New leader of Dallas Park Board is changing landscape of system

September 7, 2010
The Dallas Morning News
Published: 07 September 2010 06:46 AM
“Board member Lee Kleinman said he was a little taken aback at first.’I was kind of like, OK, so here we are getting directed as to how much time we have or don’t have,’ Kleinman said. ‘But then, when he actually ran the session that way, everybody seemed like they had plenty of time to say what they needed to say.

‘I was a little surprised,” Kleinman added. ‘But that actually worked pretty well.'”


In a conference room inside Dallas City Hall, members of the Park and Recreation Board were still milling about before their meeting Thursday. It was 10:01 a.m. A minute late.

Mike Rawlings, a thickset 56-year-old in a gray suit, looked around impatiently. “Let’s go, folks,” he said.

It was characteristic of the new Park Board president, a former Pizza Hut chief executive and now managing partner of a private equity firm. He has made clear from the start that he wants to run things like a business.

“I’m a businessman by trade,” Rawlings told the board during his first meeting in early August. “To me it’s about getting more customers in and cutting costs.”

During his first month in the post, he has presented the board with scattergrams of data about the city’s pools and recreation centers. He speaks in business lingo: products, cost centers, customer data, top performers.

Since his appointment by Mayor Tom Leppert, Rawlings has taken the reins of the all-volunteer board with a firm hand. Meetings now start on time and end by noon. In the past, they often dragged on through lunch and into the afternoon.

He’s also begun to steer the Park Department toward his and the mayor’s vision. They want to aggressively pursue private money by partnering with businesses and nonprofit groups.

They want the cash-strapped system – more than 17,000 acres of park land, dozens of miles of hiking and bike trails, 43 recreation centers and 21 pools, not to mention the hope for a grand park along the Trinity River – to become more self-sustaining, and less of a political football.

“We are in some ways at the whim of the City Council, and what they decide to do on the budgets from year to year – I don’t like that,” Rawlings told fellow board members. “I don’t like to be at anybody’s whim, so it’s our job to … figure out how to fund this thing, and keep this machine going in good times and bad.”


Rawlings, rumored a potential mayoral candidate once Leppert leaves office, says he’s big on neither politics nor pontification.

“I want to be very data-driven in our decisions,” he says. “You can’t run a business with 5 million people coming in, and not know what the facts are as you’re making decisions.”

Rawlings says he wants to make Dallas’ park system one of the best in the nation. His approach is drawing praise from many, but it’s also knocked some elbows.

Some Park Board members may have chafed a bit under Rawlings’ sometimes abrupt style. At his first board meeting, he limited discussion of the budget to factual questions, discouraging opinions from board members. At his second meeting, he asked board members to keep their budget comments to five minutes each.

Board member Lee Kleinman said he was a little taken aback at first.

“I was kind of like, OK, so here we are getting directed as to how much time we have or don’t have,” Kleinman said. “But then, when he actually ran the session that way, everybody seemed like they had plenty of time to say what they needed to say.

“I was a little surprised,” Kleinman added. “But that actually worked pretty well.”

Rawlings has stepped in during a tumultuous time at City Hall. Budget season is always tough, much more so when painful cuts are needed to cover a huge shortfall. Meanwhile, the Park Department is among those taking the brunt of those cuts.

But Rawlings is no stranger to difficult places.

In 2005, he accepted an appointment by Mayor Laura Miller as the city’s volunteer homeless czar. A federal mandate had tasked Dallas with coming up with a plan to end chronic homelessness by 2014. Raising funds to implement the plan – and getting everybody from elected officials to corporations to philanthropists to believe in it – fell in large part to Rawlings.

His role included stepping in as head of the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, which at that time was a loosely organized group of advocates. Under Rawlings’ leadership, the MDHA transformed itself into a group capable of taking over management of The Bridge, the city’s $21 million taxpayer-funded homeless center.

