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Sheila and Jody Grant: ‘This is Our Child’

They worked seven years to make Klyde Warren Park happen. Here’s how they did it.
photography by Sean McGinty

Jody Grant, chairman emeritus of Texas Capital Bank and chairman of the Woodall Rodgers Park Foundation, and his wife Sheila, a community volunteer and park foundation board member, are credited by many with jump-starting Dallas’s downtown deck park. In this interview, the couple talk about the challenges—and triumphs—they’ve experienced along the way.

Q: Before we delve into the park itself, can you give me a sense of your personal partnership?
JODY GRANT: There’s some things that if she tells you, she’ll have to kill you! [Laughter.] We’re both in our first marriage. We met in college. I graduated from college in 1960 from Southern Methodist University, as an undergrad. Then I got an MBA from the University of Texas. You can go online and find this out.

Can’t about me.

Actually she was strolling across the campus. In a stroller. [Laughter.] We moved to Dallas in 1990, after living in Fort Worth for 15 years before that.

Q: The deck park has been in the planning stages for years. How did you two get involved?

JG: In 2004, I was on the board of the [Dallas] chamber of commerce. One day I got a call from Tom Leppert, then the chamber president, who said, “Would you head up our efforts as it relates to downtown?” And I said, “Sure, be happy to,” because I was interested in urban spaces. It became apparent to Sheila and me that this area was not going to be complete unless this park was promoted and brought forward.

The ditch, the “moat,” between Uptown and downtown was just such a barrier. I was officing in the Texas Capital Bank building, and I looked down on this area, and nobody ever walked from Uptown to downtown, because it was noisy and environmentally unfriendly. Those cars created wind of their own, and it was like you were in a wind tunnel. So women just wouldn’t do it.

The Real Estate Council also thought this park was a good idea, and adopted the concept as a philanthropic target of theirs. I found out about that and, through connections, I called John Zogg and Linda Owen. Linda was then president of TREC. So we met and I told them what I wanted to do. They had allocated $1 million to this, but the $1 million wasn’t enough to get started. So I said that Sheila and I would bring in another $1 million, and Texas Capital Bank would bring another $1 million, to make $3 million. That was the money that was needed to do the feasibility study.

SG: I will say that my vision was somewhat different. Having been involved in the arts world forever, I felt like, with the fact that the whole Arts District was going to come together as a unit, that it was then time to have this park as the village square, covering that moat. Also, I grew up here and, after traveling all over the world, I felt like Dallas has never been defined by traditions. With this park, this whole area will be the blimp shot of Dallas, and we can now have traditions that people will be able to take their children, and their grandchildren, to. That will help define Dallas. Also growing up here, I felt like we had a lack of green space in Dallas. The major cities all over the world have a signature park, which we did not have here.

I look at things probably from more of an economic development point of view, but I agree with everything Sheila said. Downtown Dallas was just destroyed in the 1980s as a result of the recession. Dallas has had a challenge ever since. What do you do to bring back downtown Dallas? It takes a lot of different projects coming together at the same time.

I think also that, having traveled so much, again, we had seen many parks where there were free concerts and events, and we wanted to have that in our city, to where the symphony, which I have been very close to, could perform here for free, as could the opera, the theater center. Nothing will be charged for in this park, except for food in the restaurant or the kiosk or whatever. That has been our goal from Day One.

Q: What was your main motivation, Jody?

JG: I like things and projects that have an impact. When we lived in Fort Worth, I-30 went through downtown Fort Worth, and the highway department was going to expand I-30 from four lanes to 10 lanes, and it was going to encroach on the historic buildings as well as the water gardens. I try to think out of the box, so I wrote a half-page op-ed piece for the Star-Telegram. It suggested that what the highway department was going to do was a tragedy, and that there was an opportunity to move that highway 1,000 yards to a half-mile to the south, where there was a natural transportation corridor, and re-create the southern end of downtown Fort Worth. That simple op-ed piece became a movement, and we ended up hiring all kinds of professionals and we blocked the [original] highway expansion. It took 22, 23 years.
That was me looking at a situation and saying, something needs to be done. And that’s kind of the way I looked at this as well.

As a team with Linda and others, our first job was to get the city to buy into this. In late 2004, I called then-Mayor Laura Miller and got an appointment with her. In my
opinion—others might disagree—she had lost Cowboys Stadium to Arlington, and there was a lot of noise about that. I think she looked upon [the park project] as [something that would be] a great victory for her. So she bought into it hook, line, and sinker. Before I knew it, at her state of the city address, in February 2005, she pre-announced this whole effort. [Laughter.] All of a sudden, the genie was out of the bottle. And that was fine. Getting Laura and the city staff to get this project to where it is, has been critical.

Q: It was pretty complicated, wasn’t it?
JG: It was. The first thing I did was form a 501(c)(3), and got a local law firm to volunteer their time and effort. Linda Owen, John Zogg, and I were the organizing founders of the 501(c)(3) and were the trustees. While this was going on, I recruited a board of private citizens to be an advisory board—a diversified who’s who of Dallas, including Ross Perot Jr., Ray Hunt, Harlan Crow, Albert Black. I needed that to show a groundswell of support for this, so that we could get into the bond election of 2006. Fortunately Laura was behind this, so we worked through 2005 and were included in the 2006 bond election for $20 million. 

SG: I was amazed at what he was able to accomplish. When you tell Jody he can’t do something, he decides definitely that he can. For example, I said, “Well, I don’t think you can go down there to Austin and get money, and I hope we haven’t just dropped our $1 million down the drain.” We were told in the beginning, this can’t happen, it won’t happen, it’s just impossible.

Q: Who told you that?
SG: Just about everybody! With reason, actually, because Dallas has not embraced green space like, say, Chicago or New York, have.

JG: Laura said, “Okay, we’ll put you in the bond election, but you’ve got to raise $10 million in private money, and I need evidence of that.” So while we were beginning to think about this, I was out recruiting that board, and also trying to find private money. I got to $7 million, but we were running out of time. So I went to one of our leading citizens and explained the problem and he said, “Tell her you’ve got $10 million, and if I have to, I’ll write a check.” So that was what happened. We got in the bond election and that was our first public money.

For the state monies, we hired a lobbyist, [former state senator] David Cain. Using other connections that we had in Austin also, we were able to find two tranches of $10 million each in the state transportation enhancement program.

SG: I would say Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst was very instrumental in helping us, too. David is a great visionary and saw the difference the project could make to Dallas.

Q: So, things were moving along well?
JG: Yes. But then a major issue we ran into that nobody had anticipated was the recession that began in 2007-2008. Money was really hard to raise during that period of time. The stock market went into the tank; the foundations that we had relied upon for money put the brakes on. It was just a very, very difficult period.

SG: But then you had the brilliant idea of going after the federal stimulus money. I think that was genius on Jody’s part, to even think about it.

JG: When [the stimulus] program was being unveiled, we figured, this money is going someplace, and Texas should get its fair share, because we’ve got a shovel-ready project. So I called the team together and we brainstormed around a conference table and came up with about $7 million or $8 million worth of easily justifiable federal funds that we thought we could apply for. Then we got with a fellow named Tom Shelton, with Carter & Burgess, who was really good about sourcing public money. And we eventually got $16.7 million, which saved the day for us during a very critical time.

Q: How did you go about money-raising on the private side?
JG: We just got on our hands and knees and begged! The private money was always the challenge.

SG: We also have kept this a very lean, mean machine here. We’ve never had more than three or four people working here in this office, and we’ve never had a professional development person. We wanted to make sure that every dollar that our donors gave us was spent on building this park, and not on a huge staff. That meant that Jody and I did fundraising and, in addition, we both served on basically every single committee. We rarely go to bed before 1 a.m. Jody has threatened to smash my
Blackberry, because he would like to go to bed a little earlier!

JG: We also decided to go on “field trips” to Millenium Park in Chicago and to Bryant Park in New York City. In Chicago, importantly as it relates to fundraising, John Bryant, who’d been the CEO of Sarah Lee, spent a lot of time with us. He said, “Look. You’ve got to go ask for big gifts. You cannot nickel-and-dime this thing. You can’t sell bricks and sell this park.”

Those field trips were real eye-openers. We saw in Millenium a park that had such tremendous quality in it; it just was magnificent. Then we went to Bryant Park and saw something different. It’s a quality park as well, but it’s more about programming and the activities that happen in the park, thanks to Dan Biederman. So this began to shape our vision of what we thought this park should be.

SG: At the Art Institute of Chicago, they quadrupled their attendance once Millenium Park opened. That really intrigued me, to think that maybe this park would help the other arts groups in the Arts District.

