Looking for big answers in Big D

DALLAS — This is not an exotic location.

It’s not in another country like Toronto or built on a whole different worldview like Portland. It’s not bounded by mountains like Denver or beset by winters like Minneapolis.

For the more than 100 key metro Atlanta leaders who traveled to Dallas for a four-day look, the region was just familiar enough to keep them from dismissing any new ideas.

At the same time, Dallas is just different enough to make them wonder whether those ideas would work back home in Atlanta.

“You wonder about their secret sauce,” said Katerina Taylor, chief executive of DeKalb Chamber of Commerce, who moved to Atlanta from this area. “Dallas-Fort Worth didn’t look like this when I lived here. So whatever their secret sauce is, they did it and they did it expeditiously. So how do we do this in Atlanta?”

The question isn’t just academic: Dallas has arguably been Atlanta’s prime Southern competitor for business relocations and expansions. And while most of the participants on the 20th annual trip known as LINK saw some things that made them shudder, they were also impressed by the region’s growth, especially its investments in transit and public space.

The theory is that the trips can spark concrete ideas for use back home in metro Atlanta, a region some say has not managed much in the way of needle-moving public infrastructure projects since the 1996 Summer Olympics.

Early next month, the Atlanta Regional Commission, which coordinates the trip with private backing, will convene a meeting of trip participants to talk about what comes next. For the participants, ideas that seemed worth mimicking included:

— a 10,000 acre environmental and recreational development along the Trinity River.

— Klyde Warren Park, a 5.2 acre space built over a downtown Dallas freeway.

— a large downtown arts district, peppered with high profile museums.

— the expanded Dallas Area Rapid Transit system, which covers 700 square miles with bus and rail, connecting Dallas and 12 area cities.

DART has built support for expansion despite carrying only about half as many people as MARTA — 220,000 people a day in Dallas-Fort Worth vs. 430,000 daily across MARTA’s smaller but denser footprint.

“If we don’t give people choices, we know what they’re going to do – they are going to drive cars,” Gary Thomas, DART’s executive director, told the LINK group.

Studies show – and rush hour traffic tends to confirm – that cars are the commuting vehicles for 89 percent of metro Dallas workers.

But that is progress, and it’s going to accelerate, said trip participant Bill Bolling, longtime director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank.

“When we were here 15 years ago, they were just starting transportation. Okay, they don’t have a lot of ridership yet, but it’s becoming cool for young people.”

Participants in LINK trips generally support moves to boost mass transit in metro Atlanta. But an attempt in 2012 to pass “TSPLOST” – a sales tax that would support expansion of both road and rail options – went down to defeat at the polls.

LINK leaders and participants generally sees it as a long game — learning about other cities, networking with other Atlantans and raising the level of conversation.

Self-interest at work

Sarah Kirsch, executive director of the Urban Land Institute, said the debate is slowly working its way from environmentalism and aesthetics onto the more fertile turf of financial self-interest.

“I think things have changed,” she said. “People are seeing the correlation between real estate values and parks and transit.”

Property values have jumped around the Klyde Warren Park and around many stops on the DART rail line.

“This is about dollars,” Kirsch said. “Everybody pays attention to it.”

It’s not that metro Atlanta hasn’t had ideas, including some that are getting done — the Beltline on Atlanta’s east side, for instance.

There are already suggestions on the table for highway-spanning parks over the Downtown Connector or Georgia 400 in Buckhead. The latter could be about twice the size of Klyde Warren.

But conversation can stop when money comes up.

In Dallas, the park didn’t get started until $112 million was raised. Some came from city bonds, some from the state, some from the feds. Private money accounted for roughly half. The park, run by a foundation, is drawing about 1 million users a year and features a restaurant, fountain and playground among other amenities.

Making it happen

Some of the ideas the LINK delegation found most compelling were not about money and projects, but about how to make things happen in a region split between two big cities and a flock of suburbs.

Despite an old tradition of rivalry between Dallas and Fort Worth, there’s a common economic interest, said Ken Barr, former mayor of the latter. “If you look at all the big projects over the years, the common factor is collaboration.”

That means that one part of the region won’t steal from another, said Andrew Taft, president of Downtown Fort Worth, Inc.

“We made a pact – almost everybody – that we will not use economic incentives, so that we will not move companies for one municipality to another one. That is a zero-sum game.”

The notion raised eyebrows among the Atlanta delegation, since several cities have worked to lure companies from elsewhere in the region.

Making such a pact workable means involving the private sector in public decisions, Taft said. “They have a seat at our table. It creates stronger relationships.”

And then there’s politics.

Few of the LINK delegation have any political power. And even those are local, not regional, officials. LINK – for leadership, involvement, networking and knowledge – this year included planners, consultants, economic development officials, chambers of commerce, academics and a handful of county officials and mayors, as well as Ceasar Mitchell, president of the Atlanta City Council.

Politicians absent

Invitations are sent each year to state legislators and the governor, said ARC officials. None were on the trip this time, although past trips have often included legislators. ARC officials said they think the upcoming primary election has their attention and they can’t afford time away.

Jen Ryan, spokeswoman for Gov. Nathan Deal, said that the LINK invitation came when it was unclear how long this year’s legislative session would last. Stefanie Harper, a spokeswoman for the Department of Economic Development, said the department didn’t have anyone available to send.

But Harper said the department is very interested in what the group learned in Dallas.

“This is a great opportunity, the information and the experience are going to be very interesting. All that information is going to help us as we look for ways to assess it and use it.”

Most of those on the trip said they are realistic about how fast things change in a huge region with many centers of power, not to mention the state’s power to override local preferences. But the legislature this year permitted a local referendum on another, limited sales tax for transportation – and that fuels hope.

“Dallas feels very much like Atlanta,” said Sarah Kirsch of the ULI. “If they can do something, we have to ask, why can’t we do it here?”