By DIANE XAVIER
The Dallas Examiner
Dallas is a modern metropolis often known for its unique skyline and considered an international commercial and cultural hub. Still, the question remains: Is the city moving forward or backward in this new era where residents have to battle the coronavirus pandemic, technological advancements and climate change?
Mayor Eric Johnson shared his thoughts on the matter during his State of the City Address in front of a packed audience in the Dallas City Hall City Council Chambers, Nov 17.
He began by shaking the hand of each city of Dallas staff and Dallas City Council member seated behind where he would be standing. After approaching the mic, he thanked them along with the local elected officials and community members in attendance.
“It takes partnerships to get things done at every level of government, so I really want to say I really appreciate all of you being here,” he added. “We are gathered here today, because the Dallas city charter requires me as your mayor, to update all of you each year on the state of our great city and on our plans for its future. It is my distinct honor and privilege to do so today.”
The annual address is a requiremet of the mayor by the Dallas City Charter. It has be a “great” tradition since 1875.
The current state of Dallas
“Today we’re at a turning point in our city’s history and so far this City Council is on the right track,” the mayor said. “We voted for a $4.3 billion budget that gets us back to basics, puts public safety first and makes key investments in our neighborhoods and in our infrastructure. And in spite of all the unrelenting states of emergency of the past two years, I am proud to say that the state of our city is stronger than ever. But, our work isn’t finished, not by any means.”
Johnson then stated that his goal was to help Dallas rise to one of the “premier city in the American Southwest.” He noted that it wouldn’t be easy because the city still had many “big city” problems to address.
“But this isn’t just any big city,” he boasted. “This is Dallas, Texas. We are not a city of destiny. We got to where we are today through hard work and determination. In Dallas, we roll up our sleeves and we make our own luck. Every time our metal has been tested, we demonstrated incredible resilience, unshakable resolve and an undeniable spirit. That spirit will help us build for our future and navigate any difficulties on the road ahead.”
Johnson said that he was confident the city could bounce back from past problems it has faced such as crime, lack of economic progress in certain zones, and battling the pandemic in the last couple of years.
He listed current accomplishments, as follows:
- Being tougher and smarter on crime under the leadership of a new police chief.
- Building public and private partnerships to build new parks and libraries, as well as to expand arts and cultural programing.
- Passed a new comprehensive economic development policy that focuses on equity and innovation.
- Developing the “most meaningful” ethics reform proposal that has been presented to the Dallas City Council in over a decade.
However, he admitted that the last decade has been marked by serious questions and a series of federal corruption investigations that have brought shame on the institution.
“The challenges and the opportunities of our time demand leadership, not passive stewardship. And for the sake of future generations, this City Council and our community partners must continue to work together,” the mayor stated. “I know we can and I sincerely believe that we will.”
Moving Dallas forward
Johnson also focused on the new City Council’s goals and agendas and how to get the city moving forward. He reflected on a statement he made during the City Council inauguration in June, that the city neede to get back to basics – which is said the city is currently doing.
He went on to say that public safety – the most basic service a city government can provide – has become the top priority of the city’s budget.
“It is said that this City Council seated behind me has made a greater commitment to keeping our neighborhoods safe than any other city council in recent history. It was a necessary committee to meet the needs of a growing city.”
Dallas experienced a boom in population of 9% in the the last decade according to latest census poll. However, the city has lost hundreds of officers as a result of the pension crisis – which will need to be address by the City Council and obtain support from the state legislators in the near future. The decreased police presence has lead to in an increase in crime and a longer response time. All of which as left local communities less safe, according to the mayor.
“Thankfully, Police Chief Eddie Garcia has given us a data driven community base and resource conscious violent crime reduction plan and I’m happy to report it’s working. It’s still early but the turnaround has been nothing short of remarkable,” he said.
After pointing out his dispointment with the chief’s predecessors, he noted how the city was “bucking” the previouly noted trends:
- The Dallas City Council has given Garcia needed resources.
- The city has committed to hiring 500 new officers over the next two years.
- The city has committed to paying first responders at the market rate.
- The city has committed to providing police commanders with the resources they need to fight crime and address residents’ most pressing safety concerns such as domestic violence, illegal street racing and violent incidents in our entertainment district.
“Of course, public safety is about more than law enforcement,” Johnson continued. “It’s also about creating opportunities offering quality services and straightening neighborhoods. I’m pleased to say we’re also continuing to fund and expand our nationally recognized programs that help us properly address mental health emergencies. By continuing and expanding these programs and providing a major boost to our police department, we’re sending an unmistakable message that if you live in Dallas, all of us up here are committed to ensuring that you live in the safest large city in America.”
He also focused on the youth and creating job opportunities for them as well.
Building economic opportunities
He went on to say that without safety first, the city can’t expect to thrive and create more economic opportunities by luring major corporations to invest in all parts of the city instead of moving North all the time.
“If our people can’t thrive, they will miss opportunities to compete economically in the years ahead,” he said. “I want to be clear that Dallas is an economic success story. But we have much more work to do. The economic playing field has been changing. And while we’ve long known that we’re competing nationally with other major cities, we’ve been slower to recognize the serious challenges right here in our own backyard.
He said the city has lost residents and businesses because it was caught napping by what has been known as “bedroom communities,” which have promises better schools, infrastructure and amenites, as well as lower crime rates and taxes.
Despite having attracted some fortune 500 companies, the Dallas was not getting its fair share of new workers, businesses and development coming into the region.
“Now, its important for me to say this,” he noted. There is value in regional approaches to solving our common problems. For example, look at our city’s recent $25 million contribution to a regional effort to reduce homelessness, championed on this City Council and by our Housing and Homelessness Solutions Committee Chairman Casey Thomas. Programs like this demonstrate what’s possible when we work together.”
