By Maria Saporta
Somewhat grudgingly, the mayors of Dallas and Fort Worth on Wednesday paid tribute to Atlanta when addressing the LINK group visiting their respective cities.
But both mayors were quick to remind the 110 regional Atlanta leaders that they were in the presence of strong competition.
“Our region is just literally on fire,” said Betsy Price, the mayor of Fort Worth.
Today her city alone has a population of 820,000 people, and it could top 1 million by the next census. (By comparison, the City of Atlanta’s population is less than 500,000).
“Fort Worth is the 16th largest city in the nation,” she said. “This is the best big city with a small-town feel with a walkable downtown. That’s intentional.”
A few hours later, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings addressed the Atlanta group at a dinner held outside in the courtyard of the Nasher Sculpture Center in the middle of the city’s centrally-located arts district.
“I’m a competitive guy,” said Rawlings, who is in his second term as the mayor of Dallas. “You are my toughest competition.”
Rawlings said he was in Atlanta only last week. He later explained that he’s a director of Taco Mac, and there was board meeting. When asked how he competes against Atlanta, Rawlings admitted that Dallas lost the bid for the headquarters of Mercedes-Benz USA, which is building its base in Sandy Springs.
“I’m not a believer in selling one against another,” said Rawlings, who then added that when you’re in Dallas “you can get to either coast quickly.”
And it is obvious both cities – which are the anchors of the DFW Metroplex – are on a fast-growth trajectory that has been happening primarily on the northern half of the region – much like metro Atlanta.
Rawlings said Dallas has come a long way in the 52-plus years since the assassination of the President John Kennedy, when he said it was called “the city of hate.”
For decades, the cities of Dallas and Fort Worth were more competitors than allies. Rawlings said that one of the former mayors of Fort Worth would pack a lunch whenever he went to Dallas so he wouldn’t have to buy a meal and contribute to the city’s economy.
Mayor Price also said the two cities were working closer together. But she added that Fort Worth was proud of its identity as a city of cowboys and culture.
In Fort Worth, she has been working on an agenda to improve the wellness of its citizens by encouraging more walking and cycling. Fort Worth also is creating a recreational park along its section of the Trinity River.
Kenneth Burr, the former mayor of Fort Worth, said there’s a new resident moving to north Texas every five minutes.
“I understand there are some (LINK) members who were here 20 years ago,” Burr said. “We are a different place today.”
He credited a good part of the city’s vision to Fernando Costa, who Burr lured away from Atlanta after the 1996 Olympics.
The former Atlanta planning director who is now Fort Worth’s assistant city manager, said they have been trying to reverse the trend of building cities for cars and not for people – explaining the relationship between lifestyle choices and the built environment.
“It helps to link public health to public policy,” Costa said. “It’s about how to improve your economy and the health of your city at the same time.”
In Dallas, Rawlings said the region has 15 billionaires and countless millionaires, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.
“We are a very poor city too,” the Dallas Mayor said. “We have the largest percentage of children living in poverty of any major city in the United States. We need to figure out how to bridge this economic gap between the haves and the have nots.”
Rawlings said that the Southern side of Dallas represents about 55 percent of the city’s land area but only 15 percent of its tax base.
“South Dallas has such a huge growth opportunity,” he said.
He also mentioned three other dreams he has for Dallas.
“I want us to be the business epicenter for the western hemisphere,” he said. “Business is in our DNA, and we want to take it over the top.”
Also he would like to see Dallas become more of a haven for great art and artists.
And then he said the most important issue – and one he would hope Atlanta and Dallas would compete for this title – to build the best urban school system in the United States. He said there currently are 45,000 vacant positions in Dallas for skilled or qualified people who would earn at least $17 a hour. But the school system is not graduating prospective workers to fill those jobs.
“I see how Atlanta has been built on the shoulders of great universities that I’m envious of,” he said. “But for me, it’s got to start at 2 years old and three years old.”