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A Few More Words About Tod Robberson and That Golf Course

Must. Not. Lose temper. No more scurrilous attacks on Tob Robberson. Because then his bosses will be forced to come to his defense, and I don’t want to fight a war on three fronts. Oh, man, that last sentence veered toward personal territory. Must. Stay. On track. Just the facts:

Yesterday Tod Robberson wrote something that struck me as strange for a few reasons. The gist of his post was that the East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta shows us what will happen when the golf course is built in southern Dallas (the City Council is expected to vote on it today). Robberson wrote that Mayor Mike Rawlings encouraged him to have a look at how East Lake spurred development. Then Robberson wrote this:

I didn’t have any reason to disbelieve the mayor. But today, I decided to go the extra mile. I did a 20-year U.S. Census comparison of a one-mile radius surrounding East Lake, just to see what results it would yield.

It seems strange to me that a journalist would say he has no reason to disbelieve a city official, because journalists are supposed to be professional skeptics. Even if you’re predisposed to agree with a city official (for ideological reasons or because you’ve dealt with the official in the past and he has shown himself to be trustworthy), you’re still supposed to let doubt have its day. Ask the question that the official’s opponents would ask. Do some fact checking. And when you do that work, don’t pat yourself on the back for “going the extra mile.”

Minor details, though. Robberson was writing for the blog. Oftentimes such writing is done more hurriedly than it would be if the words were destined for ink and paper. Surely he would have described his efforts differently if he’d had more time to consider what his fingers were doing to his keyboard.

The stranger thing about Robberson’s post is how ignorant it makes him look. He looked at an area described by a 1-mile radius around the Atlanta golf club, comparing current Census data and data gathered in 2000 and 1990. Robberson found that per capita income went up, as did household income. Bingo, that proves the golf course generated development and improved peoples’ lives. Robberson wrote, “There is no other major feature in East Lake that would explain such a dramatic jump in household incomes.”

First, from what I can tell, he didn’t adjust his numbers for inflation. Significant oversight. Second, it doesn’t appear that he did enough research on the East Lake area. For this, we turn to Eric Celeste, former Atlanta resident. In the comments to Robberson’s post, he wrote:

“There is no other major feature in East Lake that would explain such a dramatic jump in household incomes”? Well, except for the 500-plus mixed-income apartments, Atlanta’s first public charter school, a YMCA, a day-care center and a second, public golf course. You know, the development that was part of the original plan. So that it made sense. So that it was a revitalization effort, and not just a hope and a prayer.

Eric Celeste wrote more about this issue on that CultureMap thingy, explaining that SMU will be the real winner if this course gets built.

And that, my friends, is a response to Tod Robberson’s chuckleheaded post. Please note that I’m not calling Robberson a chucklehead; his post is chuckleheaded.

I think I just pulled a hammy.

UPDATE (12:44): You want to know what “going the extra mile” looks like? Read Patrick Kennedy’s analysis of what took place in Atlanta.

  • TheSlowPath

    The weird thing about this whole “debate,” if you can even call it that, is that I don’t know that anyone, once they know the facts, is really against the golf course. The city MUST clean up the landfill. I’m a little suspicious of that much acreage going for such a small lease term, but the land’s not worth much and maybe $10,000 a year is pretty close to the market price. Though I doubt the city would give a cheap lease (aka subsidy) to paintball company or shooting range.

    What people are dumbfounded and piling on against is the blather about this being a magic bullet for the area.

  • Lynn B.

    Tim, your mistake is looking at this as journalism rather than as real estate development, looking at A.H. Belo as a newspaper company rather than as a real estate company wrapped in a tax shelter with Tod as its advance man, particularly if you go back year after year and review Tod’s Gollum-like purring about all that precccciiiousssss land just crying out for development at points Trinity and south. BTW, did Belo ever unload the moonscape they created over by 45 some years back?

    Speaking of journalism, though, where’s the post on Glenn Beck’s endorsement of gay marriage?

  • Tim Rogers

    “Gollum-like purring about all that precccciiiousssss land.” You get a gold star for that.

    But, honestly, I don’t see a conspiracy here. Robberson isn’t working to drive up the value of Belo’s real estate holdings. Occam’s Razor and all that. The simpler explanation is that Robberson’s thinking on this issue isn’t sharp, and rather than admit his mistake, he has dug in his heels.

  • Wylie H.

    I couldn’t have said it better— in fact, I said the exact same thing to a group of fellow citizens yesterday. This thing looks like a pretty good deal—
    1) the landfill gets remediated with an nice amenity (a golf course), rather than a barren mound of dirt;
    2) the City steals away a major golf tournament from Irving, which will bring a lot of economic activity once each year;
    3) poor kids and others will get some limited access and development activities;
    4) SMU gets a home for its golf program;
    5) rich people get a new private golf course option; and
    6) it all takes place in far South Dallas, where almost nothing good happens.

    What will NOT happen is economic development around the site. Most of the surrounding area is either protected forest, floodplain, the Audubon Center, etc. There are no suitable development sites. Even if there WERE, nothing would happen– this is easy to see from looking at Dallas National Golf Club (Cockrell HIll), Brookhollow County Club (off Harry Hines) and Royal Oaks Country Club (near the intersection of Greenville and Meadow Lane)… the surrounding areas are bad to mediocre and golf course proximity hasn’t done anything to make them better.

    Sometimes I feel as if Mary Suhm and the rest of the City’s leadership somehow feel that telling bald-faced lies to the public has to be an integral part of any major public endeavor. In this case, the truth was good enough… why did they feel the need to embellish it with B.S.?

