So Suhm Me

Just got back from a DowntownDallas luncheon at the DP&L Flats on Commerce Street, where City Manager Mary Suhm laid out the details of the upcoming $1.28 billion bond election to some 200 folks choking down some surprisingly dry Fuse-catered chicken, but more about that part of the eat-and-greet in a later posting. First up, I'd rather mention some things Suhm threw out after her formal presentation, specifically the city's plans concerning the future of the downtown grocery, Urban Market, and the Calatrava bridge that will cost double its original $57 million price tag. After all, as Suhm put it, these are the "headline items" of the day.

Concerning Urban Market, which is in trouble after developer and Interurban Building owner Craig MacKenzie threatened earlier this week to tell his investors to pull out of the grocery, Suhm said that late Tuesday night, the city was presented with "a version of the books" that are "being opened up" and studied to see precisely how it's losing more than $100,000 a month, as MacKenzie insists. Suhm said the city's working on a "proposal to save" the grocery, which opened a year ago, and that it involves at least a "two-year commitment" from whoever winds up running (or taking over) Urban Market. Suhm also said she "wasn't terribly excited by the editorial about it" yesterday in The Dallas Morning News, in which the paper wondered, "Why is it just now--as the upscale downtown grocery store edges toward shutting down--that city staffers' best advice is to form a task force to craft a rescue plan? At best, that's a bureaucrat's feeble solution. If the city doesn't get more aggressively involved, there might not be a grocery store to rescue."

That is a good point: After all, in April the paper reported that MacKenzie was threatening to pull up stakes if the city didn't fork over, by June, $4 million in tax increment financing money to which they're not entitled yet, given there are many projects--and developers and investors--in the front of the line waiting for their own slice of the TIF tart. It's not like this came as a surprise to the city. But Suhm insists even if the current proposal doesn't float, Assistant City Manager Ryan Evans, who deals with economic development, "always has an alternate plan in his hip pocket, and there will be a downtown grocery."

But there's this larger question: How, precisely, is Urban Market losing so much money? That's something D Editor Wick Allison and Executive Editor Tim Rogers and I wondered as we bumped into each other in the packed grocery around 1 this afternoon. It was a question we posed to the city's long-range planning head Teresa O'Donnell, who was walking in as we were walking out--and one to which she didn't have an answer, because, well, look at how crowded the place is at lunch time, with folks dining inside and out and plenty more doing a little early-afternoon shopping. But regardless of its present, its future is in doubt unless the city can find other investors to replace the folks itching for their payday right now, rather than in the near future--when DowntownDallas chairman of the board John Crawford promises that the figure of 3,400 people living in the city's core will double by the end of next year.

Suhm also addressed the bridges by asking for "time and space" to allow negotiations with contractors and, one assumes, Santiago Calatrava himself, who likely needs to scale back the design in order to even approach the city's budget. "Folks are working on getting that done," she insisted. More to come shortly about the bond package and that lousy chicken. --Robert Wilonsky

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