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Opinion: City Owned $450 million Convention Center Hotel
 in Downtown Dallas Deserves a Lively Debate
By Jacquielynn Floyd, The Dallas Morning NewsMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Sep. 19, 2008 - Dallas needs another bitter, spite-ridden election like it needs to be struck by an asteroid. But in the case of the all-but-a-done-deal convention center hotel, it might not be such a bad idea.

This is not to say the hotel itself, a $450 million upscale property to be run by a name-brand hotelier but owned by the city, is the path to sure ruin that detractors predict.

Plenty of urban theorists, and no small number of other cities, believe the yin-and-yang pairing of a municipally owned event center and hotel is a crucial, symbiotic generator for big-ticket conventions and trade show bookings.

But this project just doesn't seem to have gotten the public airing you might expect before writing a half-billion-dollar check on what, ultimately, is the taxpayer dime (financing is to come from publicly backed revenue bonds that confident supporters say will be readily repaid by hotel profits).

Barely a wispy cloud on the horizon a few months ago, the convention HQ hotel is already rushing headlong toward the design stage.

The urgency is, perhaps, understandable: There's a sense that with so many other cities -- Phoenix, Baltimore, Austin, to name a few -- jumping into the convention-hotel business, the choice is between catching up or being left behind. And veterans of Dallas' storied political wars have surely observed that plodding deliberation gives critics that much more time to hone their machetes.

But the petition drive, announced this week, calling for a public vote on the project, will invite a lot of fresh discussion. It will force hotel supporters to make the comprehensive, point-by-point case that I'm not sure we've heard yet. It would make the city spell out exactly what it's about to pay for.

In mid-August, some members of the city staff abruptly started suggesting out of the blue that the plan for a comfortable, stylish-if-not-groundbreaking hotel building be upgraded to "iconic" status -- a term for urban architectural novelty that suggests the vision was morphing into Dallas' own take on the Sydney Opera House or the Guggenheim in Bilbao.

It was vaguely suggested that "private investors" would pay for added costs that, by some estimates, might have increased the project's total by as much as a fifth.

Ironically, it was reportedly the hotel's proposed private operators who put the brakes on this "icon" business, suggesting that a "signature" hotel (plush inside, I guess, but still shaped like a regular building) would be good enough. Besides, Dallas' brooding, Temple-of-Doom City Hall might be icon enough for this neck of downtown.

That's what I mean: Decisions are being made with dizzying speed -- and without a lot of public discussion -- over an expensive, significant, potentially groundbreaking public project.

And if there's a fair measure of self-interest in the most prominent of the plan's detractors (rival hotelier Harlan Crow), at least the opposition is primed to lay out its best and most persuasive case for public consumption.

I haven't signed on with Dallas' regular vote-no coterie, the usual suspects who can be reliably expected to rush forth from the bunkers, petitions in hand, yodeling boondoggle! all the while.

But, for all that we crave businesslike efficiency from City Hall, it has to proceed with -- forgive me for wheeling out this pompous cliche -- transparency. And this rush to construction has tended, to date, a little toward the opaque.

Anybody who has witnessed weary, sweat-soaked conventioneers straggling down the sidewalks in summer can appreciate the potential advantage of a hotel linked by a soothing, air-conditioned passage to the convention center.

Not every municipal expenditure -- not even every big one -- calls for yet another election.

But for this much risk and money, residents need to be wooed, tutored and reassured more than they have been.

A petition drive, with the threat of an election behind it, will force the city to make its best, most persuasive case. It's a case that should have been made already.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Dallas Morning News

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