Its real name on tax records is the Dallas Convention and Visitors Bureau, but now it calls itself VisitDallas, because nowadays you have to have an ungrammatical neologism for your name if you want to be hip. I don’t know how hip it is really, but VisitDallas is maybe the dodgiest, sketchiest, shadiest quasi-public entity in the city.
It also is possibly not long for this world. Yet the same folks who tried unsuccessfully for 20 years to stick us with an unneeded expressway on top of the Trinity River are now trying to put Visit-is-it on life support.
Let me tell you one lesson from this that comes right off the top. In Dallas, the word “regionalism” is code for “screw job.” I will explain.
A horrible report this year by the Dallas auditor found that the city hands over an average of $33 million to Visit-is-it every year without having any real idea whatsoever where the money goes. Not a good idea, you know? “Here’s $33 mil’ from the taxpayers. Just, uh, well, you know, enjoy it.”
There was a measure of healthy outrage after the audit came out, and some people at City Hall, the sane ones like Scott Griggs and Philip Kingston, suggested maybe the city should find a better way to spend its tourism promotion money. One idea would be to do the same thing with tourism that the city has done recently with Fair Park and the Dallas Convention Center and turn it over to somebody who knows what they’re doing.
In the cases of Fair Park and the convention center, the city has ceded operations to an international entertainment and event booking company called Spectra. Since Spectra is now running the convention center, which is at the heart of the city’s tourism efforts, it might make sense to see if Spectra wants to take over the job Visit-is-it has been doing in promoting tourism.
In other words, Visit-is-it is on thin ice, shaky ground, possibly not long for this world, maybe on its last legs, one foot in the grave, knocking on death’s door and so on, as it should be after that audit. But it’s one of those entities that over the years has cultivated a close relationship with the mossback idiots who have run this city for a century or so.
The mossback idiots used to control City Hall like it was their own puppet show, but that has become more difficult for them in recent years with the rise of the new urban middle class represented by people like former Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt, current members Kingston and Griggs and also by assertively independent members like Adam Medrano and Omar Narvaez. So as their extremely white-knuckled grip on City Hall has loosened, the idiot mossbacks have moved a lot of their chips to an agency most people have never even heard of called the North Central Texas Council of Governments.
Yeah, I know. Council of Governments. Sounds like Star Wars. It’s actually a regional agency set up under federal law that is supposed to coordinate federal transportation spending. As such, it winds up with control over a huge amount of tax money — cash in the billions from both federal and state sources. It’s supposed to be an honest broker, a neutral, dispassionate center of expertise, almost like an academic entity, to help assure that transportation money gets spent rationally. But as you have already noticed, nobody really knows what the hell it is.
People know what City Hall is. They watch. Austin and the Legislature, people watch even if it’s with a hand of horror over one eye. Washington, people cover both eyes but at least they listen. But the North Central Texas Council of Governments? People call it the COG. The COG sounds like a thing you could only see at 4 in the morning on a cable-access channel, and then why would you?
But guess what? That’s why the mossback idiots have flocked to the COG as their new imperial palace. It’s free money with nobody watching, and the mossbacks can pull its strings.
In 2008 we had a referendum in Dallas over the Trinity toll road, the incredibly stupid unneeded expressway that the idiots wanted to build on top of the river. The idiots spent millions of dollars on campaign advertising to defeat the referendum and save their road. They jack-hammered every punk, sold-out, wannabe weasel contractor in the city into defending the toll road. They won. Thank goodness years later the City Council, led by Hunt, Griggs and Kingston, killed the project and saved the taxpayers tons of dollars, not to mention saving the river.
Here’s the thing. During that long, bitter political campaign in 2008, the mossback idiots had Michael Morris, the COG’s chief transportation executive, out on the stump campaigning to save their toll road like he was a Louisiana kingfish. And he’s not bad at it, by the way. I wound up thinking, if he ever lost his gig with the COG, Morris should go to Louisiana and run for sheriff of Plaquemines Parish.
