Any time City Hall plays with the facts, there’s a reason. It should raise a red flag. A case in point right now is a new plan to turn over the baseball field at Reverchon Park to private interests.
Think of it this way: This is about $20-$30 million worth of land that you own in one of the city’s oldest, most historic parks. That doesn’t make it a bad plan. But it makes it a bad plan to lie about.
This proposal should raise some of the same red flags we saw in former Mayor Mike Rawlings’ attempt to give the city’s 277-acre Fair Park in South Dallas to a buddy to run. In fact, one of the main people who headed off the Fair Park giveaway is now raising red flags about Reverchon.
District 2 Park Board member Jesse Moreno is not saying the plan to commercialize Reverchon is necessarily a bad idea. Yet. But he is saying people should not misrepresent what’s going on there in order to push the plan through the approval process.
For-profit investors and the Dallas Park and Recreation Department leadership have been marketing the proposed commercial takeover of the Reverchon Park ball field on the false premise that it has something to do with another new recreational facility also being proposed at Reverchon for kids with disabilities. And, yes, there are talks going on now about an “all-abilities” playground at Reverchon.
But the all-abilities idea has nothing to do with the proposal to let a national for-profit sports company build a commercial minor league sports palace where public ball fields have existed at Reverchon since the mid-1880s. And linking the two in the public mind, using the all-abilities field in promotional material for the for-profit operation, is cynical.
Worse than cynical, the Park and Recreation Board traipses close to legal trouble by treating these two very different proposals as if they are one and the same, linked at birth, to be briefed to the board and voted on as a package. Think how that frames the matter.
One is nonprofit. The other is for-profit. The natures of the two deals are totally different, as are the numbers and agreements the board should be looking at for each.
Linking them makes it harder for a park board member or a City Council member to ask tough questions about the for-profit. A board member with qualms about giving away the lion’s share of one of the city’s oldest parks is in the position of being against kids with special needs.
In a recent meeting of the Dallas Park and Recreation Board, that’s exactly how outgoing board President Bobby Abtahi set it up. When Moreno asked that the two proposals be considered separately, Abtahi accused him of “trying to tear apart what I think is a fantastic deal in your own district.”
When Moreno stuck to his guns, Abtahi bullied harder. He accused Moreno of violating the city’s public bid rules by trying to split the two things apart: “Attorneys,” Abtahi said to city legal staff sitting nearby, “this was an RFP (request for proposals), so can you even do that?”
Moreno interjected, “This (the all-abilities field) was not part of the original RFP.”
“I believe it was part of the bid,” Abtahi said. “I have always been told when something is an RFP and you get a bid, then you don’t get to make major changes.”
Assistant City Attorney Chrisine P. Lanners said, “That is correct, Mr. President. We cannot change the RFP, if this is part of the RFP. I do not have the specs in front of me, so we need to confirm that.”
Guess what. I have the RFP in front of me. I can confirm what Moreno said. The all-abilities field is nowhere mentioned in it. The idea that the two things are somehow conjoined is a fiction used as a marketing ploy and a political cudgel. And it’s a lie.
Last weekend Moreno and I met by the aging Reverchon baseball grandstand. Behind us on a steep rocky escarpment, weathered stone steps climbed to stone benches and a lookout built in the 1930s. Reverchon, named for one of the French communists who founded a utopian colony in Dallas in 1855, is appropriately and wonderfully unlike anything else in Dallas.
Moreno didn’t meet me there to tell me the for-profit proposal is a terrible idea: “I want it to be a fair deal,” he said. “I want this to be a deal that works for the (for-profit) management group. But most importantly, I want this deal to work for the citizens of Dallas.”
Reverchon sits on extremely valuable land in the bull’s-eye of an affluent high-rise renaissance all around it. I looked at appraisal district values for nearby property — always lower than what things actually sell for — and I found land near Reverchon valued at an average of $4.8 million per acre.
Reverchon is either 39 or 46 acres, depending on who’s counting, so that would put the park’s potential appraisal value somewhere between $187 and $221 million. The current ball field takes up 4.25 acres. The commercial operators want 6.28 acres. So turning this much land over to a for-profit enterprise is a gift worth somewhere between $20 million and $30 million. Then, according to Moreno, the enterprise may be able to operate on public land without paying property taxes. Now that’s some sweet gravy.
The all-abilities field would be built on an isolated meadow apart from the main park. The people proposing it are a nonprofit faith-based group called Kershaw’s Challenge.
The public face of the commercial project is an ad hoc group with a famous sports name out front, but the company behind it is Loge Capital Partners, a joint venture with HKS Sports and Entertainment, a builder of sports stadiums all over the world.
The Kershaw brand is liberally sprinkled around the promotional material for the Loge Capital project, so the two entities are, indeed, working City Hall as partners. But that doesn’t change the fact that the all-abilities project was not asked for, contemplated, sought or specified in the legal document seeking bids for redeveloping the ball field.
That just isn’t true. It is untrue. And as I said at the top, when people at City Hall say things that are demonstrably false, there is always a reason.
Moreno wants a closer look at the for-profit money. In its proposal, the for-profit is projecting income of $8.5 million a year and costs of $8 million a year. “I would like to see the detail of the costs,” he told me.
Moreno, appointed by Dallas District 2 City Council member Adam Medrano, was part of a tough, small caucus on the park board who forced the city to cough up honest numbers on a proposed giveaway of Fair Park, where the State Fair of Texas takes place every fall. He told me last weekend he wants to make sure the same kinds of padded and inflated expenses are not buried in this deal as they were in the original Fair Park deal.
“If there is an opportunity for us to make a little money off of this field and to be able to redirect those dollars to a baseball diamond on the other side of the city that’s not getting the attention and love that this park is, that to me would be a good deal,” he said.
“We need to be able to leverage the dollars that this management group is going to make off this beautiful facility. I mean, they are picking this site for a reason.”
And that’s the heart of it. The reason. What is the reason? Exactly? How does it work? What are the numbers? It is not churlish of Moreno to ask. He is not being uncivil. He is meeting his fiduciary duty, his responsibility as a steward of an important valuable public asset.
The story at City Hall too often is that it is uncivil for elected officials to ask these kinds of tough questions. The proposed giveaway of Reverchon was heralded a week or so ago by a typically gushing story in The Dallas Morning News making it look as if rich sports figures were coming to the aid of a beleaguered city facility as an act of charity. The all-abilities field was mentioned a lot.
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But there is another way to look at this, Moreno’s way. If the for-profit proposal is a clean, good deal for the city as it stands, then why not let it stand alone and prove itself? Why does it need the political cover and protection of an unrelated charitable project? Are we supposed to believe that HKS Sports and Entertainment, a global for-profit corporation, is a charity? Are for-profit and charity not mutually exclusive terms?
All of this goes back to the Park Board for consideration Oct. 10. At that time, seven new members, nearly half the board, will be seated for the first time, having heard not a word of this business before. That day they will be asked to vote on this.
That’s just crazy irresponsible. The timing adds to the appearance of a hustle, a scam. Let’s hope the new board has the presence of mind and the wherewithal to ask for a delay at least long enough for new members to catch their breath and catch up on the Reverchon proposals.
The for-profit group is asking for 40 years in lease and renewal agreements, nearly a half-century. These are decisions that should be made with care and a sharp eye out for the good of the city, not with meek submission and fear of offending.