H. L. Mencken once defined Puritanism as the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy. A narrower version permeates the corridors of Dallas City Hall, which seems consumed by the fear that someone, somehow may be making money.
To protect itself from that awful possibility, City Hall has thrown up barricades of zoning regulations, ordinances, and permits whose purpose is to make doing business with Dallas as onerous as possible. Ask any developer—and I mean any developer—and he will tell you that Dallas is the most difficult municipal government he’s ever worked with.
The anti-business culture of Dallas City Hall was established long before Laura Miller became mayor. In fact, her tenure has actually improved things. She is so suspicious of business—of people trying to make money—and her public statements at times have been so extreme that city staffers have been jarred into a realization of how damaging that attitude can be. So, ironically, her anti-profit rhetoric has helped, as city staffers scramble to keep the business community from abandoning the city altogether.
This would be a weird psychological state for any city, but for Dallas it makes no sense at all. A city’s primary purpose is to create wealth. That’s how modern cities came into being—as medieval marketplaces.
Dallas is, famously, a business town. There’s no other reason for it to exist. Of all the civic cultures on earth, this ought to be one that encourages—positively falls over itself to help—local businesses succeed.
If the mentality at City Hall is warped, Dallas citizens have nobody to blame but themselves. Dallas has been a city notoriously afraid to invest in itself, which makes it awkward to ask for the investment of others. Dallas voters, in 1967, rejected the bonds for DFW Airport. In 1998, by a margin of less than 2 percent, they approved the Trinity River bonds, and that was with federal agencies ready to spend $900 million if the bond vote passed.
Because of that tiny margin—about 2,357 votes—land values along the Trinity are soaring. Development plans are sprouting up everywhere. The results are so encouraging that the Dallas City Council may muster up the courage to call for a $1 billion bond package. More dollars should go to the Trinity—to dismantle and bury the utility cable towers that mar its landscape, for example—which would spur even more private investment.
The Trinity River will be a bonanza for Dallas, and the best news is, lots of people will make money off it. That means more hotels, more office buildings, more restaurants and bars, more theaters and entertainment centers—and that means more tax revenue to spend on neighborhoods and infrastructure.
The Trinity River is a big project. I hope it teaches City Hall—and Dallas voters—a big lesson. Commerce builds cities, and civic investment builds commerce. I propose a new motto be inscribed on the foreheads of Dallas city employees: “Hi, my name is ______, and I’m here to help you succeed.”