Boeing's rejection of Dallas 20 years ago might have been the best thing for downtown – Dallas Business Journal – Chicago Business Journal

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On March 21, 2001, Dallas-Fort Worth received some surprisingly good news.
The Boeing Co., a multi-billion dollar aircraft manufacturer and a Fortune 10 ranked company as of 2000, was considering moving its headquarters to North Texas. The company had also identified Chicago and Denver as finalists. Boeing’s new corporate office was expected to employ some 500 people, about half the number working at its Seattle headquarters at the time.
“As we’ve grown, we have determined that our headquarters needs to be in a location central to all our operating units, customers and the financial community — but separate from our existing operations,” said Phil Condit, chairman and CEO of Boeing, at the time. “The role of the new, leaner corporate center will be to seek new growth opportunities around the globe.”
Local leaders at the time recall that Boeing’s headquarters search was unusual.
“In almost every other case, the protocol was for the chamber to call, John Ware and I would meet privately with the economic development team, and we’d all have to sign non-disclosures. Boeing was unusual because the CEO basically said, ‘Hey, we’re moving and we’ve narrowed it down to these cities.’ It was as public of a battle for a corporate relocation as any,” said former Dallas mayor Ron Kirk, who served from 1995 to 2001.
Nearly two months later, Boeing chose Chicago for its next headquarters. While it may never be known exactly why Dallas wasn’t picked, it has become somewhat of a legend that the wife of Boeing’s then CEO did not think too fondly of the city’s urban core, supposedly calling it a cultural backwater compared to Chicago.
“They really did find the lack of vitality downtown a big issue. They wanted to go somewhere that had more vibrancy and a great urban seal,” said Larry Good, retired founding principal and chairman of Dallas-based architecture firm GFF. In 2001, Good also served as chairman of Downtown Dallas Inc.
Today, downtown has grown into a vibrant live-work-play district that attracts new businesses, residents, and development. But how much credit, if any, does Dallas owe Boeing for that turnaround? Furthermore, what if Boeing had decided to move its headquarters to Dallas in 2001? How different would the urban core look today? On the 20th anniversary year of Boeing’s rejection, the Dallas Business Journal revisits the decision to determine if Boeing’s pass on downtown was actually a blessing in disguise.
Downtown Dallas in the early 2000s
“It was a dark day for downtown,” said Good, recalling the area at the turn of the new millennium. “We had gotten a few historic buildings restored for housing, so there was a glimmer of good stuff going on, but every retail storefront was vacant. The streets were devoid of life. If there was any activity downtown, it was down in the tunnels that connected the office buildings to the parking garages and other office buildings.”
When Boeing was looking to move its headquarters, Dallas’s urban core was without many of the landmarks that visitors and residents enjoy today. The American Airlines Center was still under construction. While the Arts District did have the Dallas Museum of Art and The Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center, the Nasher Sculpture Center, the AT&T Performing Arts Center and Moody Performance Hall were still years away from opening.
Downtown did have the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, but no Omni hotel. Very little green space existed downtown, either: Main Street Garden Park, Civic Garden and Klyde Warren Park were still years away from happening.
“A lot of those things were being discussed, but there wasn’t a lot of intensity about it. There wasn’t enough focus. We just weren’t getting there,” said Good. “We talked about the convention center hotel for years and years, but nothing ever really came to pass. We talked about the condition that the streets and sidewalks were in, we talked about the overhead walkways and the tunnels that were sucking the life out of downtown streets, but there was too much talk and hand-wringing and not enough action.”
A united vision for downtown
Most local stakeholders say Boeing alone wasn’t the reason for downtown’s turnaround, but some say it was an important kick-starter.
“What (Boeing) triggered was a wake-up call. Both mayors that were serving around this time were eager to address the problem. They convened stakeholders and civic leadership to ask the question, ‘How can we change this? What can we do downtown?’” Good said.
One of the best efforts to address downtown’s problems came from the formation of the Inside the Loop Committee, conceived in 2002 by then Dallas mayor Laura Miller. She says it was developer Raymond Nasher, not Boeing, that instigated the formation of the committee.
