The Insider

All Dried Up, Again
The Reverend James Dixon's career as operator of a city food concession was almost as brief -- and apparently just as successful -- as his bid to win elected office earlier this year.

Dixon is a politically influential minister whose support was crucial to Drayton McLane, Ken Lay and other downtown ballpark backers in securing African-American support of last November's stadium referendum. With the backing of McLane and Lay, Dixon later ran in the special election to fill the at-large Council seat vacated by the since-indicted John Peavy, but lost in a February runoff to Chris Bell.

Not too long after his defeat, Dixon entered into a deal with One's A Meal's Nick Xenakis and businessman David Marquez to operate the beverage and food concession at the city's Memorial Park Tennis Center. The nonprofit venture would serve as a source of employment for participants in Dixon's Good Gang USA, the youth program he runs out of his Northwest Community Baptist Church on Pinemont, and was to be the first of a series of contracts between Good Gang and the city to operate food and beverage outlets in other municipal parks.

Parks and Recreation Department director Bill Smith personally negotiated the contract to put Good Gang at Memorial Park, and Smith was enthusiastic enough about the undertaking to offer suggestions for what it should be named. Demonstrating that his particular expertise is not in marketing, Smith dispatched a memo to Dixon in May listing such highly imaginative prospective monikers as "Park Cafe," "Park Diner" and "Park Grill." Since the snack bar at Memorial had no capability to serve hot eats, or even tables to eat off of, the operators settled for the more lyrical -- and realistic -- "Oasis in the Park."

Although its initial contract with the city was for six months, Good Gang made an unannounced getaway at the end of August, closing down the snack bar and leaving a touching good-bye note on the counter explaining that Dixon's young workers had to go back to school. The surprise closure left parks department administrators puzzled and groping for a replacement concessionaire.

It's a position they've been in before. The previous concessionaire, Burke McConn, also closed his operation without notice early this year while owing nearly a year's back payments on the city's 10 percent share of the concession sales. McConn, the nephew of the late mayor Jim, had been chosen without competitive bidding. After he left, Smith selected Good Gang on the same no-bid basis in May.

Now the city has terminated its agreement with Good Gang and is searching for a temporary operator while preparing to solicit proposals for the concession, according to assistant parks director Sara Culbreth. Good Gang, meanwhile, owes the city an undisclosed share of the revenue it took in during its three months at Memorial and is being penalized an additional $10 a day until its account is cleared.

Earlier, Culbreth had helped pull the plug on an attempt by Good Gang to get the parks department to extend the concession to Moody and Burnett-Bayland parks. Culbreth says the concessionaires had signed and forwarded the additional contracts to Smith for his signature before she intervened.

"This was before we had any further discussions," Culbreth reminded Smith in a memo, and then pointed out that Good Gang had "no real performance history" and should be monitored at Memorial Park before being granted additional contracts.

Culbreth says she doesn't know whether the halting of those additional contracts led to Good Gang's decision to shut down its Memorial operation. But to hear Dixon tell it, the August closure had been scripted from the beginning.

"It's a summer job program for kids, and they've gone back to school," said the minister, who seems to have made no provision to replace his youthful employees once classes resumed. Keeping the Oasis open for the full duration of Good Gang's six-month contract was "too gigantic a challenge," Dixon added. "The daytime shift would have been totally unattended to, and then the kids have all kinds of extracurricular activities during the school year, so that would have made it very difficult."

When Dixon ran for Council he touted his creation of Good Gang as a credential for holding office. He claimed it provided jobs, employment training and housing for people within their own neighborhoods and involved 2,500 young people.

While parks officials are nonplused that Dixon apparently never thought past August when signing a six-month contract in May, the minister rejects the suggestion that he was shortsighted in his planning. In fact, Dixon says he's planning a celebration with the Good Gang youngsters that will also mark one of the shortest-lived concession contracts in city history.

"I think it worked out well," he insisted. "I think what we did in the summer months was splendid."

Maybe so, but if Dixon ever runs for office again, he'll have to persuade voters he'd be a much better public servant than he was a snack bar operator.

It's All Relative
Like the members of James Dixon's Good Gang, another group of young people has returned to school after completing summer jobs -- theirs in the slightly elevated office environs of the University of Texas Health Science Center in the Medical Center.

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