|By Dave Levinthal, The Dallas Morning
NewsMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
April 27, 2009 - On the eve of early voting, advocates and opponents of a Dallas Convention Center hotel launched a final effort to convince residents of the merits -- or lack thereof -- of such a facility.
"We need to do this to produce jobs ... we need this to produce taxes," Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert told prospective voters in arguing against passage of Proposition 1, a ballot initiative that seeks to amend the city's charter to prohibit public ownership of convention hotels.
But Donovan Wheatfall, a former Fort Worth City Council member who opposes public ownership of convention hotels, told the small and generally pro-hotel audience gathered Sunday at Friendship-West Baptist Church that Dallas will jeopardize taxpayer money if it owns a convention hotel.
If Fort Worth attracted a privately owned convention center hotel to its city, which it accomplished earlier this decade, Dallas could, too, Wheatfall contended.
"What we found out through studies ... is that the people would be completely on the hook if we owned it," said Wheatfall, speaking on behalf of Citizens Against the Taxpayer-Owned Hotel, which is bankrolled by real estate mogul Harlan Crow. "You are pledging future revenues of the city to pay for the hotel. That to me fundamentally is a problem."
Leppert acknowledged that "there's no guarantees out there" when it comes to the potential effect on taxpayers from public ownership of a hotel.
But funding the project with revenue bonds, paid back by hotel users, will shield Dallas taxpayers from risk. The greatest risk is inaction, the mayor said.
"If we don't move forward on this, we will see this industry continue to decline," Leppert said, adding that a convention hotel is designed to attract hundreds of thousands of conventioneers who will spend hundreds of millions of new dollars in Dallas. "Without an expanded tax base, either we cut more services, or we put more taxes on you."
The mayor continued: "If you look at my background, you'd think I was on the other side. I'd like to see the private sector do 100 percent and the public sector do zero."
But private ownership won't work in this economy, Leppert said, explaining that Dallas can build the hotel at less cost by capitalizing on tax-free financing. "We don't have other options sitting out there. We've been at this for 25 years. We have to move forward -- there's too much at stake not to."
And what if the hotel is a failure, unable to pay its bills because not enough people are staying there? Wheatfall asked.
"Then you still have to service those revenue bonds," he said. "By doing it privately, you can still get the same results and not have the Dallas taxpayer on the hook."
Wheatfall urged southern Dallas residents to focus less on who is supporting or opposing Proposition 1 and make a decision on the issue's merits.
"The African-American community here in south Dallas has to ask itself ... as a citizen, as an individual, how does this benefit me?" Wheatfall posited.
No matter whether Dallasites support or oppose Proposition 1, they should vote regardless, the Rev. Frederick Haynes III, a longtime Leppert supporter and leader of Friendship-West, told the audience.
"We literally find ourselves at a crossroads as a city," Haynes said.
Several politicos -- sitting and would-be -- attended Sunday's forum, including Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway, District 8 council member Tennell Atkins and District 5 council candidate Tiffinni Young.
Caraway, who was sitting in the audience, panned Citizens Against the Taxpayer-Owned Hotel for not sending a Dallas-based representative to the forum.
"All of a sudden, those people don't show up. Today, they're not here to answer the concerns," Caraway said.
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