Note: This article is part of our State of the City projectin which The Dallas Morning News examines some of the most critical issues facing our communities. Further topics can be found in our look at the Dallas economy in the coming days.
According to Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson, the pandemic set an exclamation point for some of the major challenges the city is facing.
It deepened long-standing inequalities, increased the importance of employee programs to adapt quickly to economic disruptions, and emphasized the need to become more aggressive in competing with the region’s fast-growing suburbs for new jobs.
The Dallas Morning News Johnson asked three key questions as a result of his reporting on the state’s economy. His emailed replies have been edited for brevity.
The pandemic has exposed economic weaknesses and vulnerabilities in cities around the world. What were the most pressing issues uncovered in Dallas? What kind of resilience does Dallas need to develop in order to be prepared for future disruptions?
Fortunately, Dallas’s economy is very diverse. We are not dependent on an industry. Of course, like many cities, some of our key economic sectors – especially the service and entertainment industries – were hit hard during the pandemic. Both of our airports, which are an important economic factor for Dallas, saw significant traffic slumps, although DFW in particular recovered well.
The pandemic has also exacerbated longstanding inequalities in our city that we had already decided to eliminate. We will have to continue to campaign for these efforts.
I am grateful that many of our employees and our companies have proven themselves to be amazingly resilient and adaptable despite the hardship caused by the pandemic. We lost some great companies, which was heartbreaking, but our business world is strong.
Looking ahead, education and basic urban services are my greatest concerns about the future.
The interruptions to our city services – at a time when they were most needed – were unacceptable. The city council must continue to put pressure on the city administrator’s office to set the permitting process, garbage collection, emergency call center and other key city services.
And as we build for the future, the pandemic has made it clear that we need to expand broadband access. Internet connectivity is not a luxury. It is a necessity for work and education. We are working to improve access at the local level as much as possible.
School and day-care center closings put a strain on families and children in particular. As a working parent, I’ve experienced these challenges firsthand. I don’t oversee our schools, but it was clear that we – collectively, not just the city government – need better plans to deal with public health challenges. This was a novel virus, but we received very little guidance from the federal government and other health authorities until the pandemic got there. Our schools and businesses need a playbook to help us deal with infectious diseases – and we could all use supplies of personal protective equipment.
We have also seen how quickly the economy can change during a shock like this. We need to work with our educational partners to ensure we have robust employee training programs that will help our residents adapt to the ever-evolving 21st century economy. My office recently received a Bloomberg Philanthropies grant, which is funding a study of our workforce, especially after a pandemic, to support our city’s efforts to become more resilient in the years to come. That should be finished in September.
Dallas small businesses are running out of financial support they say was essential to managing the pandemic. How can the city further support small businesses and their employees? Is it reasonable to expect the city to help them in the next few months?
Through our city’s Small Business Continuity Fund, which we established in response to the pandemic, we have provided $ 5.6 million in grants to 539 companies and $ 1 million in loan funding to 32 companies. The money was primarily for very small businesses (with less than $ 1 million in annual revenue), and about 44% of that went to businesses in low-to-middle-income census areas. More than 200 fund-backed companies are owned by African American people. We will continue to look for other ways to directly support small businesses. But most of the aid will come to the city through the federal government or available federal funds.
We also need to do what we can to lower the property tax rate so that businesses aren’t challenged out of our city.
The best thing we did for our small businesses was to seek and receive direct allocation of COVID-19 vaccines from the state and support from FEMA. The city is not a public health agency, but we were armed to help vaccinate people, which greatly reduced the spread of COVID-19 and gave people the confidence to get out into the world again.
On this front we also need help from our small businesses. We have done a great job vaccinating people quickly, but we have not yet achieved herd immunity. Small businesses should encourage and incentivize employees to get vaccinated so that we can leave this pandemic completely behind us.
Dallas has long competed with its suburbs on housing, schooling, crime rates, and overall quality of life. The remote working trends that accelerated during the pandemic mean that Dallas is now in competition for talent from smaller cities. How do you see this challenge?
I see it as an existential challenge for Dallas. Businesses don’t care too much about the jagged lines that make up our city limits, except when it comes to the cost of their overheads from property taxes, permits, and the like. As the Mayor of Dallas, I have to deal with these lines all the time.
If we lose business relocations and developments in surrounding cities, or see our businesses and residents leave us for the suburbs, the region may be fine, but the city loses. We’re losing the tax base, which means we can’t lower the burden on everyone else or provide needed services. We’re also losing talent, which makes it harder to attract more companies in the future.
To be clear, we have tremendous assets and a lot to feel good about. Prior to the pandemic, we closed office expansion deals for large corporations. We met with great interest from companies. Parts of the city were booming. The pandemic has slowed, but not stopped, growth.
We recently adopted a new comprehensive economic development policy that will be crucial for competing with our neighboring cities. Politicians are calling for a new business development company to be founded to help market and grow the city of Dallas – not the region. It is long overdue and urgently needed. Much of the EDC will be focused on south Dallas and equity building.
The new policy also included recommendations from my Innovation and Entrepreneurship Task Force. Dallas is already a great city for startups and entrepreneurs, but it happened without us actually trying. We have the potential to talk to Silicon Valley, New York, Austin and Miami. I also want Dallas to be the undisputed top city in the country for women entrepreneurs. We just have to consciously create and develop an integrative ecosystem for startups and innovators.
To build for the future, Dallas needs to become more of a global player. In many ways we are already an international city. But as the economic engine of the fourth largest metropolitan region in the country, we should play a much stronger role internationally. Just before the pandemic broke out, I formed the Mayor’s International Advisory Board, a team of five Dallas executives who previously held the rank of U.S. Ambassador. I asked them to develop strategies to diplomatically engage other countries and their cities, increase international tourism, and help attract foreign trade and investment, including by encouraging other countries to open trade offices in Dallas. We’re advancing. I am excited to see what will come next.
We also have more work to do at the city level to outperform our competitors in the region. We need to grow our talent base through partnerships with our nonprofit and academic institutions such as Dallas College, UNT-Dallas, and SMU. We need to base our basic services like infrastructure, garbage collection and permits. We need to lower our property tax rate, the highest in the region. And we have to fight violent crime because people have to feel safe to be successful.
So we compete and we win. We need to realize that our suburbs are no longer sleeping communities. They are competitors who have benefited the most from being based near Dallas. As a city, we have to assert ourselves and ensure that Dallas remains the engine of this region.
Features of our State of the City project’s look at the Dallas economy:
Small business: Can Small Businesses Recover?
Questions and answers: Mayor Eric Johnson talks about the Dallas economy
Sunday: The pandemic has not had a negative impact on everyone
Sunday: Cities have to deal with today’s workforce differently
Sunday: Can we expect a year of record job growth?
Sunday / Editor: How Dallas can change its economic mobility problem
Sunday / Statement: Alfreda Norman discusses the emphasis on local partnerships
Sunday / Opinion: Cullum Clark discusses what suburbs can teach Dallas