Thursday, January 27, 2022 Jan 27, 2022
49° F Dallas, TX


By  |

THERE ARE GOOD REASONS FOR Approving a new arena, and there are bad reasons. To put the matter bluntly, building a better ice rink for guys with broken teeth is not a good reason, or at least not one that pulls our string. Nor do we care about building a new basketball court for guys with oversized egos and oversized paychecks.

The best reason for the new arena has nothing to do with the building itself, but with the builder. Downtown Fort Worth’s remarkable revival didn’t happen by chance (if you haven’t been there, you’ve missed something); it resulted from a private-public partnership between the city and the Bass family, whose vision and perseverance has paid off in an entertainment district unimaginable only a decade ago. In a few years, I believe Dallas will talk in the same way about Ross Perot Jr. and our downtown.

The location-near the old TU Electric plant on the outskirts of downtown-is an urban eyesore. It can be transformed into an urban jewel, placed in a setting between the West End and the Crescent area that has endless possibilities for nightlife, entertainment, and housing. Reunion Arena never added anything to our downtown because of its isolation, its dependence on cars, and its fortress-like design. It just sat there alone like an ugly frog in a pond of parking lots. With the new arena, Perot has an ambition to match and overtake the Basses in Fort Worth. With the arena as a centerpiece, an entire section of our city can be reinvigorated and brought to life.

That means dollars in the pockets of taxpayers. Fifteen years ago, downtown Dallas produced 20 percent of the tax revenues for the city of Dallas. Today it produces only 16 percent. That 4 percent difference amounts to $60 million a year. In 15 years, that means we’ve lost nearly a billion dollars in tax revenue. If there’s a pothole on your street that hasn’t been fixed, now you know why. The money wasn’t there to fix it.

To recoup our nearly one billion dollar loss of revenue, we need to invest. We invested in DFW International Airport, and it paid off big-time. We invested in DART light rail, and it, too, is paying off. A $125 million or so investment in a new arena is small potatoes compared to what we have to gain.

Add to that the fact that the city’s investment comes from hotel and auto rental taxes, and not directly from residents, and we seem to have a no-lose situation. So what are the opponents’ arguments? Why are they so vociferous in their opposition, and what points should we consider?

This is nothing more than a government subsidy for rich people. Who will rent the apartments, eat at the restaurants, drink at the bars, watch the games-rich people? This city does stand on the edge of East Texas, and a lot of East Texas populism- simple spite of the rich because they have so much more money-seems to have seeped into the water supply. I’ve never heard one person in Fort Worth say anything but “Hosanna!” about the Basses’ investment in their city. We ought to encourage every rich person in Dallas to do just what Tom Hicks and Ross Perot are doing: come downtown, make a deal with the city, invest in redeveloping blighted areas, help create housing and entertainment options, help make the place as lively as Deep Ellum on a Saturday night. Then we ought to buy them a beer and give them a bear hug, and tell them to tell their friends that Dallas is a place that wants rich people to invest in it.

Downtown’s starting to turn around. It doesn’t need this kind of investment. This is such sheer fantasy that it nearly knocked the breath out of me when I first heard it. Sixty-seven thousand people have moved back into downtown Toronto in the last few years. Charlotte, a little city half our size, has more than 5,000 people living in its downtown. Here in Dallas, one 147-unit apartment building opens on Main Street, and some people are willing to declare victory and go home. Hold on a minute! Measured against almost every other major city, our downtown is a wasteland. Under the empty, asphalt-covered surfaces and behind the shuttered windows of those vacated old buildings lie such riches as we have barely dreamed of, but only investment and imagination will enable us to uncover and exploit the wealth we could create. Downtown has barely begun its comeback, and only a fool would bet on it as a sure thing. If we’re placing bets, let’s bet on investment and risk and hard work. Then if we’re fortunate, perhaps downtown will be the one great gift this generation passes on to the next.

Hotel and car rental taxes affect residents as much as visitors. Let’s think about this one. If nobody needs to come to our city, we won’t collect any hotel or car rental taxes at all, no matter what the percentage. If our convention and tourist business suffers because our downtown is boring and decrepit and our convention facilities are small and outmoded, people will slop coming. No people, no revenue. More investment, more things to do and see, more people. (Who exactly are those residents who are complaining so much about a hotel tax anyway, the local adultery lobby? And how many days over the last three years have you rented a car locally- one, maybe two?)

Perot has only promised development. He hasn’t laid out his plans. I wish he would but realize why he can’t. (As it is, we lost the opportunity to place this development in the Farmers Market area because land owners there thought that since it was the only logical arena site, they could extract top dollar. They were wrong, but it shows that developers have a good reason to keep quiet about their plans.) Here we have to depend on simple economics: Nobody buys expensive acreage to watch it lie fallow. Perot’s record at Alliance speaks for itself. The airport and surrounding development is one of the great private-public enterprises of our era-unsurpassed in any region of this country. What’s Perot going to do with the land he’s buying as a part of this deal, sit on it? Sell it to someone else so they can develop it? Perot has shown as much vision and courage as any developer anywhere. If he produces plans that people want to argue over, they’ll have plenty of opportunity to, but we’re not about to tell the man not even to try.

And that’s it. Those are the arguments against the arena. I’ve read the analyses by national experts that sports facilities by themselves don’t produce enough revenue to justify public investment. Although the city’s rental arrangement in this deal pays off its investment, let’s assume the national experts, lumping all the deals together, still are right. That’s why I’m not for a new arena, and never have been. I’m for an arena as the cornerstone for the revitaliza-tion of a blighted area that could spur countless investments-large as new office buildings, small as a corner pub?- that will make our downtown the region’s magnet for arts, entertainment, dining, carousing, and housing. Fort Worth may have been dealt a few good hands, but the game’s still on. We’ll see their Basses, and raise them a Perot.