“Ray Nasher had invested a lot of money into the Nasher Sculpture Center and before the grand opening, he said, ‘I didn’t ask for anything from the city. There’s no money in long-term maintenance or the facility itself, but I really would like you to clean up downtown,’” Miller said. “I called Robert Decherd at the Dallas Morning News and said, ‘Can we get together a bunch of property owners downtown and see what we can do to get things looking better so that the Nasher … will have a clean environment to launch?'”
“That was the initial reason for the committee. Because Decherd is so intense and focused, it morphed pretty quickly into, ‘Well, what do we really need long term to turn Dallas around?’ At the time, there was very little happening.”
Over the course of three years, the roughly 25-member committee created a report outlining five immediate action items and five intermediate action items for downtown. The ten action items include the following:
Top 5 Immediate Action Items – 2005
Top 5 Intermediate Action Items – 2005
Slowly but surely, portions of the plan began to take shape. Others are still in the works. For those early believers in downtown’s renaissance, the progress seen today is a satisfying reminder that change can happen.
“I love it (downtown). It reminds me that change takes time. Great public works projects are always controversial and they always take longer, but 20 years in the life of a city is nothing,” Kirk said.
What if Boeing had chosen Dallas?
With hindsight being 20/20, it could be easy to conclude that Boeing’s rejection of Dallas might have actually been a good thing. But what if the world’s largest aerospace company had chosen downtown for its new headquarters? Would things look totally different today? Would all of the progress that the urban core has seen in the last 20 years be reversed? Stakeholders say probably not.
“There are too many smart people that know what a great city, a vibrant city, looks like. We would have gotten there,” Good said. “I think we’d be several years behind where we are now, but I think we would have done virtually all those same things ultimately.”
Kirk says the entire courtship with Boeing was ultimately a victory for Dallas and the greater region.
“I saw it as a win-win deal that we couldn’t lose. At the time, CNBC and CNN and Jim Cramer were talking about all the reasons why Boeing thinks Dallas is a good place to be,” Kirk said.
“What Boeing did was validate Dallas as one of the new important economic centers in the country. One of the most important, iconic corporations in America was saying, ‘We need to be someplace that we can service not just all of America, but North America, and do it in the middle of the country with a great airport in a business-friendly environment.’”
Downtown Dallas today
While Dallas didn’t land Boeing 20 years ago, many more victories have come since. In 2007, downtown attracted Comerica’s corporate headquarters. A year later, AT&T moved its headquarters to Dallas from San Antonio. In 2017, the region landed a divisional headquarters of Boeing while also being selected as a finalist for Amazon’s HQ2. In 2019, Uber announced plans for a large office in Deep Ellum. This year, local insurance company Integrity Marketing Group took 100,000 square feet as part of a headquarters move from Cypress Waters to Fountain Place.
“It’s incredibly significant to see. After the Amazon process and after the Uber move, we really saw downtown jump to another level of national recognition. We were poised to be an attractive market prior to COVID. Since then, we’ve stayed steady,” said Kourtny Garrett, president and CEO of DDI.
“We had $4 billion of projects under construction prior to COVID. Not one single project has been derailed. All of those projects are still moving forward. We’re obviously seeing these relocations and our phones are very busy with both in-market and out-of-market interest for corporate relos and new development investment.”
If Dallas wants to continue to attract new businesses and people downtown, future leaders must continue to be vigilant, Kirk said.
“The work of keeping a city relevant is never done. If you have an asset like DFW Airport, the Dallas Convention Center, a DART system, the housing stock, you’re never finished modernizing, updating it, and making it better,” he said. “The good thing now is that market forces are generating a lot of that change. We don’t have to provide all the incentives that we did then to get people to develop downtown.”
Stakeholders say there’s still work that needs to be done in Dallas, but great strides have been made over the last two decades.
“What’s interesting is that if you’d asked me (what downtown is missing) in 2002 when I was elected, I would have said, ‘Here are the 30 things that are missing downtown.’ It kind of speaks for itself that when you ask me in 2021 and I have to think about it,” Miller said.
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