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Atlanta LINK Delegation Gathers Insights from Booming Dallas-Fort Worth

Posted on: May 13, 2016

The Atlanta and Dallas-Fort Worth regions have much in common.

Both are fast-growing Sunbelt regions anchored by hub airports and major Fortune 500 companies. Both have played host to Super Bowls and Final Fours and boast world-class arts and cultural institutions. And, yes, each wrestles with traffic congestion.

Of course, there are key differences. And that’s what drew about 110 metro Atlanta leaders to the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex in early May for the 2016 LINK trip, organized by the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC).  The journey to Texas marked a milestone, as it was the 20th LINK trip.

The Atlanta delegation, made up of civic, business, nonprofit and government leaders, toured a park built over a downtown freeway, got a first-hand look at how transit has transformed a Dallas suburb, explored educational reform efforts and learned how the region was reclaiming the long-ignored Trinity River.

“There really is something to learn in Dallas,” said Ann Cramer, a senior consultant with Coxe Curry & Associates. “My biggest takeaway was how important education has become in economic development.”

The group will get back together in June to discuss the key takeaways from the trip and decide what next steps might be needed.

Here are some highlights from the visit to Dallas-Fort Worth:

A suburb embraces light rail

DART light rail in downtown Plano

Plano, about 20 miles north of downtown Dallas, resembles affluent Atlanta suburbs like Roswell and Alpharetta. A key difference: Plano has rail transit.

The LINK delegation rode a sleek, yellow Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) train from downtown Dallas to Plano, where they met with community leaders who said the train has helped transform the historic downtown area. Once-vacant storefronts are now home to thriving locally owned restaurants and shops. Apartments are clustered just steps from the rail platform.

“During the suburbanization period, downtown Plano became lost. It was a ghost town,” said Frank Turner, former deputy city manager of Plano. “It really took DART to be the catalyst for change.”

Still, some Plano residents remain wary of transit. Pam Hatcher, president of a downtown Plano neighborhood association, drew applause from LINK members when she spoke passionately about transit’s ability to encourage diversity and connections in their divided region.

‘Cowboys and Culture’

That’s the unofficial slogan embraced by Fort Worth, a bustling city of nearly 800,000 about 30 miles west of Dallas.

In downtown Fort Worth, the LINK delegation explored Sundance Square Plaza, a privately-owned area that buzzed with energy on a warm, cloudless spring day. The plaza, which features fountains, wide sidewalks and four towering shade-providing umbrellas, helped spark a downtown renaissance.

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price told the delegation of the city’s plans to create 12 miles of public waterfront along the Trinity River and her commitment to creating a walkable downtown.

“Downtown has come a long way,” she said. “Sundance Square is phenomenal. We call it Fort Worth’s Living room.”

Urban innovation sparks downtown Dallas revival

LINK participants tour the Trinity River area in downtown Dallas

LINK participants had the opportunity to tour several innovative projects that Dallas leaders say are helping transform the downtown district into a lively, walkable area that is attractive to young professionals.

  • Klyde Warren Park, a 5.2-acre park built over a busy downtown freeway, features spacious lawns, a whimsical playground, a stage for yoga classes, outdoor concerts and films, and even dedicated space for food trucks. It gave LINK participants a glimpse of what might be possible in Atlanta, where similar freeway parks have been discussed in Buckhead over Ga. 400 and on the Downtown Connector.
  • The Trinity River Corridor Project, the largest public works project in the history of Dallas, aims to reclaim the long-ignored river as a city centerpiece while providing improved flood control and traffic flow. The project, still under development, features two stunning bridges designed by noted Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.
  • The Dallas Arts District boasts a cluster of arts facilities designed by world-class architects, including a symphony hall, art museum, opera house and performing arts center. It’s touted as the largest contiguous arts district in the country.

Wrestling with a growing ‘wealth gap’

A panel discussion about leadership in the Dallas-Fort Worth region turned into a frank, sobering exploration of the region’s struggles with income inequality.

The region’s fast-growing, affluent north side serves as the area’s economic engine. The struggling south side, in contrast, is marked by pockets of endemic poverty and lack of investment.

“The wealth gap in the region, especially in the city of Dallas, is not sustainable,” said Larry James, CEO of CitySquare, a nonprofit group that fights poverty in Dallas. “We need a regional approach. We have not cracked that yet.”

Dr. Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, a private school in south Dallas that serves a largely low-income population, said education is key to closing the income gap.

Dr. Sorrell detailed innovative steps that the college has taken, from slashing tuition, eliminating textbooks (many students couldn’t afford them), scrapping the costly football program and converting the stadium into an urban farm to address the lack of healthy food options in the neighborhood.

Getting an education on education reform

What’s the best way to tackle education reform in a way that is effective and long-lasting? It’s a question that has vexed many communities, and one that the Atlanta region is tackling as part of ARC’s Regional Economic Competitiveness Strategy.

In Plano, the LINK delegation heard from a panel of Texas educational leaders that included Michael Hinojosa, former Cobb County Superintendent who now leads the Dallas Independent School District (DISD). Hinojosa detailed a number of reforms he’s putting in place to improve his district, which serves a student population that is 90 percent low-income. The reforms include increasing the number of “choice” schools that offer specialized programs and are open to families no matter where they live.

Advice and insights about regional collaboration on education included:

  • Focus on a few key milestones, such as 3rd grade reading proficiency and high school graduation rate, rather than tackling too much at once
  • The critical importance of sharing data across educational jurisdictions
  • Make sure to invest properly in the organization that is charged with carrying out reform measures

Dallas mayor talks tough, calls Atlanta his main competition

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings addressed the LINK delegation over dinner at the renowned Nasher sculpture garden in the downtown Dallas Arts District. He quickly got down to business, addressing the business rivalry between the two regions.

“I’m a competitive guy – I played football,” Rawlings said. “You are my biggest competition.”

He said his region has momentum, with a population that is nearing 7 million and growing by more than a million people per decade. Dallas-Fort Worth’s economy, at one time closely tied to the energy industry, has become highly diversified, he said.

Throughout the trip, the LINK delegation was wowed by the financial resources that Dallas and other Texas cities have to help attract businesses. They referenced a study that found Georgia spends $144 per capita each year on incentive programs, while Texas spends $759.

At the end of his talk, Rawlings challenged the Atlanta-area leaders to compete with Dallas in creating the best urban school system in the U.S.

“The only sustainable, scalable strategy to close the economic gap between the haves and have-nots is education,” he said.