GOOD NEIGHBOR: Sims believes that God’s will got him to Dallas City Hall.

The Worst Job in Dallas

All Alan Sims has to do is merge a decade of Dallas’ dumbest ideas and then fix housing, poverty, health, schools, and everything else you can think of.

Alan Sims started his job at City Hall on October 1. He is the chief of a newly created city department called Neighborhood Plus. Or maybe call it an initiative. Sims has a $500,000 annual budget and a few staff members, but Neighborhood Plus mostly exists for now as a work-in-progress PowerPoint that takes a 30,000-foot look at how the entire city ought to be transmogrified block by block, once more feedback from stakeholders is gathered. Sims is being tasked with bringing together multiple departments in the city, forging public-private partnerships, alleviating poverty, fighting blight, attracting and retaining the middle class, fostering home ownership, and expanding rental options. The City Hall website that houses the document says, “The goal of Neighborhood Plus is to create a proactive plan to promote healthy, sustainable neighborhoods throughout Dallas.”

Ignore for a minute that the “goal” is to “create a plan.” We’ll get to that. Focus instead on the fact that Sims’ department is responsible for making all neighborhoods in Dallas “healthy” and “sustainable” and is supposed to coordinate and give direction to all the other departments in Dallas responsible for urban planning, housing, and poverty. Think about how overwhelming this task is, and you’ll understand why it’s important that Sims believes this job opportunity is “God’s will.”

The central problem is that Sims’ goal is so monumental and so generic that it’s at once critic-proof and impossible to achieve.

Let me be clear: Sims seems to be a prayerful, honest man with nearly three decades of exemplary civil service, 15 of those spent as the city manager of Cedar Hill. I don’t bring up his belief in God’s will to belittle his faith. I do it to explain how in the world he could honestly think that he can make a real difference in Dallas. Because if history is any indication, revitalizing the city’s most needy neighborhoods will indeed take a miracle. 

The central problem is that Sims’ goal is so monumental and so generic that it’s at once critic-proof and impossible to achieve. Or, as Councilman Scott Griggs put it during a recent Council briefing, “It’s such a general idea, how can you be against it? How can you be against neighborhoods?” 

While the goal might be noble, it’s hard to look at Neighborhood Plus and not see it as another layer of management in a bloated bureaucracy. City Manager A.C. Gonzalez already has five assistant city managers working under him. Sims now finds himself the boss of the city’s new chief of planning—the same chief of planning who recently told the Council that one of his jobs is to oversee Neighborhood Plus. So the chief of planning is overseeing his boss, in a sense. No wonder some council members were confused and asked for an organizational chart to make sense of the many departments and people that say they are working on poverty, housing, and development. 

Sims isn’t fazed by the task at hand. “My decision to come to Dallas, I really prayed about it,” he says. Sims, who is 63, was first approached by Gonzalez a year ago about working for the city, but it took several months of retirement from his job in Cedar Hill to convince him he could still tackle the grind. “I know there are some challenges here, but I think that the resources are here to do things,” Sims says. “And if we get this right—and I say ‘if’; I believe it’s more of a case of ‘when’—Dallas will be a model for other large cities across the country.”

Sims’ résumé is certainly encouraging. He graduated in 1988 with a master’s degree from the Kansas University School of Public Affairs and Administration, a factory that produces city managers. It claims nearly 1,500 city managers as graduates. He soon went to work in Overland Park, a wealthy suburb outside Kansas City, Kansas, as a deputy city manager. It was a good gig, one he saw himself keeping for a long time. That is until he visited his sister-in-law in Dallas for Thanksgiving in 1999. (One of his brothers married his wife’s sister. Which isn’t relevant but is proof the Lord works in mysterious ways.) While in Dallas, Sims visited Cedar Hill and fell in love with its green space, Joe Pool Lake, the entire area of southwest Dallas County. When he got back to Kansas, Sims saw a job posting online for the city manager of Cedar Hill. Again, “God’s will,” he says.

During his tenure, Sims oversaw tremendous growth in population (from 32,000 to 46,000 residents) and development (more than 3 million square feet of commercial retail construction). As well, Cedar Hill became known as a haven for the black middle class of North Texas. In 1970, Cedar Hill was 99 percent white; by 2010, it had become more than half black. He developed a reputation as an innovator who played well with other cities and government entities. He helped establish a regional emergency dispatch and regional animal shelter with neighboring cities. He set up a joint fire station with Grand Prairie and joint water facilities with Duncanville. He brought city staff and the Cedar Hill ISD under the same roof, so they could better solve problems. Heck, Cedar Hill has a rec center named after him.

“When we started in Cedar Hill, there wasn’t really a whole lot of growth,” Sims says. “We brought on people that their No. 1 priority was to strengthen neighborhoods.”

“When we started in Cedar Hill, there wasn’t really a whole lot of growth,” Sims says. “We brought on people that their No. 1 priority was to strengthen neighborhoods. And I’m very comfortable doing that here … It was important, because strong neighborhoods will have strong property values. Strong neighborhoods will have lower crime. And strong neighborhoods are the places where people are happy, and the neighborhood associations are good barometers for input into the city. So there are a lot of different reasons why you want to strengthen neighborhoods.”

No one could disagree. But as Councilman Philip Kingston put it at the city’s briefing on Neighborhood Plus, “It’s time to tell us what you’re going to do, not planning for what we’re going to plan.” Over the past decade or so, that seems to be all that the city has done. Do you remember the Southern Sector Task Force, which later became the Southern Dallas Task Force? How about forwardDallas!, Dallas 360, the Neighborhood Investment Program, Operation Beautification, the Complete Streets Initiative, the Citydesign Studio, Leveraging & Improving Neighborhood Connections (LINC) Dallas, the Connected City Design Challenge, or The Bottom Urban Structure and Guidelines? I’m sure there are others I’ve overlooked. 

Surely you’ve heard of GrowSouth, Mayor Mike Rawlings’ ballyhooed southern Dallas development strategy from 2012. This is not to be confused with its later iteration, the GrowSouth Collective Impact Model, which is not to be confused with the mayor’s new “collective impact” organization, a weird sort of shadow government that he’s put together. It’s a group of area leaders (DISD superintendent Michael Hinojosa, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, and others) that operates outside the Council’s purview and, Sims says, will have a voice in how Neighborhood Plus operates.

The fact is that if Neighborhood Plus is to succeed, it has to operate much more like Cedar Hill, and much less like Dallas. It has to streamline departments in City Hall, get rid of plans that linger for no reason other than bureaucratic inertia. It has to champion ideas like Kingston’s “neighborhood floor” notion. Before anything else happens, the city must ensure that all neighborhoods have adequate sidewalks, storm drains, lighting, and police and code service. Only then can Dallas and Sims talk about an interdepartmental plan to fight poverty and retain the middle class.

Sims, to his credit, acknowledges some of this. But he maintains that the grand vision can be achieved. First, he says, they will prioritize objectives, starting with fixing problems with single-family housing. He says he’ll drive every district with each council member to get to know his or her biggest concerns. Then, he says, we can begin to judge him and the city’s efforts. “A.C. hired me to implement this project,” he says. “And my track record is getting things done.” 

Fair enough. But Alan Sims isn’t in Kansas anymore. Or even Cedar Hill. 

Newsletter

Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.

Comments