Public Dollars Turn into Private Business

by Jim Shutze

Maybe this would be funny. If it were funny. I mean, the first time the city set up a “Public Improvement District” or PID to fight crime along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in South Dallas, the PID collected property taxes in the six figures, turned all the money over to an entity called Hip Hop Government, and then Hip Hop Government hip hopped away with the money. That’s funny, isn’t it?

The city fumbled away the PID and lost all of that money. Therefore there were no guards. But Moyé refused to hear any evidence about that. He blamed the absence of security on Davenport.

Earlier this week, I crashed and almost got kicked out of a meeting of the new, revived, reformed South Dallas Fair Park PID — the current version of the hip hop thing. I was there for a very specific reason.

I have written what must be two million stories about Jim’s Car Wash on MLK, which was forced to close recently after a murder on the property. After a city board ordered the closure of the car wash, the co-owner, Dale Davenport, was ordered by Civil District Judge Eric Moyé to hire guards to patrol the dormant property. So now, just holding onto the land is a big financial drain for Davenport.

The South Dallas Fair Park Public Improvement District is a land bridge between Fair Park and The Cedars area developed by Matthews Southwest.
dallascityhall.com

And Davenport has this question, which I think I share: Why isn’t it up to the city to provide security for that property? Let me explain.

Davenport was one of the founders of the original South Dallas Fair Park Public Improvement District or PID. The primary purpose of the PID was to hire security guards to patrol businesses in the high crime area along MLK.

Through considerable effort, Davenport succeeded in talking enough other business owners on the street into taxing themselves that he was able to help get the PID created. Like the other owners, Davenport then was legally obligated to pay taxes to the PID.

The city fumbled away the PID and lost all of that money. Therefore there were no guards. But Moyé refused to hear any evidence about that. He blamed the absence of security on Davenport and ordered him to pay for patrols out of his own pocket after his business was forced to close.

As they say online, WTF?

The city has 14 PIDs scattered around town. In each one, the city collects the PID tax when it collects regular property tax. But there’s a wrinkle.

Once the city has all the PID money in hand, you might think the city would go ahead and administer the PID itself. You wouldn’t need Hip Hop Government if you ran the thing through Real Government. The great thing about Real Government, it can’t hip hop.

PIDs, by law, are public entities supported by public tax dollars. In Dallas, they fall under the city’s Department of Economic Development, which cool guys like me call “Eco Dev.” So if you have a PID and you’ve collected the money for it, just let Eco Dev run it, right?

I can find Eco Dev any time I want. It’s in City Hall. You can’t hide City Hall. Plus, public entities like Eco Dev are subject to state law on open meetings and public information. I can find out all kinds of stuff about Eco Dev just by showing up with my digital recorder and my phone camera, not to mention my eyes and ears.

Davenport informed me Monday morning that the PID apparently had been revived and that a meeting of it was about to start in 15 minutes. He gave me a street address.

I dropped plans, gave the address to the GPS lady on my phone and rushed off. I followed the GPS lady’s directions and, as usual, had no sense of direction or where I was going because all of those faculties have been erased from my head by the GPS lady.

So I pull up at the address and think, no, GPS lady, this is not right. This isn’t a city office. This is Matthews Southwest, the development company that developed the South Side on Lamar residential and retail project and several other big projects in the Cedars area, as well as operating in Canada and Dubai. So this can’t be the PID meeting. But the thing is, GPS lady is never wrong, so I have to do what she tells me.

I walk into the address of what I subsequently learn is an entity called South Side Quarter Development Corp. The offices occupy a big, airy open space with great air conditioning. I’m about to apologize and make a hasty exit when I look across the building through a glass wall and see the familiar head of Dale Davenport, sitting at a long conference table with a bunch of people. So this must be the PID meeting after all.

I go into the room and sit down. In this one room, unlike the rest of the space, the air conditioning has been turned all the way off. The temperature is triple digits outside, so this is already an oven in here.

