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A Publicly Owned $500 million Dallas Convention Center Hotel
 Now Primed for Construction
Dallas Voters Reject Initiative Designed to Block the Hotel

By Dave Levinthal, The Dallas Morning NewsMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

May 10, 2009 - A publicly owned Dallas Convention Center hotel is primed for construction as city voters narrowly rejected a ballot initiative designed to block the $500 million facility.

"It's a giant victory for the Dallas taxpayers," declared Mayor Tom Leppert, the hotel's pre-eminent supporter, as a crowd of several hundred supporters gathered Saturday night at Gilley's Dallas cheered wildly. "We're going to move this forward. We're going to make good on our promises. We're going to make a good deal for the taxpayers of Dallas."

In victory, the "vote no" side overcame an aggressive campaign against the hotel buoyed by the ostensibly unlimited funds of Dallas real estate mogul Harlan Crow.

Had Proposition 1 passed, it would have amended Dallas' city charter to prevent public ownership of convention hotels. The only major hurdle now left for the hotel is the sale of revenue bonds designed to fund its construction.

Anne Raymond, leader of Citizens Against the Taxpayer-Owned Hotel, told supporters that her group's goal was to give residents a chance to decide the hotel issue at the polls.

"While our group is disappointed with the outcome, the real sense of reward is that the democratic process was followed," she said. "Now we hope that the supporters of the hotel, as well as opponents of the hotel, will come together as unified citizens of Dallas and work together to achieve the real economic growth, create jobs and provide high-quality city services."

Neck and neck

The Proposition 1 vote proved incredibly close from the moment early voting returns went public at 7 p.m. Saturday.

At that juncture, Proposition 1 supporters enjoyed an early, if narrow, lead, with 1 percentage point separating them from their pro-hotel foils.

As the night wore on, however, fortunes flipped.

The "no" side seized its first lead when the first round of election-day voting totals were released. Several subsequent rounds only added to their totals, although the election remained tight, with a single percentage point often separating the "no" side from the "yes" side.

"We thought about the future; we thought about the decisions of today and how they'll matter in the future," Leppert said, before Etta James' "At Last" blared over the speakers at Gilley's.

In contrast, the outcome of Dallas' Proposition 2 never appeared in question Saturday.

In this referendum, the "no" faction jumped to a sizable lead through early voting, which it more or less sustained well into Saturday evening.

Even Proposition 1 supporters, most notably Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt, decried Proposition 2 as little more than bullying by New York City-based labor union Unite Here, which generated the proposition after City Hall wouldn't guarantee its members certain rights at the Dallas convention hotel.

Had it been approved, Proposition 2 would have generally prevented City Hall from granting most public subsidies of $1 million or more to private developers without first conducting a citywide referendum. Proposition 2 supporters, which included many Dallas Libertarians, failed to wage much of a ground-level campaign, relying on a smattering of advertisements to push their position.

In the Proposition 1 fight, Leppert and Raymond campaigned relentlessly, making hundreds of public appearances in recent months. The two often appeared jointly, conducting public debates and forums.

For months, Citizens Against the Taxpayer-Owned Hotel, bankrolled almost exclusively by Crow, has battered hotel supporters during a long and often nasty campaign.

The opposition's message proved profound in its simplicity: A publicly owned hotel will cost taxpayers money.

And it pushed this mantra without pause, airing three stinging TV commercials for weeks before hotel supporters responded in kind.

When they finally did, hotel supporters struggled in crafting a coherent case onto which voters could latch.

They often mired themselves in the minutiae of economic forecasts and revenue income, or attempted to make overly subtle points. They at once acknowledged taxpayers would ultimately subsidize the hotel's failures, but promised such failures probably would never occur because of the facility's financing structure.

Support, goodwill

But in the end, the strength of Leppert's political support and goodwill, which spans from Dallas' richest businesspeople to its poorest pensioners, helped him prevail at the ballot box.

The more wealthy end of that spectrum offered late but critical help, forming a pair of pro-hotel political action committees that alternately pumped new advertising dollars into the campaign and mobilized younger would-be voters against Proposition 1.

"We were way behind. Probably 30 points behind," said John Scovell, president and chief executive of Woodbine Development Corp., which owns the Hyatt Regency Dallas at Reunion. "Then, everybody got off the bench, put on their jersey and got involved. That made the difference."

Crow, who owns the Hilton Anatole hotel, has opposed the idea of a city-owned convention hotel from the beginning.

In September, he tapped Raymond to lead an effort to gather at least 20,000 valid Dallas voter signatures and force a public vote on the hotel.

She responded swiftly, creating Citizens Against the Taxpayer-Owned Hotel, and collecting the needed signatures.

Crow then began pumping millions of dollars into one of the most aggressive political efforts in city history.

The money -- about $4.7 million through April 29 and perhaps hundreds of thousands more to date -- is an unprecedented sum for a single family to spend on a Dallas political campaign.

The Vote No Dallas! campaign and a pair of similar organizations, meanwhile, together raised but a fraction of what Crow committed to his cause.

Staff writer Joe Simnacher contributed to this report.

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To see more of The Dallas Morning News, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.dallasnews.com.

Copyright (c) 2009, The Dallas Morning News

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