Mayor Rawlings: You’re not in Pizza Hut anymore

Dear Mike:

Pretty weird, huh, that our paths should cross again? You probably don’t remember, but I interviewed you about 10 years ago, when you ran Pizza Hut and I wrote for a trade magazine called Pizza Today. You didn’t seem all that thrilled to be doing the interview (though you had a very impressive office in that high-rise up on the Tollway). I’ll warn you now: Get used to doing interviews. Big-time company bosses don’t have to do many, but the mayor of the ninth-largest city in the country does them all the time. Even when the interviewers seem annoying.

That’s one of the many differences you’ll find between being mayor and running a company. It’s funny — so many people run for public office thinking that running a government is like running a business, and when they get in, they find the two have very little in common. For one thing, you actually have to pay attention to the stockholders. Which would be us, the voters. We stockholders can be persistent, even those of us who don’t have columns and blogs.

I cautioned your predecessor about this, but it didn’t make any difference. He was intent on using the city to further his political career, and look what happened. Not only are we broke, but we’re in debt up to our Calatrava bridge. Check that out when you go over the next budget — debt service totals 13.2 percent. In 2006-2007, it was 10.6 percent. Somehow, in the middle of the worst recession in at least 40 years, we found a way to not only spend money that we didn’t have, but to spend more of it. What would have happened if you had done that at Pizza Hut?

I know your friends on the Citizens Council will tell you not to worry about this, and that everything will be fine as soon as the recession ends. But fine is a relative term. There have been tremendous structural changes in the U.S. economy, thanks to the recession and the end of the manufacturing economy. Call it an information economy or a high-tech economy or a post-modern economy, but the rules that your friends used to make their millions don’t apply anymore.

For instance, you talk about bringing companies to Dallas. That’s fine and good, but there aren’t any companies to bring anymore, at least not in the way you mean. The days when General Motors would open a plant in Arlington with thousands of high-paying jobs are gone. These days, it’s about call centers and Walmarts and a couple of hundred minimum wage jobs. That won’t be enough to help Dallas grow.

The other problem that no one Downtown wants to notice is that the city’s growth is predicated on adding retail and residential — hence the Forward Dallas! zoning plan. Again, 10 years ago, that might have worked. But not today. The recession has changed the way Americans spend money, and keying growth to building more places to buy things is decidedly old-fashioned. Don’t take my word for it; the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year that strip center vacancy rates are at their highest levels since 1990. And if you don’t believe the Journal, drive up and down Greenville Avenue north of Mockingbird. There’s a lot of Class A space there, Mike, and what do we have? Fast-food restaurants and empty storefronts. And it’s going to get worse when Walmart’s Sam’s Club leaves later this year.

I’ll tell you the same thing I told your predecessor, Mike. We’re in this together. And, regardless of what you may have heard about people like me (or may even think yourself), we each want the same things — economic growth and a city that serves all of its citizens fairly. That’s not too much to ask for, is it?


Jeff Siegel

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