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South Dallas Needs Dale Davenport

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Normally I don't do this. I don't suggest solutions. But in this case, I cannot resist.

Last week I met with Mayor Mike Rawlings and his spokesperson, Sam Merten, to discuss an issue I had been writing about a lot — a car wash on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in the heart of South Dallas that was threatened with eminent domain foreclosure recently. The letter threatening eminent domain cited some unnamed city "project" the car wash property was needed for. But when the business' owner, Dale Davenport, went to City Hall to ask what the project was, he met a stonewall.

Nobody would say what the project was. In fact, nobody would admit to having sent him the letter.


Dale Davenport

I asked, too. Merten, the mayor's spokesperson, told me a couple weeks ago the mayor was interested or involved in it in some way. When I asked how, he said, "Ask him." So that's what our meeting was about. I asked the mayor if he knew who was behind the eminent domain letter.

"I am the culprit here," Rawlings said.

You could have knocked me off my chair with a feather.

He went on to explain: "You can't say southern Dallas without saying South Dallas."

I don't know if you know what he means. I do. What he sees, what he gets about southern Dallas is that it is diverse in important ways — diverse ethnically, diverse by social and economic class, by land type, transportation connectivity and general economic promise. He said his "Grow South" initiative has caused him to focus on places in southern Dallas where there is already a certain potential on the ground.

But then there is South Dallas, a distinct neighborhood around Fair Park, barely two miles southeast of downtown. Rawlings sees Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and the western approaches to Fair Park as a stubborn problem. He says it scares people to drive down MLK on their way to Fair Park and see a lot of loiterers. In particular, he thinks there are way too many loiterers at Dale Davenport's car wash. He wants to find a way to "clean this place up and make it look safe."

Rawlings told me that he does not see eminent domain as the city's best path forward at the car wash. He told me he said in a meeting with department heads that he was interested in seeing if Davenport would sell. Somehow that expression worked its way down into the bureaucracy where it became a heavy-handed threat of eminent domain, which he did not intend.

But Rawlings still believes a necessary step toward getting the property redeveloped is getting it away from Davenport. He and Merten both told me the city attorney has advised them that the city could use the "non-conforming use" protocol, a complicated maneuver by which a property's zoning is changed retroactively, to wrest the property from Davenport.

That still sounds like a "taking" to me, a move by which a government forces the sale of a property, but, hey, am I a lawyer? In my experience when City Hall decides it wants your property, it takes your property, if for no reason other than the sheer expense of fighting City Hall.

Meanwhile, would it be a good thing or a bad thing to have some nice, safe-looking, more sort of suburban-feeling development on that corner like, say, a Wendy's or maybe one of those little mini-drive-in Starbucks knock-offs, or, I don't know, a store selling lacrosse equipment and prep school blazers or something? Sure. Maybe. Maybe it's a good idea to seek some kind of upscaling of the property.

So here is my idea. This is straight from Jim Schutze. If it works, I want a plaque of some kind put up with my name on it.

It's all about the guy. Or woman. The developer. It needs to be somebody who has the business bones to make it a success. We need somebody who has the business and credit history of his or her own to get a big serious company like Wendy's to go partners.

We do not want a front man. That's a formula for tragedy. That's where you get some rich white guy to be the money. He stands silent in the background, and somebody with no business experience is out front playing the part. For one thing, this needs to be done by somebody who really knows what he's doing, who really knows the ground, and who has his skin in the game.

It would be best if the person chosen for this part came from the community, somebody who has some history there and, even more important, has a track record of business success in the community. It needs to be someone who has demonstrated that he can go into that marketplace, attract traffic, draw revenue, pay off a loan, reinvest in his business and earn a good living while he's at it.

But, look, you get into all kinds of development loans and financing and franchising and stuff like that. It ain't just tiddlywinks. You need somebody who has a serious business education, a degree of some kind in finance or a related field. He's got to have the intellectual wherewithal to count the money, keep up with the deal, read the fine print and know what it means.

If this guy is going to borrow all kinds of money to do this, it would help if he's somebody from whom other people have borrowed money. Nobody appreciates the importance of not stiffing a lender like somebody who has been stiffed. It would be nice if this could be a person who has read a lot of other people's loan applications.

There are certain signals and indications to look for in deciding whether to trust somebody, like who else trusts him. Has he been asked to sit on boards or oversight committees? Is he a director of anything? Did somebody else ever say, "Hey, we need to get this guy on our board, because he knows what he's doing, and he's a solid person?"

And then some of it comes down to sitting down and talking. Does he come across as solid? Or is he more like that guy the city chose to run the horse park? You keep getting the feeling he's going to get you to bet on a card trick. Yeah, the same city bureaucrats who sent out that eminent domain letter have a less than sterling record on judging basic business character, do they not?

But the mayor could do it. He's a business guy, way smart, with a career history at the top of corporate America. He could sit down with some man or some woman and get a pretty good read.

I know the person. It's a guy. That's my contribution. I know the individual who meets all these criteria. He has been a solid loan-paying hard-working successful entrepreneur since age 16. At age 52, he is the owner of several successful businesses in retail, service, land development and construction. He has a degree in finance. He sits on the board of a company that owns two banks. He takes stacks of loan applications home with him for his evening reading.

But the best part is, this guy has a solid record in southern Dallas. In fact, he owns one of the most successful businesses in old South Dallas. And not just anywhere in South Dallas, but right on MLK. And not just close to where Davenport has his car wash. But right there!

It's Dale Davenport.

Davenport is a popular and very successful businessman on MLK with a finance degree, a seat on the board of a banking company and a bunch of successful enterprises to his credit. And it gets better.

Because Davenport's business has been the target of envious and unscrupulous politicians trying to pry it out of his hands for the last eight years, he has also been the target of more criminal and civil investigations than JP Morgan, and unlike JP Morgan he has come out of every one of them clean as a whistle. I doubt you could find another businessman in Dallas with that good a record, just because nobody else's record would have that many pages in it, every one with a gold star at the bottom.

I ran this by him last week. I asked if he would ever be interested in redeveloping his property, and he told me he and his father had already talked about it. "I see a lot of opportunity down there, because there are a lot of services that are needed. We need a Wendy's down there. We need some restaurants down there."

He said he sees signs of promise in the immediate neighborhood: "Obviously Walgreens and McDonald's are making money down there. They've got a brand-new Auto Zone down there. They've got a brand-new O'Reilly's down there.

Davenport told me that land is not cheap on MLK. "That lot right next to the Jack in the Box, they want $700,000 for that, and it's not a corner lot or anything."

His property is a corner lot, and he says he has a substantial investment in the car wash infrastructure. "It'd take a million-five to buy the land and build it now. It's about $75,000 to $80,000 per bay to build a car wash now."

By happy coincidence, the mayor's office informed me at the end of last week that the mayor will meet with Davenport this coming Friday. I hope somebody at that meeting will at least mention my nomination for somebody to redevelop the Dale Davenport property. Dale Davenport. And just think: That way the city doesn't have to spend a million dollars on lawyer fees stealing his property so they can give it to the guy with the card tricks.

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