City Council member Tennell Atkins likes to call it a “tale of two cities.” It’s a story many people in Dallas know by heart. There’s the booming city of gleaming skyscrapers and economic growth, the heart of a metro region that serves as a magnet for Fortune 500 companies and high-skilled workers who arrive from across the country in search of easy living and plenty of bang for their buck. Then there’s the other city.
This is the city that a few years ago ranked dead last (274th among the biggest cities in the U.S.) in an Urban Institute study of “economic inclusivity,” meaning that whatever economic success Dallas has enjoyed over the last few decades has not been shared with poor people who live here, many of them Black and Hispanic. The city where southern Dallas accounts for 54 percent of its land mass and 40 percent of its population, but only 15 percent of its tax base.
And it’s the city that’s again and again watched while suburban neighbors eat its lunch, with places like Frisco and Plano snagging major corporate relocations and welcoming tens of thousands of new residents while Dallas’ population flatlines. The city hasn’t helped itself much on that front. Builders, many of them surely frustrated by Dallas’ self-inflicted permitting woes, may be getting chased away to Collin County. (According to data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, in 2020 the city of Frisco—population 177,000—permitted 3,179 new housing units. Dallas, with more than seven times as many residents, permitted 3,691 units in 2020.)
If you’ve heard all this before, it’s because not much is new. Atkins, who chairs the city council’s Economic Development Committee and has been at this a long time, says the city has spent decades trying to craft a policy that could steer economic development to the neighborhoods that need it most. Various initiatives, with varying degrees of success, have tried to do this to different extents. Recently, former Mayor Mike Rawlings had GrowSouth. There was the Neighborhood Plus Plan. There have been task forces. (So many task forces.) Less all-encompassing have been undertakings like Reimagine Redbird, a widely praised project in which tax incentives and bond money helped spur redevelopment around Redbird Mall in southern Dallas.
Now, the city is rolling out an economic development policy that places its emphasis on closing the long-standing divide between northern and southern Dallas. It’s been in the works since 2018, and won’t be fully implemented for another year. But Atkins, who I spoke with a few weeks back about this topic, believes it’s the kind of policy the city has needed for decades.
Dr. Eric Anthony Johnson, who is the city’s chief of economic development and neighborhood services and is not related to Mayor Eric Johnson, presented the policy to City Council members on Wednesday. Its goals are ambitious and broad, and include “prioritizing Southern Dallas and communities of color for whom structural disparities have hindered opportunity,” and “providing incentives to increase access to housing, create pathways for meaningful employment, and service that improve quality of life and communities.”
Its most significant proposal is the creation of a new “local government corporation,” jargon for an outfit that basically functions as a nonprofit, collecting both public money and private donations for projects in the public interest. Texas cities often embrace these kinds of public-private entities for their flexibility and ability to do things cities can’t. This proposed LGC would be an economic development corporation that would market Dallas, especially southern Dallas, to businesses and investors, Johnson said. Many of Dallas’ biggest municipal competitors, including the ones in our own backyard, have similar economic development corporations. “And they are really chopping away at us,” Johnson said.
In Dallas, the corporation would also make real estate plays, with the power to buy and sell land and develop properties owned by the city. It could also push forward with work on properties already owned by the city, including the convention center downtown and Hensley Field, the former Naval Air Station that now mostly serves as Dallas’ storage unit. “That gives us the horsepower we need” to advertise sites, said Johnson, although “community-based economic development” is just as important as attracting corporations. The LGC would need about $5 million from the city to get started, although it would eventually be self-sustaining, Johnson said.
There was some criticism among council members in a virtual public hearing on the policy, which is not always very specific about its proposals. Its goals are hard to measure. Several representatives of the Greater Hispanic Chamber of Commerce said they felt Hispanic residents and business owners had been left out of the policy’s creation. Other business groups wanted a seat at the table. The plan will be tweaked and refined over the next year with further input, Johnson said.
There was praise, too, especially for the policy’s emphasis on a more inclusive approach to economic development. Southern Dallas, neglected for so long, has more potential than anywhere else in the city. Recognizing that—and recognizing the racism and structural inequality behind this long history of neglect—is a step in the right direction to realize that potential. A report from Mayor Johnson’s task force on attracting and growing startup companies, released last week, had a similar emphasis on inclusivity.
Yet we’ve heard a lot of this before. We’ve been telling ourselves this tale of two cities for a long time, and there’s still no happy ending in sight. Will this policy be different?
“We need two transformative projects to prove the case,” Dr. Eric Johnson told council members, referring to the idea that economic development begets more economic development. If investors see initial signs of growth in southern Dallas, then more investment will follow. Sort of an “if you build it, they will come,” situation, in other words. “If we prove the case, we’ll get more starting to happen,” he said.
That’s what Dallas needs to do now that it hasn’t been able in the past. Prove it.