But, wait. What about the honest broker part? What about the dispassionate rational part? Yeah, and what about the fact that nobody elected Morris, that he’s a bureaucrat at a regional agency, an entity that nobody who isn’t an insider City Hall policy wonk has ever heard of? What’s an obscure bureaucrat doing out on the campaign trail waving his hat around promising people a chicken in every pot?
Ah, well, that’s where the regional thing comes in. Ask any of the mossbacks, and they will tell you we have to listen to Morris because he’s regional. Regional, they will suggest, is rational. And rational, of course, is smart. Well, it’s actually smarter than you are, so you’d be better off just putting your hand down and going to the back of the room for some quiet time.
The joke — and this is what the Visit-is-it thing so perfectly illustrates — is that the COG is not even remotely regional in the way it really operates. It’s not even local. It’s private. The idiot mossbacks use the COG and its access to millions of tax dollars to float their own private deals. They do stuff with the COG and its cash that the Dallas City Council would never dream of doing for fear of being ridden out of town on a rail.
Klyde Warren Park, the hugely successful deck park over Woodall Rodgers Freeway that opened in 2012, is to be expanded, which most people would agree is a good thing. Woodall Rodgers is a sunken freeway, so the deck park turns part of it into a tunnel. The private sponsors of the park want to lengthen the tunnel and build a for-profit commercial building on the new part of the deck to give the rest of the park a permanent source of income. That also would seem to make sense.
Morris has committed to contributing $30 million of the total $76 million cost of the expansion. But since the COG’s money is government money appropriated for transportation purposes, the COG’s $30 million can be spent only on the deck structure over the freeway, not on the park itself and not on the new building. And even that makes sense, kind of, even though I don’t know how it helps me drive down Woodall Rodgers Freeway any better to have a longer tunnel. I’ll just say the longer deck is a physical part of the freeway, and I will pretend to get it.
But listen to this, and tell me if you get it. In recent weeks it has emerged that some kind of “handshake deal” exists by which Morris has made his $30 million contribution contingent on VisitDallas occupying part of the new building as its new headquarters. I wrote to Morris about this but did not hear back from him.
In a recent editorial, The Dallas Morning News said, “Michael Morris, transportation director of the North Central Texas Council of Governments, explained that the COG, as it is best known, decided to make the $30 million for the deck contingent on the plan to construct the building and to use the building as the new headquarters for the embattled tourism agency VisitDallas.”
I should observe here that even The Dallas Morning News editorial page thought this deal was fishy. When The Dallas Morning News smells fish, you know that has to be some fish odor that could just about knock an unprepared person out cold.
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Of course, the Morning News has to act like it doesn’t know what’s going on here. Oh, heaven forfend, how could such a thing happen? Why would an obscure regional bureaucrat stick his thumb into this particular pie and pull out such a strange plum? If the COG’s money can only be spent on the physical deck structure, what business is it of theirs who occupies the building on top of the deck?
Then remember which entity it is for whom Morris wants to guarantee a new permanent address. It’s VisitWhatever, the agency that already exudes the strong musty scent of the coffin from its unkempt clothing. Look, this is exactly what I mean about “regional” being a code word for screw-job. What on earth is regional about sticking your nose into a very local dilemma — what to do with Visit-is-it? — and then trying to use millions in government transportation dollars to dictate an outcome?
In fact, the mossback idiots go to the COG because they can’t get their way downtown anymore. It’s their private piggy bank, their puppet show, their workaround for getting things done that they know they can no longer get done at City Hall.
Some people talk about how they want to get the politics out of City Hall, which I think means they want to get the politics out of politics. But this is what happens. When you park huge sums of money far away from grassroots political oversight and control, the main chance grifters smell it. They are able to move in and take control because nobody’s watching. And that, my friend, is the real regionalism.