Now We Like Belo

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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.

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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