It was more than three years after the Citizens Advisory Recovery Team began meeting when a man who lost his home during the tornado stepped to the microphone to address the Joplin City Council and said the words that many had thought, but none could ever get through to their elected leaders.
“I lost my home on May 22, 2011, like so many others,” Dan McCreary said at the February 2, 2015, council meeting, “but not once did I hear anyone say, ‘we need a restaurant, or a strip mall, or a movie theater above a library.”
McCreary’s words received no comments from the elected officials, nor did he expect any. The projects on the master developer’s list were still moving forward, albeit at a glacial pace. The projects that remained on his list included- small boutique-style businesses that would likely not add jobs, but simply redistribute them from existing businesses, housing, but few new jobs to be able to afford the housing.
It was the kind of development that would appeal to a group of people who thought their vision was crystal clear from the beginning and that skeptics were trying to hold Joplin back.
As Mark Rohr and Rob O’Brian’s informal group of leaders morphed into CART, it included many of those who would be expected to be involved in such a group, CEOs of Empire District Electric Company, Freeman Health System, and Mercy Hospital, C. J. Huff from the school district, Bruce Speck, the president of Missouri Southern State University, and Mayor Mike Woolston joining with Rohr to represent the city.
The committee included many prominent bankers, including Clifford Wert of U. S. Bank, whose leadership role extended to other like-minded groups, even though Wert himself did not live in Joplin, but in neighboring Webb City.
The person selected to lead the citizens group, long before any regular citizens of Joplin became involved, was Jane Cage, partner and chief operating officer at Heartland Technology and a Joplin resident since 1978.
On the CART website, Cage explained how CART operated:
The damage done by the tornado has afforded us a unique “opportunity” to re-imagine Joplin as we want it to be. All of us have ideas about how we can rebuild Joplin to be stronger and better. Our responsibility on the Citizens Advisory Recovery Team is to listen to as many citizens as we can and to be your advocates for the recovery plan. Every one of you has an idea that we can use. Please pass those along as we meet with you in community meetings, through our website and on our Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/JoplinAreaCART. Our mission is to be certain that we further the implementation of the recovery plan developed by the CART. Make your voice heard at this important time in our history.”
Many of the ideas that later were presented to the City Council by master developer David Wallace were already being talked about during the planning sessions that took place weeks before the public sessions were held. Though Wallace was not the city’s master developer at that point, he was already explaining to the group what having a master developer who would make sure that things were done right would do for the city’s recovery. Wallace made a particular point of cultivating Jane Cage’s support, making sure to listen attentively to every word she spoke and continually complimenting her on the quality of her ideas.
It was the same way Wallace had won over supporters when he was first elected mayor of Sugar Land, Texas, defeating well-entrenched incumbent Dean A. Hrbacek, whose development plans were later used as the basis for Wallace-Bajjali Development Partners, in the Republican primary. From the beginning of Wallace-Bajjali, Wallace had pointed out that his career began because of his successes as a public official working with private investors to make the Sugar Land projects possible.
Just like with the ideas that Wallace would present to the Joplin City Council later, much of what he claimed as successes in Texas were someone else’s ideas.
In Sugar Land and in Joplin, David Wallace showed an uncanny knack of being in the right place at the right time.
Had things worked out as David Wallace had planned, he never would have come to Joplin. Wallace had planned to parlay his three terms as Sugar Land mayor into a political career on the national stage.
When House Majority Whip Tom DeLay elected not to run for another term in 2006, Democrats successfully fought to keep DeLay’s name on the ballot since he withdrew after the deadline. At that point, Wallace strongly considered mounting a write-in campaign for the seat.
The small Houston suburb of Sugar Land was not a big enough stage for Wallace.
The district’s GOP leaders endorsed another candidate for the position, but Wallace was not quite ready to leave the picture. At first, he thought of continuing his candidacy, but besieged by bloggers who were releasing information on some of his business dealings with Mark Thatcher and a number of bankruptcies in which Wallace had been involved, he dropped out of the race and decided to pay back those he thought responsible for his failure to get the nomination- the bloggers.
