When he was still working as a lawyer (before he became mayor, then U.S. trade representative, and then back to lawyer), Ron Kirk was showing some guests from Germany around Dallas. He took them to the City Club, and pointed out the various parts of town. One guy pointed to the Trinity River and asked what that “ditch” was. Kirk explained it was a river. The man looked at him and said, “It may as well be your Berlin Wall.” For Kirk, this was the moment he realized he had to do something.
Laura Miller had a similar experience in 2003. Her office overlooked the Mercantile building. “It was a daily reminder that it had been boarded up for 15 years. That it was an iconic building that was never going to come back.” Forest City’s head of development visited Dallas for the first time around then. He went to Miller’s office and said, “You could shoot a cannon down Main Street, and nobody would hear it. Where are all the people?”
Kirk and Miller, along with Tom Leppert and Mayor Mike Rawlings, discussed these stories last night at the Communities Foundation of Texas. The four mayors, along with (now) former city manager Mary Suhm, Dallas ISD superintendent Mike Miles, several city council people, and many, many, many philanthropists all gathered to talk about the giving nature of Dallas. The conversation was spurred by The Chronicle of Philanthropy study, which was released earlier this year and placed Dallas-Fort Worth as No. 9 on a list of the nation’s most generous areas. With Mayor Rawlings emceeing, Leppert, Miller, and Kirk discussed why that is.
“When you become mayor, you understand very quickly that this job is about potholes and trash and parks and water and police and fire, and by the time you fund all those things, the sad reality for the major really life-enhancing projects you want to do, you realize you can’t do them unless you have a public-private partnership,” Kirk said. All the mayors agreed that the private sector had no problems stepping up.
When new companies moved to town, Kirk would ask the company’s leaders what they found different in Dallas compared to the cities they moved from. “Time and time again, one of the answers was, ‘You know, we thought that giving was part of your civic responsibility in city x, y, z, but it is a competitive sport here.’ As a business leader, it was just understood that you’re going to give.”
For Kirk, one of the most compelling moments as mayor came on September 11, 2001. Kirk had given blood, and was at home, glued to the TV. “I cried all I could cry.” Around 11:30 p.m., his phone rang. It was Mark Cuban. “Mayor, I saw you said we’re going to do a citywide prayer service tomorrow in Thanks-Giving Square. I’m giving you a check for a million dollars. I don’t want credit for it. I want Dallas to be the first city to donate to the widows of all those first responders.”
Dallas was the first.
Without the help of the private sector, starting new projects would not have happened. “You did the convention center,” Miller said, addressing Leppert. “I really didn’t have the guts, because I was like, ‘Ohmigosh, what if it doesn’t work out?’ And it’s a huge success. Ron, you used your sheer charisma to get the Trinity River done, and look at how long it’s taken all of us to try to make progress on the Trinity River.” She said that without the private sector writing the checks, the city council wouldn’t have been able to even design the project.
And then the conversation turned toward the importance of education in Dallas. “We really need to work hard to support the superintendent,” Miller said, addressing Miles, who was sitting in the front row. “If we don’t improve the schools in Dallas, we’ll have nothing else that will matter.”
Kirk, who traveled the world as the U.S. trade rep, echoed Miller’s sentiments. “I have not met a young person anywhere outside of the United States that was not polylingual,” he said. “One of them said to me, ‘Mayor Kirk, do you know in Africa, if you speak multiple languages, you’re polylingual?’ I’m not stupid, I get that. ‘You know if you speak two languages, you’re bilingual?’ I said yeah. He said, ‘If you speak one language, you’re American.’” Kirk, who basically stole the show last night, laughed along with the crowd, though he admitted he was both amused and embarrassed by the kid’s joke.
After about 40 minutes of the mayors discussing (and ribbing each other—who knew Rawlings and Kirk had such a fun relationship?), Rawlings handed the mic over to Mary Suhm, whose last day as city manager was yesterday. Rawlings asked her to give her parting shots on what philanthropy means to Dallas. “Each one of these people up here had the courage and initiative to inspire people to give and participate,” she said. “Absolutely, the time people give as elected officials, that is the greatest generosity.”