However, he noted that regionalism would leave Dallas “in the dust,” and said the city needed to assert itself more agressively.
“Dallas, the city of Dallas is the economic engine for this entire region,” he said. “And my friends, we need to start acting like it.”
He offered six steps to achive economic growth:
- Continue to cut the property tax rate further to make housing more afforable.
- Create an economic development corporation that serves the city of Dallas and encourages growth in Southern Dallas.
- Boost efforts to create a culture of innovation and entrepreneuralship that can give the city an edge over regional competitors and put Dallas in the national conversation about tech hubs.
- Put the city on the international stage – or broaden the stage – by promoting unique assets, enhance our global business ties, and bring in more international tourism.
Johnson stated that they were bidding to bring the World Cup to the city, as well as foreign trade office.
- Modernizing the Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center in order to attract more visitors and businesses from all over the world. The upgrade is also critical in redeveloping the downtown area and bringing communities and amenities together.
- Economic developent that would empower local residents – specifically Southern Dallas, which he noted was his most important goal.
Putting families first
He went on to say that the city needed more than economic opportunities, as he discussed the cultural activities throughout the city.
“We’ve opened, upgraded and renovated our rec centers, our aquatic centers and our libraries. And we’ve improved our programing, such as Smart Summer – which is my summer reading program. which saw a 30% increase in registration this year. We still have more room for growth on all these fronts,” he added.
Johnson stated that another way to become more family friendly is to tap into the past while preparing for the future. He reminded the audience that Dallas is a city that has launched many famous people – such as entrepreneurs, musicians, athletes and public servants – that have been forgotten.
“We’ve made some progress in recognizing and preserving our history. But before the last few years, it feels like we hardly talked about some of our hometown heroes and hidden places and our many contributions to the world,” he stated. “For example, it took far too long to get a sculpture honoring blues legend Jimmie and Stevie Ray Vaughan in Kiest Park near where they grew up. We’ve done very little as a city to highlight people like Baseball Hall of Famer Ernie Banks who attended Booker T. Washington High School, right near downtown Dallas, or legendary Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson who went to Skyline High School. Strangely, we’ve done nothing at all to recognize people like Tom C. Clark who served as our nation’s Attorney General and went on to spend the better part of two decades as an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, including sitting on the court that unanimously struck down public school racial segregation in Brown v Board of Education.”
By failing look back to the past, the city was missing out on tourism dollars, but more so, on an opportunity to create family friendly programing for the next generation, according to Johnson. To remedy that, he said he was going to launch a new initiative next year called, ‘Dallas is for Families.’ The program will include a taskforce that will offer ways to create, enhance and promote the city’s programing, infrastructure and policies aimed at families.
“We can and we must do everything in our power to make Dallas the safest, most vibrant and – its Ok to admit it – the most fun city in Texas for families.”
Accountability and the Dallas City Council
Johnson also spoke about accountability when it came to the City Council, that was once known for not carrying out its projects. He said the city has made additional plans, such as allocating additional funding to hire more:
- Police officers
- 911 operators
- Code compliance officers
The city has also dediated tens of millions of dollars to:
- Neighborhood revitalization efforts
- Homelessness services
- Street resurfacing
- Sidewalk repairs
- Providing broadband for undersearved communities
- Improve sanitation services
Still, he said that the City Council was also responsible for monitoring the city’s progress to ensure progress on issues that have been neglected, such as the city’s software management and permitting operations. He suggested the city create a sunset review process for city department, offices and programs to help eliminate waste, reduce taxes and modernize city services.
He added that the city most pass “meaningful” ethics reform, noting a proposal he presented to the City Council to reform the ethics code. The proposal is designed to show the city residents, “that they’re best interests are our only interest,” he said, and it would feature an office of the inspector general.
Despite the negative past of the city, Johnson said he is ambitious about its future as well. He reflected on the COVID-19 pandemic and the February winter storm which showed the resiliency of the city and its people. Moreover, he marveled that despite the city’s problems, there is always a community here to help one another.
A Word from the Community
During the State of the City Address held in Dallas City Hall, Nov. 17, many local residents in attendance expressed their support of the mayor’s speech and his efforts.
Thomas Joyner Jr, who attended the address, said he supports Johnson’s vision for the future of the city.
“I am very impressed with a powerful and bold agenda he has set for the city of Dallas and can’t wait to see it realized,” Joyner said.
Oscar Joyner, a graduate of the Greenhill School in Dallas and a classmate of Johnson, said he is also happy with the progress Johnson has made with the city.
“I’m really supportive of what he is doing to increase the infrastructure and our workforce,” he said. “I for one can understand how difficult it is to be the top of your graduating class, find a college in Dallas, Texas, that you want to go through and the job you want to go to in Dallas, Texas. Those three things are difficult to matriculate in the city and that is what he is committed to doing.”
Derrick Battie, a South Oak Cliff alum, said the mayor is helping the city all around, in education as well.
“I’m proud to be here, especially representing our community south of I-30,” Battie said. “When I hear the mayor talk about community partnerships, that is primarily how we were able to rebuild our school. A $70 million newly renovated school in the block of our community, paramount to how we are able to open the brand new South Renaissance Park in the heart of 75216 which was one of the highest crime rates still in the city. Although crime is trickling down, I was also on the end of the Mayor’s Task Force on safe communities that presented those recommendations that are helping us reduce violent crimes all over Dallas.”
Battie said that all must work together to make a difference in the city that many people call home.
“Only what we do together here will make a difference in the city of Dallas,” he said. “Educational equity is paramount. Educational equity is paramount. Only what we do together is what puts Dallas forward.”
Robyn H. Jimenez/The Dallas Examiner contributed to this report.