. The payment usually has to do with the local real estate schemes of the Belo Corp., which owns the News. Right now, Belo wants the city to pass a maximum bond package of $555 million May 3, rather than any of several smaller proposals. Being what I am, I strongly suspect the News' ardent support of the really really big bond package has something to do with Belo chairman Robert Decherd's scheme for street closings, public plazas and a new hotel built with tax money on Belo-owned property near the city's convention center at the southwest corner of downtown. Having been a Belo-watcher for many years, I think I can look at rows and rows of loudly singing faces in the Belo Youth Chorale and tell when somebody's working the flail on the backside.

The drone of editorial support for the really really big bond package and for the taxpayer hotel is at a familiar pitch and volume--the same tone Belo summoned for the Tom Dunning for Mayor campaign last year--the editorial equivalent of Chinese water torture:

"Two Good Projects on the Horizon." "Downtown Blueprint." "Loop 2003 Committee Presents Enticing Vision." "Convention Center: Now It's Time to Add a Hotel." "Look Again, Ask Tough Questions of Convention Center Plan." "Go Dallas, Let's Speed Up Ways to Navigate Downtown." "Building a Better Dallas...Building a Better Dallas...Building a Belo Dallas."

The idea that people in Dallas are crazy to get a hotel built with tax money on Belo property is dropped into news stories regularly and not felicitously. Have you ever heard a single normal person say he wants to see the taxpayers jump into the downtown hotel business, especially now when the occupancy rates in Dallas hotels are disastrously low and all of the seasoned, street-savvy private operators are losing their shirts? Are people talking about that in your neighborhood?

But at the News, even columnist Steve Blow, whose work I admire--left to his own devices, he's one of the finest writing hands at the paper--felt compelled to write a column in which he said, "...we have to find a way to build a big hotel next to the convention center." I felt like I was watching a grainy videotape in which a pale Steve Blow, bound, blindfolded and speaking in a faltering monotone, would say next, "...and I have been well-treated by the Revolutionary Heroes who are my gracious hosts."

At some point in the next two weeks, an industry group in Dallas will come forward with a report taking a rigorous look at the assumptions underlying the Belo hotel proposal. I haven't seen the report, which isn't done yet, so I don't know what it will say. I have an idea, however, of the sort of questions the report will try to answer.

These questions are interesting at several levels. They are interesting because they are the questions to which a serious investor would want answers before committing serious money. They also are interesting because they are the kind of questions the Morning News would have raised, examined and answered in any good story or series of editorials, had the paper not been operating under pressure.

Assertion No. 1: A new convention hotel near the convention center will grow the city's convention business. That's not at all clear. There is a school of thought among people who watch the convention business that conventions do not come to cities because there are hotels to stay in any more than people honeymoon in Detroit because that city has ample parking. What drives the convention business is more likely to be attractions--shopping, gambling, sex bars, rare-book stores, chapels, depending on the crowd. If that's true, adding a hotel to the mix without adding attractions may not accomplish a thing.

Assertion No. 2: Even though the proposed hotel will be publicly financed, the cost will be painless to local taxpayers, because bonds to build the hotel will be supported by hotel taxes paid by out-of-towners. But the local hotel tax is already spoken for. If the income proposed here is from the much smaller state hotel tax, how do we know this tax would provide enough of a revenue stream to pay off the size of bond issue necessary to build a big hotel?

If it isn't enough money to support the bonds, where does the rest of the money come from?

Assertion No. 3: The city won't really be in the hotel business, because a private operator will be brought in to run the hotel. But on what basis? The IRS rules for the use of public bonds to fund essentially private enterprises are strict. It may be that the only way the city can structure an agreement with a private operator is on a flat-fee basis, not one structured to create incentives for profits.

Why is that important? Because if you don't create incentives for a profit, you draw a bunch of drone bees to the honey pot--groups willing to run the thing into the ground, because they get their fee anyway.

And here is the question that really resonates for me, maybe because it is the same question Mayor Laura Miller asked so effectively when promoters of the Dallas Olympics bid were trying to get the city to sign off on a major public financial commitment: If the venture goes south, who holds the bag?

How could we even think about a convention hotel to be owned by the taxpayers--and how could the Morning News report on, editorialize and columnize about it ad nauseam--without first asking and answering that question? If the hotel goes big fat belly-up, who owes?

A consistent theme in the Morning News editorials promoting the really really big bond package is that the members of the city council who are backing the big package are courageous and public-spirited, while people such as the mayor who are opposing it are somehow chicken-hearted and politically cynical. The unexamined assumption written into the News' coverage of Mayor Miller's opposition, in both news columns and on the editorial page, is that her only motivation is her desire to garner conservative anti-tax votes in her May 3 re-election bid.

Could be. You know me: If I have to say something nice, I'd rather not say anything at all. But Miller does have a career-long history of tough positions in defense of fiscal integrity at City Hall, often against bitter opposition, as on the police pay issue. So how do we know that's not her motivation?

On the other hand, I could just as easily describe the coalition favoring the really really big bond package as the gimme-mine crowd: the arts mavens who want money for a performing arts center, the Southern Dallas representatives who want to channel money into housing ventures owned and operated by politically wired-up community leaders, and, frankly, the Belo Corp., which has sought for 20 years to redirect downtown growth 180 degrees from its natural tendency (north and east) toward the Belo properties (south and west).

For a while, Miller seemed to be working hand in glove with Belo on the hotel deal. She pushed the council to give Belo its way on street closings and other favors. Her husband, state Representative Steve Wolens, is carrying Belo water in Austin, seeking the enabling legislation for the hotel. But in recent weeks Miller's failure to support the really really big bond package has earned her Beloan wrath. A recent editorial called her "loose-lipped Laura" after she dared suggest that maybe Dallas City Hall isn't being managed responsibly by the current city manager.

The editorial said, "Ms. Miller's tirade against the city manager jeopardizes public support for the bond package...unless she harnesses her propensity for careless, off-the-cuff remarks, Ms. Miller will damage her bid to serve a full term as Dallas mayor." That's an unsubtle warning about editorial endorsements in the May election.

There actually is a lot here to sort out in the few months between now and voting day. It should make for some good politics-watching. (Note to Steve Blow: The code phrase is "Buzz is angry." It means we're coming in for you, babe.)

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze