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Dallas City Council Debates Downtown Economic Development

By Catherine Cuellar, KERA 90.1 reporter

Dallas, TX –

Catherine Cuellar, 90.1 reporter: The consulting firm McKinsey and Company recently completed a pro bono analysis of the city of Dallas. Last week assistant city manager Ryan Evans briefed the city council about its findings on one of the city's most vexing problems - economic development.

Ryan Evans, Assistant City Manager: McKinsey's study did list three options available for the council and mayor for economic development. One is just leave things the way they are and do some 'must-dos' in terms of letting staff have more authority, or again you could outsource this, or you could beef up internally.

Cuellar: The outsourcing option is advocated by David Biegler. Biegler currently chairs the Central Dallas Association board, and previously chaired mayor Ron Kirk's committee downtown redevelopment. But Biegler says too many other groups have the same mission.

David Biegler, Chairman of the Board, Central Dallas Association: I always half-joke, half-serious tell people we spend half to two-thirds of our time not attacking the issues or the problems downtown, we spend all that time trying to coordinate amongst ourselves.

Cuellar: So under Biegler's leadership, the CDA has championed the creation of a local government corporation to promote economic development in downtown Dallas, which is currently handled by city staff. The proposed LGC would assume some city staff and council functions, and unify and collapse more than a dozen private sector groups downtown, Biegler says.

Biegler: Nobody has ever said we're doing the wrong things. What we've said is we're not doing enough fast enough and well enough.

Cuellar: Robert Decherd, president and CEO of Belo Corp, which has been a client of McKinsey and Company, hopes the city of Dallas will adopt the study's outsourcing recommendation. Mayor Laura Miller tapped Decherd in the spring of 2002 to chair the Inside The Loop Committee, to kick start economic development in the area bound by Woodall Rogers to the north, I-30 to the south, I-35 to the west, and Central Expressway to the east.

Robert Decherd: What's I think very frustrating for many people is, when you look at the assets in place and you appreciate their potential, whether it's housing in downtown Dallas, the signature office buildings that we have, the wonderful arts facilities, why should we settle for a 40 to 50 percent attainment rate when everybody around us seems to be achieving at a higher level? Downtown Fort Worth. Downtown Houston. Downtown Austin.

Cuellar: Houston set up several local government corporations and has become the model for Dallas' plan. A board of nine directors appointed by the city council would hire a CEO. They could then issue bonds with council approval, and privately bid contracts for downtown improvements. The CEO would promote private sector buy-in to the plan, with goals approved annually by the city council. But annual check-in isn't enough oversight for Councilman James Fantroy.

James Fantroy, Dallas City Council District 8: I want somebody that we hire from this council just like we hired the city manager, the convention director and others to run the city of Dallas. We can hire a person and a staff to run downtown Dallas and put money behind it and get the same thing done, but that person then would be answerable to this council.

Cuellar: Fantroy fears that economic development in the southern sector, which he represents, would suffer. LGC proponents say it would free up city staff and generate tax revenue for projects citywide. But some of the LGC's biggest supporters aren't residents of Dallas, including Decherd and Biegler, who live in the Park Cities. Decherd says he doesn't want to serve on the board; Biegler would be willing to serve but not chair it. They argue that downtown business owners have as much at stake as Dallas residents. But the city code of ethics would have to be amended to allow LGC board members to own property downtown and help govern it. Fantroy said he'd fight that with a lawsuit.

Fantroy: I've made it clear if you try to put this together downtown, I'm going to take you to court. We have never, and when I'm talking about 'we' I'm talking about the black community now, has never got any rights through negotiation. Our rights have come through the courts. Now, show me one something that the business establishment has given us without going to court.

Cuellar: Through January, members of city council and staff will be working with the private sector to develop a blended approach that provides checks and balances but still improves downtown for the benefit of all citizens. Councilwoman Veletta Lill, whose district includes part of downtown, says she is open to some form of LGC.

Veletta Lill, Dallas City Council, District 14: What we do need to ensure is that we not set up an entity that has just enough power and just enough resources to fail, and we have done that with a development corporation in the past for the southern sector. Gave it very few resources and very little power, and then chastised them when they did not accomplish their mission.

Cuellar: All council members seem to agree that to achieve Dallas' full economic potential, leaving things the way they are is not an option. For KERA 90.1, I'm Catherine Cuellar.


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