When Dallas Wants Your Business, Don't Be Stubborn. Or else.
So now eight years after this began the city finally shows its hand, and we learn the solution to a very old local riddle: Why in the world eight years ago was the city of Dallas sending armies of cops and code inspectors out to harass two guys who had never been convicted of so much as a speeding ticket between them but who happened to own a car-wash on Martin Luther King Boulevard?
Dallas Observer Appropriate cover design for city pamphlet, "Your Rights as a Property-Owner.
It's exactly what a Texas House investigative committee suspected but could not prove at the time: Somebody wants those two white boys out of that car wash, and the city of Dallas intends to help make it happen.
This week Dale Davenport, who owns the business with his father, Freddy, showed me a letter from the city informing him the city wants his property. "As you are probably aware," the letter states, "the city of Dallas is planning improvements to Martin Luther King Boulevard and median. Plans have progressed to the point what we wish to advise you that your property described above will be needed for the project."
Along with the letter came a pamphlet, supposedly about rights of property owners, actually describing a long series of steps by which the city acquires property. At the end of that process, if a person refuses to sell voluntarily at the city's price, he is forced to sell under the city's power of eminent domain. That's where they say, "Sorry, sucker, we're taking it." You have to accept what they offer or what a judge says is fair. You do not have the right to refuse to sell.
This was just what everybody suspected when the city was doing things eight years ago like sending dozens of police cars to the Davenport car wash to park all over their lot so they couldn't do business, a tactic former Police David Kunkle admitted to legislative investigators had taken place (although not, he said, with his approval).
The legislative committee that investigated the Davenport car wash issue eight years ago found the car wash situation was typical of a pattern of shakedowns of honest businesses by southern Dallas elected officials. State Representative Terry Keel, a former sheriff of Travis County, told me at the time: "We had diverse businesses and individuals unconnected to each other who gave startlingly similar stories about these threats."
Most of the threats Keel said his investigators found involved schemes to get money out of businesses as so-called political donations. But it was never quite clear what City Hall wanted from Davenport and his father, unless it was their entire business.
Now we know. That's what they want. The whole enchilada. Their attempts to push the Davenports off the property with goon tactics like the mass parking of police cars failed, because the Davenports are resolute people. Freddy Davenport bought the car wash with his pension payout from Lone Star Steel where he was a steelworker. I sat across a booth from Dale Davenport, the son, over a piece of chess pie two days ago at Two Podners Restaurant on Cullum Boulevard by Fair Park. He was resolute but aghast.
"Look at this letter," he said, shaking it. "It says, 'As you are probably aware.' Probably aware of what? I've never heard a thing about this until I got this letter."
He said his own inquiries to city officials about the nature of the project that would require him to give up his business produced only vague references to some kind of "plaza." I got the same response when I called Lou Jones, a real estate manager for the city.
"It's supposed to be a plaza," she said.
I asked if she meant a walking around plaza or a retail plaza like a shopping strip.
"No retail, no," she said.
I asked whose plaza it will be, whose plan it is now.
"I don't know," she said. "You would have to check with I guess the city manager or the council people. I'm not sure of that."
OK. So the Davenports get a letter telling them the city wants their property. The only person who will return his calls, Jones, tells him it's for "a plaza." She tells me the same story, but she doesn't know whose plaza.
She insisted, by the way, that the letter sent to Davenport did not include the words "eminent domain" or "condemnation." She said the letter was merely a statement of initial intent in a long legal process. "It's just at the beginning," she said.
Yeah. But the end of the process, if you don't want to sell, is condemnation. I pointed out that the pamphlet she sent to Davenport described that end of the long legal process in some detail.
"It's always a possibility," she said.
I called acting City Manager A.C. Gonzalez and got no response. I called council member Carolyn Davis in whose district the car wash falls. Her staff relayed my message to her.
When she heard it was about Davenport, Davis instructed her staff to have me call Adam McGough, Mayor Mike Rawlings' chief of staff. I did call McGough and got a call back from Sam Merten, the mayor's spokesman, who indicated the mayor was aware of the plan and was considering it as part of his "Grow South" initiative to improve southern Dallas.
Merten said of the car wash, "It is a huge problem. I don't know how familiar you are with that specific property. On weekends literally hundreds of people gather."
Well, eight years into it, I am very familiar. I have spent time hanging out there off and on over several years. Yes, it is a social center for the neighborhood, and yes, the neighborhood houses some cool people and some scary people. Whenever I have been there, the cool people have kept the scary people under control or at least at bay. That's sort of how it works in poor neighborhoods, when it works. It ain't Frisco.
Merten said, "He has this property that, from all looks at it, it's hard to kind of understand his business model, because it doesn't seem like he's doing gangbusters business-wise, but on weekends and such it's a huge loitering issue."
In my times hanging around that car wash, especially on weekends, those coin boxes on the wall never stop dinging. My envious ears hear a steady river of cash flowing into the coffers. I don't know how the city knows that the Davenports aren't making money on the car wash. Just in terms of sheer return on investment, I have to think that car wash is probably a serious gold mine.
I asked Merten if he was aware of any study of the business itself carried out by the city to make that determination. He said he was not. But he said he was confident the city, in past attempts to acquire the property, had already offered more for the business than it is worth.
"The city in the past has approached him about purchasing the property at an above market very reasonable rate and the sense is that they're kind of dug in, and they don't want to sell. And we're not saying anything nefarious is necessarily going on, but it's one of those puzzling things where here's your run-down piece of property that theoretically isn't bringing you in much income and somebody is wanting to pay you well above market value for it. What is the logic of hanging on to it?"
OK, I do recognize that line of logic. It is exactly what Leo Chaney was saying eight years ago when he was mad at them for refusing to donate to his book fair. The accusation by innuendo is that the Davenports are drug dealers, pimps and crooks of some kind and their car wash is a front. Wow. If that is true, then both father and son deserve Academy Awards for acting, because they sure come across as a couple of hard-working East Texas church-going white guys who happen to get along well with black people.
And that right there, I have always suspected, is a lot of what somebody doesn't like. Their mere physical presence is an affront to somebody's picture of what that street ought to look like. And for that the city of Dallas is threatening to seize their property. More on this in days ahead.