JG: It also was important to get the owners of the real estate around here to buy into this project, and to support it. So a lot of the early private money came from the various owners of the real estate. Out of Texas Capital Bank, we had $4 million alone. I’m proud of the fact that those people who had a stake in downtown put their money where their mouth was. That was critically important to getting others to support the project.

Q: How many private donors did you have?
JG: I think it was around 50, including people who’ve given as little as $1,000. The Communities Foundation of Texas also stepped up with a $5 million grant, from the W.W. Caruth Foundation. That happened in 2007, right at the onset of the recession. That was huge. This project would not have moved forward without that.

SG: Charles Wyly was chairman of the foundation and Jody was the incoming chairman, and Charles was very much behind this project. He thought it would be very helpful to the Wyly Theater and the Winspear Opera House. That helped to get the $5 million, which was a little bit extraordinary.

JG: Right now, we have a total of $108 million. The Woodall Rodgers Park Foundation will be responsible for the park’s operation, from now for the next 50 years and for four 10-year periods after that, should we choose to renew it. So while the building of the park has been a public-private partnership, the operation of it will be truly a private endeavor.

We still have about $7 million in features that, if we are able to get them named, we will raise that much additional money. That would put us at about $115 million. Our goal is $110 million. So far we’ve sold some trees, at $25,000 each. You get a plaque for that. For continuing operations, we will have an operating budget of about $2.5 million to $3 million a year. Our challenge will be to run the park on a break-even basis.

Q: How are you going to do that?
SG: The template is the Biederman plan from Bryant Park. He gets sponsors for various things in the park, and then he gets that source of revenue from a restaurant. And he has never had to go out and raise any money at all. Revenue just comes in.

Q: But all the park activities will be free. So you need corporate support?
JG: Not corporate donations, but business sponsorships—or it could be individuals. We’ll be going to somebody like an AT&T, for example, and asking them if they will sponsor x event in the park. Chase Bank will be the lead sponsor for our opening, in addition to their naming of the Chase Promenade—a $3 million gift.

Q: How much money do you expect the restaurant to generate each year?
JG: I would hope it might cover as much as 20 percent of our budget—that’s total, for food and beverage services in the park, including catering. The food-service concept has two components. One is a nice restaurant with both indoor and outdoor dining. The other is a kiosk, which will be more fast food: hamburgers, salads, breakfasts. The restaurant will open after the park does—we anticipate in the June, July timeframe of 2013. 

Building this restaurant on top of the bridge has been very complex, so what we thought was a perfect plan turned out not to be so perfect. The devil’s very much in the details.

Q: You’ve been very hands-on throughout the process, it seems.
SG: Yes. I went to talk with Joe Volpe at the Metropolitan Opera, for instance. I went early on to Doug Adams, who was then heading the Dallas Symphony. I talked to the American Film Institute about how to do our film.

When we were working on the performance pavilion, I went to Rachel Moore at American Ballet Theater and said we need to visit with the architect, because he really needs to understand what it’s going to take to have a ballet company in that pavilion. And, that resonated with the architect.

Initially he had poles in the middle of the pavilion, for example. So the dancers would have knocked themselves out, the musicians wouldn’t have had any place to sit, but it was going to be a gorgeous piece of art!

So, I decided to take Rachel. We walked in and the architect was dressed all in black, had his arms crossed, and it was very tense. But by the time we left three hours later, the poles were gone and Rachel had done her magic. It was wanting the very best, and having access to those people, that I think really made a difference.

Q: What will you do once the park opens?
SG: I’m looking forward to getting back to my world of ballet and involvement in the other arts that I’ve had to sort of put aside. At the same time, this is our child, and there are donors who are expecting a lot out of this park because they believed in what we were telling them we were going to do. So we will have a long-going participation; it just won’t be as intense.

JG: Sheila’s point is a good one. Many of these gifts are to be paid out over a period of time. The normal payout is five years; a few are a little longer. So I have a responsibility to stay around and make sure that the money is spent as it was intended.

Q: Won’t you feel a little let down after the opening?
JG: I’m going to breathe a huge sigh of relief! Voila! I can go on vacation!

SG: It will be a huge sigh of relief. We’ve done it; we’ve accomplished it. The excitement of then having an operating park is going to be our dream come true. Seven years of a dream.