If this, indeed, is the PID meeting, somebody at South Side Quarter Development Corp. does not want this meeting to drag on. Then a lady at the table tells me it’s not a public meeting. Somebody doesn’t want me here at all.

I engage in a very high-flown philosophical debate with the lady who told me it wasn’t a public meeting. I say something like, “Is so,” several times, and she says something like, “Is not,” several times. Then I just sit down and stay, because I know she’s too chicken to call the cops. Old reporter trick: They’re always too chicken to call the cops, so just park your butt in a chair and take some notes, but keep your eye on the window.

Davenport is extremely smooth and polite and manages to extract from the meeting that the reincarnated PID is now being run by this South Side Quarter Development thing, a nonprofit, it says, even though its name says it’s a development corporation. While we are sitting there, I look up its 990 IRS declarations on my phone.

It does, indeed, have a 501(c)(3) tax exempt status. Its officers, all unpaid, include two full-time senior executives of Matthews Southwest and an attorney who appears to be a sole practitioner but has offices in the same building with the nonprofit.

Whatever is going on here with The Bridge on the River Kwai prisoner-of-war, sweat-box meeting room, this PID is a matter of great interest to Matthews Southwest.

The South Dallas Fair Park Public Improvement District is a land bridge between Fair Park and The Cedars area developed by Matthews Southwest.

The South Dallas Fair Park Public Improvement District is a land bridge between Fair Park and The Cedars area developed by Matthews Southwest.dallascityhall.com

Nothing happens at this meeting. They talk about picking up litter. I try not to pass out. Finally, on the way out, Davenport and I stop by this huge architectural model of downtown and the Cedars — one of those things they make on a big table with miniature buildings and stuff.

Somehow in looking down on the model we get a bird’s-eye view, and it strikes both of us that the South Dallas Fair Park PID runs all the way from Fair Park in the northeast along the spine of MLK one and two-thirds miles southwest into the doorstep of South Side on Lamar and the very heart of the Matthews Southwest holdings in the Cedars area. The PID is a land bridge along MLK linking Matthews Southwest to Fair Park.

Let me say right here that none of that may mean a damned thing. Maybe Matthews Southwest has directed its community nonprofit arm to clean up and manage the South Dallas Fair Park PID because they’re neighbors and Matthews Southwest wants to be Mr. Rogers.

I wish I could have persuaded someone at Matthews Southwest to tell me that. I did speak to and exchange email with people there over a couple of days. I told them I wanted to know specifically if Matthews Southwest has any development plans or interest in the area between the Cedars and Fair Park. The response to that question was a very somber silence.

The off-shoring of these PIDs to private entities, I am quite sure, is at least in part an end-run around the public access and information laws, in spite of the public funding. This particular PID, according to its budget projections, intends to eat up $1.22 million in tax dollars between now and 2023.

Something between $110,000 and a quarter-million dollars of that tax money has been lost already in the Hip Hop chapter, and no one at City Hall has shown the slightest inclination to go look for it. The new Matthews Southwest people say they were never given those records. Somehow this all ceases to be any of the public’s business anyway once it’s turned over to the private Matthews handlers.

The persistent recurring persecution of Davenport by the city over a period of two decades has always had two possible explanations. The one I don’t like and he himself never ever brings up is the only-white-man-on-MLK explanation. The counter evidence to it is that Davenport gets along well enough with neighboring black-owned businesses that he was able to talk them into taxing themselves for the PID. But he is pretty much the only white man on MLK.

The other explanation, which he and I both have always felt has more credibility, is real estate speculation — someone out there is determined to run him off his land and get it from him cheap. The counter evidence there has always been the question, who?

Rich, powerful white people go miles out of their way to avoid MLK. So what big powerful developer would be interested? I simply cannot imagine. As soon as we’re done here, I’m going to go ask the GPS lady. She knows everything.