Wallace wrote a book, One Nation Under Blog, in which he revealed the evils that are caused by bloggers.
“Blogging is changing the way politics are being fought,” Wallace said in a television interview promoting his book. “I believe the bloggers are going to be electing our next president.
“When Tom DeLay was stepping down as Congressman, I was trying to get my name on the ballot. What I saw was how easy it was for people to put together a blog- nothing but lies. I was an arms dealer, I was a drug dealer, I bankrupted the city of Sugar Land. All of these things and they connected it to my Wikipedia page.” Wallace characterized Wikipedia as a blog.
“People have lost their jobs because of bloggers, people cyberbullying.”
With his political ambitions out of reach, Wallace formed Wallace-Bajjali Development Partners in 2008, with Costa Bajjali, who had considerable experience in real estate and began pitching the idea of public-private partnerships, the same formula he was selling to the Joplin CART.
Wallace-Bajjali landed projects in Waco and then received a contract to develop the downtown area of Amarillo about the same time as he won the Joplin contract.
In 2010, Wallace-Bajjali had abandoned another city, Corpus Christi, Texas.
Corpus Christi City officials were entranced as Wallace presented a multi-colored power point presentation of how a blighted area of the community would look once Wallace-Bajjali Development Partners finished with their plans to revive the area.
The city officials who watched this presentation were from Corpus Christi, Texas. The presentation was titled "Corpus Christi: A New Vision."
In a city publication printed a few months later, the project was described in this fashion:
"A master plan for redevelopment of property stretching from Sam Rankin Street to Interstate 37 to the waterfront."
That plan included mixed-use development, a water park, and a hotel.
The vision, according to the city publication, would "enhance streetscape and restore economically depressed neighborhoods."
And perhaps it would have, but Wallace-Bajjali walked away from the project a few months into it, when city-owned land it wanted to use for the project was not made available:
"There wasn't enough low-hanging fruit that they could wrap their arms around and get involved right away," Mayor Joe Adame, who recruited the developers to Corpus Christi and strongly supported the plan, told the Corpus Christi newspaper.
Wallace and Bajjali may have abandoned Corpus Christi, but their new vision of it was kept alive…on the Wallace-Bajjali Development Partners website, where it was listed as one of the firm’s accomplishments.
Just as he had worked officials in Waco and Corpus Christi, David Wallace, offering sage advice (with no strings attached, of course) to the CART, explained to the members that they did not want haphazard development, which offered them no control over how the city would grow and would leave Joplin open to unscrupulous developers who only saw money signs in the city’s tragedy.
The city needed a master developer, Wallace said, only casually dropping hints that he would be interested in such a position, so that it could not fall into the hands of someone who might guide the city in the wrong direction and set the recovery effort back years.
The suggestions he made were all ones that could be handled by Wallace-Bajjali, though Wallace never said as much.
The important thing, he said, was to find out what the citizens of Joplin want, to make sure the people are behind the CART effort 100 percent.
That being said, Wallace continually praised the projects that were being suggested by CART members. While everyday Joplin residents, whether their homes and families suffered from the tornado or not, were talking about finding a way to bring jobs, particularly some kind of industry to Joplin, that was not the first thought on the minds of the well-heeled CART members.
Wallace listened as he heard plans to build a hotel, a convention center, to bring a cultural venue downtown, something that could attract major entertainment acts. They heard of an idea to bring a medical school to Joplin.
Wallace took notes as they spoke and complimented CART members effusively on their ideas.
Many of the ideas had been ones that had tried and failed before, but this time the sympathy of the nation was with Joplin. The city that had lost 161 people and a third of its homes and businesses deserved to have the best and this group could make sure they received it.
To do that, David Wallace emphasized, you need a master developer, someone to keep his eye on the ball and make sure all of those wonderful dreams could come true.”
Silver Lining is available locally at Always Buying Books and Changing Hands Book Shoppe in Joplin, and at Pat's Books in Carthage.
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