After five years, he left the MDHA with many fans.

“He was like a knight in shining armor for us,” says Paige Flink, longtime MDHA board member and executive director of The Family Place.

“I totally appreciated working with him,” Flink said. “He’s so bright that he can hone in on where things are, and he will listen to anybody’s opinion. I think that will serve him well where he is right now.”

Larry James, another MDHA board member, agrees.

“Mike’s a serious person, he’s a thoughtful person, he’s a dedicated person,” James said. “When he takes on a job, he aims to get it done.”

“I don’t want to be a psychoanalyst here, but he’s secure, and he’s not threatened by opposition and open conversation,” James said. “He’s able to manage the strength in groups. I don’t think I could find anything negative to say about the guy.”

In late August, Rawlings and the mayor got a major boost in their effort to bring private money to the park system. In a news conference at City Hall, Leppert and Rawlings announced that Oncor was pledging $1 million to boost recreation center hours and start the Mayor’s Youth Fitness Initiative.

Although Rawlings is now deeply involved in the details, he takes no credit for securing the gift.

“They really reached out to the city,” Rawlings said of Oncor. “I think it was the city manager, if I remember right.”

The same day as the announcement, the City Council held a meeting on the budget. In an unusual move for a Park Board president, Rawlings delivered much of the park budget presentation. He stood alongside Park Department Director Paul Dyer, who usually occupies that hot seat alone.

Rawlings presented the council with numbers on the high costs and low attendance of some pools and recreation centers.

“As a system, we’re probably about three or four rec centers overbuilt,” he told council members, who tend to be very protective of centers inside their districts. “I’m not saying where they should be, or where they shouldn’t be.

“I ran Pizza Hut, and over the years, people just built these things up,” Rawlings went on. “I’d go back, and we’d just close a couple or three of them. The whole system got better.”

A few of the council members were clearly not enamored with this all-business take.

‘Not a Pizza Hut’

“One thing, Mike, no offense to you, we are not a Pizza Hut,” said council member Tennell Atkins. “We cannot put a price on kids. Kids are not a commodity. You shut down a Pizza Hut, you look at the margins, but kids – it’s something that as a city we have to have the quality of life.”

Rawlings left that day before the briefing was over; he excused himself early and left City Hall for a business meeting.

Despite the occasional sharp questions, every council member thanked him for his service and most agreed with his approach.

“If you do not run it as a business, there are things out there that you’re wasting your money on,” council member Jerry Allen said. “And you’re not helping the kids.”

Asked later how Rawlings’ baptism into City Hall politics seemed to be going, Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway responded positively.

“He has broad shoulders,” Caraway said. “He can stand up to it.

“He’s going to bring some needed vision and vibrancy to the Park Board. I think he’s going to put some sparks in it, and he’s going to get out there and begin to turn things around.” Background: Mike Rawlings

Position: President, Dallas Park and Recreation Board

Academic: Bachelor’s degree, philosophy and communications, Boston College, 1976

Career: Partner, CIC Partners, 2004-present; chief executive, Pizza Hut, 1997-2003; chief executive, Tracy-Locke marketing and advertising firm, 1991-96

Civic: Dallas homeless czar, chairman of Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, 2005-10

Personal: Wife, Micki; children, Michelle and Gunnar


Mayor Tom Leppert: “It’s a tough issue. Mike jumped into it, and he jumped in at a time when I wanted him to. But it wasn’t very easy. It was at not only budget time, which in any scenario is a difficult time, but clearly a difficult budget situation.”

Park Board member Taylor Brannon: “I like his style, I like his, ‘Let’s get to the point, let’s get it done, and let’s get out of here.’ I like that. That’s a breath of fresh air for me.”

Park Board member Wayne Smith: “I think he comes in with some fresh, aggressive new ideas. My wish and hope is that he has the courage to deal with the vast array of council members that we have, and to deal with them strongly to make the tough decisions.”