Everyone Knows That Hotel's a "Risk." Which Ain't Stopping Anyone.

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By now, you know you're the proud future owners of a convention center hotel; the only question left to ask is, would you like a happy ending with that in-room massage? Too soon? Then how about a recap of the day's events, which concluded with 11 council members agreeing to spend your hard-earned without your permission.

Early this morning approximately 100 business and political leaders showed up in support of the hotel, most wearing “YES Convention Center Hotel” stickers, which were passed around by Becky Mayad, Mayor Tom Leppert’s spokesperson during the Trinity River toll road referendum. As Jim noted earlier, former TXU chairman Erle Nye and Sen. Royce West were among the speakers. Other notables included Phillip Jones, president and CEO of the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau; John Crawford, president and CEO of DowntownDallas; and Jan Hart Black, president of the Greater Dallas Chamber and former city manager.

Because a total of 109 people were signed up to speak, Leppert limited each side to a total of 20 minutes. Only four people spoke in opposition, including Anne Raymond of Crow Holdings and Ray Garfield of Garfield Traub Development, which was one of the original companies to submit a proposal for the hotel project but isn’t among the four finalists.

Raymond mentioned that a city-owned hotel would not pay property taxes, sales taxes and hotel occupancy taxes. She said she was troubled by an earlier comment from Leppert, who said last week he wanted to minimize public investment, and statements from Ron Natinsky, who said the proposed hotel would make money, and assistant city manager A.C. Gonzalez, who said in February that public investment would be between $40 and $100 million. “I’m finding it impossible to connect the dots,” she said. Raymond also quoted billionaire Warren Buffett: “The five most dangerous words in business may be, 'Everybody else is doing it.'”

Council members Ron Natinsky, Jerry Allen, Carolyn Davis, Tennell Atkins and Sheffie Kadane each gave support to moving forward with the land purchase and allowing City Manager Mary Suhm to strike a deal for a publicly owned hotel. Only Davis expressed reservation about her endorsement. “I’m going out on a limb, Mayor Leppert, on this,” she said.

With six votes in hand (including Leppert's), the council then took a break for its annual memorial service, which is dedicated to police offers killed in the line of duty. When the meeting resumed, it was Angela Hunt’s turn, and she didn’t hold back. She said, “It’s irresponsible to move forward without any public discourse,” citing the recent closed-door meeting of the Economic Development Committee as the only discussion on the matter.

She also quoted Leppert’s statement to The Dallas Morning News about wanting to minimize public investment and read from today’s editorial in the paper, which asks the council to slow down. “This is a mistake,” she said. “This is going to cost us.”

Hunt took aim at City Manager Mary Suhm, although she wasn’t called out by name, saying it was “extremely irresponsible” to combine both the land vote and public ownership of a hotel issues in the same addendum item. (Fact is, they were combined on Friday, giving council members little time to prepare for both votes.)

Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway spoke up when he had the floor, saying he didn’t consider last week’s committee meeting to be “closed-door.” Essentially, Caraway said he hasn’t heard any negative comments from his constituency, so everything must be OK with them. Of course, since none of his constituents were privy to the conversation that took place in a private meeting, it’s hard for them to complain. I spoke with Caraway late yesterday afternoon and will have more on him in an upcoming blog.

Dave Neumann, who pointed out that he’s been to all of the Economic Development Committee meetings even though he’s not on the committee, laid out a great argument against a publicly owned hotel. He raised three concerns: The taxpayers are at great risk, which concerns him. Is getting into the hotel business what the city should be doing? Is it a good business decision for the city to own a hotel?

But, predictably, Neumann changed course and went on to talk about how the convention center is losing $4 million a year, saying “no” to the hotel would be a bad message about the city’s commitment to revitalizing downtown, and the absence of a hotel would undercut development in Oak Cliff. “I will support this very cautiously,” he said.

At this point, it seemed all but over with eight votes in the fold, but council member Vonciel Hill threw a slight money wrench into Leppert’s plans. Hill said moving forward with the land purchase is a good idea, but she is opposed to the hotel being publicly owned. Since Schutze has a Hill blog in the hopper, I won’t go into all of her concerns.

The wrench came in the form of a rare motion to divide the item into a separate land vote and a vote to move forward with public ownership. Hunt immediately seconded the motion, and then confusion ensued as Natinsky already had a motion on the floor to approve the item as-is, with Allen seconding it. In the end, City Attorney Tom Perkins stepped in and told Leppert that Hill’s motion was not debatable, so it went to a vote.

Her motion failed 7-6 with Pauline Medrano, Linda Koop, Tennell Atkins and Steve Salazar joining Hill and Hunt on the losing side. After Caraway followed with an amendment to the item (which I’ll explain in a separate blog), Hunt went after Neumann for voting against having two separate votes, saying he missed out on the chance to vote twice about a project that he was so enthusiastic about.

Hunt said the lack of debate was a “slap in the face to taxpayers, our bosses,” and it was beyond her why the other council members wouldn’t agree to discuss the items separately. “The decision to move forward is cowardly,” she added.

Leppert had the last say, standing up and yelling, “I win, Angela. Suck it!” OK, clearly that’s not really what he said. What he did say is that he was struck by all the support from leaders and other hotel owners for this project, and he emphasized that plenty of time was made making this decision.

“Is the risk going forward, or is the greater risk not doing anything?” Leppert said. We’re about to find out. --Sam Merten

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