Privatizing a popular park in Dallas draws well-funded foes

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Reverchon Park in the midst of its 2019 "Carry The Load" event - a celebration of fallen heroes and gratitude towards veterans.

In most cities, residents seeking to thwart a new project might gather signatures, post signs and contact the media. 

In Dallas, they quietly raise $100,000 in two weeks with an eye on taking the city to court over a $15 million sports stadium to be built in a beloved downtown park, as led by Dallas Mavericks General Manager Don Nelson.

The proposal has raised the ire of well-heeled locals, who claim the city has been less than transparent in its handling of plans to convert a small ballfield in Reverchon Park into an entertainment mecca. The council approved the deal with little public input, and a contract is being prepared for signing. But the council member who has pushed the project said there’s “nothing to see yet” except a concept. 

City officials claim that community meetings, held two years ago on a different plan for Reverchon, satisfied the need for public discussion. The only partner being considered for the deal is Nelson’s group of wealthy developers. And the city failed to post some documents related to the project.

After the city council approved the stadium deal, the opponents met in a ballroom at the Mansion on Turtle Creek hotel. To show they meant business, they passed the hat and raised their first $20,000 on the spot.

The group of investors assembled by Nelson, including real estate funding group LOGE Capital Partners and its partner architect firm HKS Architects, has been approved to build the stadium, which will be used by local schools as well amateur leagues for sports including baseball, lacrosse and soccer. It would also host musical events. The contract has been drawn up and will go back to the council for signing. 

According to the plan, Nelson’s Reverchon Park Sports and Entertainment LLC will build a 3,500-seat stadium on six of the park’s 40 acres. The stadium would replace the current, 700-seat field.

The park currently includes tennis and basketball courts with walking paths and benches, as well as a recreation center. Under the new plan, the developers would provide parking through deals with the owners of nearby parking garages. City leaders and council members said the deal would provide revenue to help maintain the rest of the park, which has fallen into the same deferred maintenance situation as many of the city’s other parks. 

The foes are troubled by several things. The Nelson group plan failed to get enough city council votes in December, after some members felt the deal was being pushed on them in a ‘now or never’ fashion, while others were concerned that the stadium would tarnish the open-space feel of the park. 

But rather than fading away, the proposal gained new life two days later, when city council member David Blewett — who had voted against it — wrote a memo to Mayor Eric Johnson, asking that the council reconsider. The developer group came back with a new proposal that, most significantly, offered more money for the city. 

When the new plan was placed on the council agenda for reconsideration in January, several opponents signed up in advance to speak.  At the last minute, the city secretary’s office called some of them and said they would not be allowed to speak. The reason? Back in 2017, when the city was seeking possible partners to develop a stadium in Reverchon, two public hearings were held. That satisfied the public input requirement, those residents were told. 

That decision was quickly reversed and city staffers blamed it on a misinterpretation of the rules.

“They tried to tell me it was a rule of order, that they didn’t have to allow public comments anymore,” said Carol Bell-Walton, one of the opponents of the deal.  “They did not do the [community] meetings for this current plan. Those meetings in 2017 were before any real attention to this project was being paid.”

The failed move to halt public comments, she said, “was a real blow to their cause.” It also further motivated the resistance.

There will be meetings scheduled, with plenty of time for the public to weigh in once there is something more definitive in the plans, said Blewett, whose council district borders Reverchon. 

“Everyone is panicking and thinking it’s a done deal and that the community doesn’t get to weigh in,” he said. “There is no contract … there is nothing to see yet. No traffic study, no parking, environmental review, no noise assessment. All anyone can do is weigh in on the concept.” 

Other smaller revelations have increased opponents’ suspicions.  An 8-page synopsis of the approved deal, that could help the public decide on how feasible the plan is, for example, was not posted with other materials on the city website, as it should have been. To obtain it, one had to email the city secretary’s office.

“There are things like this missing document online that are annoying,” said Calvert Collins-Bratton, president of the city’s Park and Recreation Board. “But that doesn’t mean there is anything shady about the deal. There is, though, a lot of concern about the process, and I don’t disagree,” she said, with some reservations that others had expressed. 

“I hope it’s a great park and it all goes great,” said Steve Wollard, another local critic who on Jan. 12 filed an open records request with the city seeking communications among city staffers and Nelson’s group going back to 2017. The records have not been provided, and the city missed a legal deadline for responding. Wollard doesn’t suspect anything criminal, he said, but noted that the whole process looks like an insider deal. 

“How did this come back to life like this?” he said.

Robert McFarlane, the executive at LOGE Capital Partners who has been working on the deal with the city, did not respond to requests by phone and email for an interview.

In one form or another, the deal has been cooking for 10 years. The Friends of Reverchon Park, a nonprofit group created in 2005 to raise funds for the park’s upkeep, has been interested in privatizing the ballfield. 

In 2018, Deric Salser, a local real estate developer and designer, approached the parks board with a proposal from a group interested in putting a semi-pro ballpark on the site. The idea was a venue for a small-scale, independent-league baseball team, somewhat different from the minor-league team affiliated with the Texas Rangers farm-team system that plays in a 12,000-capacity stadium in Frisco, 22 miles north of Reverchon.

That deal eventually failed when the builders could not come up with the money.

The new stadium plan has grown to 3,500 seats and projected revenue for the city has gone up as well, from roughly $18,000 a year to what Blewett said could be around $100,000 annually.

Supporters of the new stadium deal say part or all of that revenue could go toward maintenance of the park’s remaining facilities. Confusingly, the Friends of Reverchon Park a few years ago raised $187,000 to help with the park’s maintenance but eventually gave that money to a different group.

Voters in Dallas have approved $604 million in bonds to improve parks since 2006. The city in 2010 spent $1.5 million on upgrades to Reverchon Park, and  The Dallas Morning News called Reverchon “an inviting, family-friendly wonderland full of green meadows, groves, creek embankments and hilly terraces.”

In 2013 $2.1 million more in bond funds were spent restoring stone structures in the park.

Collins-Bratton, the park board president, sees privatization as an accepted future for Reverchon, and one that the council should be careful not to damage.

“From a private standpoint, we would be 0-for-2,” she said. “That’s a bad record, why would anyone want to go through the headache? With this local hero on board [Nelson], why would we vilify a locally-owned project?”

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

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