  • YarnJunky

    Sometimes you just have to drop a f-bomb on it. Have you learned to juggle yet?

  • Tim Rogers

    Wylie, unless I missed it, Suhm hasn’t said that the course would lead to development. Hit me up with a link if I’m mistaken.

  • Jennifer M

    I’m wary of the DMN, D Magazine and the City of Dallas in this latest Southern Dallas “debate.” All of these entities have a vested interest in supporting their clients, investors and constituents in commercial real estate as they have proven during the Trinity and convention hotel debates.

    The City’s investment in the golf course is a no-brainer in terms of reclaiming the landfill, moving The Byron and supporting an important HQ company AT&T. But instead of keeping the talking points simple, the DMN (and Mary Suhm and Carol Reed?) insists on overselling, which will result in yet another under-delivery.

    I understand why Tim says Robberson’s post is chuckleheaded – it is. However, I’m not sure why he lost his temper here, but he didn’t when the biggest oversell / underdeliver in recent years, the Trinity River development, was clearly selling us bridges to nowhere.

  • Guesty

    It MIGHT be a good deal. Couple of issues:

    1: What are the terms of the lease beyond the $10,000 a year? What’s the length? Is it perpetual? $10,000 a year is basically free rent ($2 per acre per month) and way below market for 400 acres anywhere in any condition. If the lease runs a very long time, this lease could effectively be a HUGE subsidy by the city (present value of millions).

    2: Is the City obligating itself to anything else? For example, will the City be capping the amount it charges for water, etc. What about property taxes? This again could amount to a huge subsidy by the City.

    3: What is the real cost of remediation if there were no golf course. I don’t trust the numbers because the guy telling us it will cost $8 million to remediate with or without the golf course is telling us about the huge (and completely imagined) economic benefits that will flow from the deal in his next breath. I am sure he is wrong about the economic benefits, which gives me reason to distrust his estimate on the costs as well.

    All that said, assuming all of these issues are resolved favorably to the city, you’re right, this probably isn’t a big deal and might be positive for the city. But that is a huge if that the DMN and the City seem inclined to avoid discussing.

  • Guesty

    And I have now found some of my answers:

    1: The lease is for 40 years. That seems reasonable. At the end of 40 years, the city can negotiate for market rent or it gets a free golf course. As a practical matter, It’s the value of the golf course the city gets at the end that effectively is the rent.

    2: The golf club pays property taxes.

    Still need some independent verification of the cost of remediation absent the course (the difference between $12 million the city is committing minus the actual cost of remediation is a direct subsidy by the City to the golf course). Also need to make sure the City isn’t incurring any other new obligations related to the course.

  • Wylie H.

    Bottom of page 7 of Economic Development Committee briefing on page 7:…/ECO_GrowSouth_120312.pdf

    Also, I saw Suhm deliver a slightly different version of the pitch book (the City Council briefing doc), and she spent a few minutes talking about economic development in the area. To your point, however, now that I think about it, she was careful to emphasize that there was no land directly adjacent to the golf course that would be available for development (for example, she cited homes along the golf course as something that would be impossible due to the fact it was all public parkland with protected forests).

  • mynameisbill

    I heard Mayor Mike refers to Tod as his Honey boo boo. Ain’t that sweet?

  • Dubious Brother

    Instead of building a golf course at the land fill they should move fair park to the land fill and build the golf course where fair park is now. They could design the course to be on both sides of I-30 now that we know that parks can be built over highways. That way poor people could take DART to the golf course and the new fair park would have plenty of parking. Win – win.

  • Tim Rogers

    Jennifer, have you been to West Dallas recently? I want you to cross the MHH Bridge six months from now and tell me it’s a bridge to nowhere.

    By rest of the Trinity River development, do you mean the toll road? I was wrong about that.

    I didn’t lose my temper. I made a joke about losing my temper so that I could launch an ad hominem attack on Robberson. I did that because he is a highly paid journalist who demonstrated such lousy thinking that (in my opinion) he made himself fair sport.

  • gimmethewooby

    I agree with Wylie – just skeptical of those who put this in the “bucket” of South Dallas development when it’s not exactly something that will spur the kind of growth that area residents want and deserve.

  • TheSlowPath

    As you said, $2 a month per acre is pretty low. But it will flood, so very little of the land is buildable, and having a long term, fairly secure tenant who’d going to do maintenance and improvement might be a better deal than squeaking out a few grand more each year on, as I suggested, other uses like shooting ranges (or archery or paintball), campgrounds, ect. At least the golf course will keep people from trying to grow MJ on the land or setting up a methlab in the woods. Mostly.

  • Jennifer M

    West Dallas? I sure have. (Shout out to Four Corners!). Low natural gas prices = limited development in W. Dallas. Book it.

    No, I meant all development. You were wrong about the Toll Road? Show me a post or an article where you supported or rejected the Toll Road. I recall that you were silent.

  • Tim Rogers

    And yet I heard a report from BJ on KERA this morning in which Dwaine Caraway talked about homes on the golf course. I don’t understand why they keep pushing the development angle.

  • Tim Rogers

    Jennifer, I wrote this in the magazine:

    Again. I was wrong.

  • Tim Rogers

    Guesty, I don’t know what you do for a living, but I wish you had Tod Robberson’s job.

  • malamute

    You were wrong about what? The last two paragraphs are wishy-washy and could be interpreted either way.