The city of Dallas is losing its top economic staffer.
Dr. Eric Anthony Johnson, the city’s chief of Economic Development and Neighborhood Services, has announced that he will resign at the end of the month. City Manager T.C. Broadnax shared the news with the City Council in a memo Wednesday morning that was obtained by D Magazine. Johnson will be the new CEO of the Minneapolis-based affordable housing developer Aeon, the company announced.
His departure comes at a critical time for the city. Johnson—who is not related to Mayor Eric Johnson—began his tenure in March 2020 by crafting an economic development policy to guide the city in the years to come, focusing heavily on investments in southern Dallas and “communities of color for whom structural disparities have hindered opportunity.”
The cornerstone of that policy is establishing a city-governed nonprofit that can collect public money and private donations to fund projects in the public interest, providing the city its own entity that can sell land and develop properties it owns.
There are also significant policy changes coming to the city in the next few years. Dallas appears set to amend its housing policy from 2018, which has failed to generate the affordable units it set out to create. Council will also soon vote on a racial equity plan that seeks to ensure that Dallas invests public dollars and resources in historically overlooked communities. And, finally, an update to the comprehensive land use plan is expected to be unveiled later this year. All of those are critical to the city’s economic development.
All of that is the long game. The short game is important, too. During the pandemic, a backlog of commercial and residential permits forced developers to wait months for approvals that used to take just days. By the end of December 2020, it was taking nearly four months for a builder to get required permits. This kneecapped the city’s residential growth at a time when low supply and high demand sent home prices skyrocketing. Dallas trailed basically all of its neighbors in new-build growth during the pandemic.
Johnson stepped in to fix that problem, allowing private companies to review permits and overseeing a reorganization of the departments. He brought on former Goldman Sachs executive Will Mundinger to create a new process that would hopefully improve the permitting wait times. That is ongoing, and Phil Crone, the president of the Dallas Builders Association, says some of his colleagues are still reporting wait times of up to 10 weeks. (Staff says it can take 40 to 50 days to get the permits “if all goes smoothly,” he says.)
Johnson’s hiring in February 2020 was a surprise to the City Council. He was previously the community development director in Bloomington, Minnesota, and attended college with Broadnax at Washburn University in Kansas. But he gained a reputation for listening to different stakeholders and incorporating their views in what he presented to staff and council.
Mayor Johnson and Councilman Tennell Atkins, who chairs the Council’s Economic Development Committee sent a joint letter to Broadnax urging a national search for a replacement.
“Accordingly, before you hire internally or rely on your personal network to fill this vacancy, as you have done frequently in the past, we urge you to conduct a thorough national search for candidates who have significant economic development leadership experience in a major city and a proven track record of success,” the letter reads.
The two also ask the city manager to solicit feedback on candidates “from leaders in our local business and development communities who will need to work effectively” with the replacement.
In the memo announcing his departure, Broadnax credits Johnson with steering $22.2 million in city incentives toward $422.8 million in private investment. Johnson also created an affordable housing fund that, Broadnax writes, helped create 1,843 affordable residential units.
So who is going to be in charge of all these initiatives? The city manager does not say how he plans to fill the vacancy or whether he will appoint an interim chief. A city spokeswoman forwarded questions to the “appropriate department.”
Johnson’s last day at City Hall will be January 28.