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How Dallas, AT&T and SMU turned a dumping ground into a premiere PGA Tour stop [The Dallas Morning News :: BC-REAL-LANDFILL-GOLFCOURSE:DA]

DALLAS - Professional golfers will tee off Thursday at the AT&T Byron Nelson at a place of rolling hills and dunes reminiscent of the most famous courses in Scotland.

Underneath the pristine grasses growing in southern Dallas are acres of garbage packed in over decades when the area was a landfill in a part of town that has struggled to attract development, jobs and middle-class families.

Officials hope the Byron Nelson, which returns to Dallas for the first time since 1982, will be a showcase for long-distressed southern Dallas and the Trinity Forest Golf Club.

The tournament's move from Irving culminates years of work by the Salesmanship Club of Dallas, Dallas-based AT&T and Southern Methodist University to bring the PGA tournament - and its approximately 250,000 visitors - back to the city where it began.

Some attendees will be bused in while watching a sleek video that touts development south of Interstate 30. Outside the windows, they could see a poorer scene of broken-down cars, trashed tires, mechanics shops, aging neighborhoods and littered roads.

The gripping poverty, obvious beyond a surface glance, has created skepticism that the golf course and tournament will bring much to the area except perhaps what many residents fear most: gentrification. But boosters believe the tournament will prove that big things can happen in southern Dallas.

"Most people really don't care about southern Dallas and don't believe it's got the cache that it needs or that I believe that it has," Mayor Mike Rawlings said. "And having AT&T, having the PGA, having the Salesmanship Club put their stamp of approval on it tells people it's the real deal."

Forging a partnership

The golf course was born out of a partnership among the city of Dallas, SMU and AT&T. The city owns the land, but leases it to a nonprofit created to run the course. Club members and stakeholders say they invested more than $60 million to develop the course, build the facilities and pay the $10,000 annual rent. The city agreed to pay up to $12 million for remediation and infrastructure.

SMU raised $6 million toward construction and pays a monthly fee to use the club as its home course and practice facility for its golf teams.

The club also hosts The First Tee, an organization that introduces golf to young people, including disadvantaged youngsters in Dallas.

The project was financed through Tom Dundon, a Dallas billionaire and Topgolf investor. Real estate investor Jonas Woods, his friend and golf partner, also helped handle the money side of the deal.

Woods, co-founder and president of Trinity Forest Golf Club, said he struggled to find land in Dallas large enough to build a championship-level course that would create buzz.

But then he found the former landfill 9 miles southeast of downtown. In the 1980s, the city had ceased to operate the landfill, where there also had been illegal dumping. Mounds of trash raised the land 15 to 20 feet above the floodplain floor, Woods said. Native grasses had sprung up and the capped ground had settled, creating a "rolling, very contoured" landscape, he said.

The polluted land could be used for little else. It's surrounded by flood plain.

"This seemed like an opportunity to put a real catalyst down here," Woods said.

SMU President R. Gerald Turner visited the property in 2012, after getting a call from then-City Manager Mary Suhm, just as the university's golf teams were searching for a home course.

The site was a desolate landscape. "I was amazed you could make a golf course out of it," Turner said. "It really just was whatever seeds the wind blew in."

AT&T's impact

AT&T advocated for moving the Byron Nelson to Dallas after the Salesmanship Club reached out to the hometown Fortune 500 company to put its name on the tournament.

Lori Lee, AT&T's international and global marketing officer, said the company wanted to sponsor the tournament because of its local roots, audience of prospective and current customers, and philanthropic mission. All proceeds go to the Momentous Institute, which funds an Oak Cliff elementary school and provides therapeutic and educational programs to kids and their families.

AT&T is already one of the top corporate sponsors in the country. Chief executive Randall Stephenson is also on the PGA Tour policy board, and the company sponsors Dallas native Jordan Spieth.

Lee said AT&T sought a new venue "to take the tournament forward and to take it to the next level" when it became the title sponsor.

But AT&T will put far more than its name on the tournament. For the five-day event, AT&T will set up Wi-Fi with the capacity to handle the droves. The company also invested in tech infrastructure that will remain in the area after the tournament ends. Lee declined to give investment figures.

She said AT&T accelerated the pace of laying fiber in the surrounding neighborhood because of the golf club and the tournament. "As this community grows up - and we believe it will - it will be supported by that."

The tournament, which organizers believe will grow in the years ahead, will introduce some Dallas residents to a part of the city they may not know. Woods, who co-founded the golf club, had not been to the Trinity Forest before he began scouting sites. He said he'd like people to come back to kayak in the Trinity River or hike on nearby trails.

And Woods said he hopes the course draws big-name golfers and top championships to Dallas - including a lofty aspiration: scoring the U.S. Open.

Outside the course, AT&T also donated $2.5 million to the city to fund a 4.25-mile public hike-and-bike trail that runs from the Trinity River Audubon Center, on the east side of the golf course, and past Loop 12. The area is also home to the Texas Horse Park.

Dallas City Council member Tennell Atkins said Las Colinas was vacant when the tournament moved to Irving. Dallas already has other amenities.

"It's a destination. If you go to the golf course, you ask, 'Am I really in Dallas, Texas?'" he said. "You could be anywhere. You're in a dream land."

Yolanda Williams, a 49-year-old born and raised in Pleasant Grove, said she would like to look outside her window one day and see a sit-down restaurant, new employers and maybe even a high-end hotel.

"When we see new development, we know good things are coming our way," said Williams, president of Pemberton Trinity Forest Neighborhood Association. "The streets will be fixed. It will bring things we have been waiting for for a long time."

Others aren't so positive. Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price mocked the tournament as another way rich Park Cities residents believe they know how to help southern Dallas, just like they've used Fair Park for generations with little benefit to the surrounding area.

"I don't care how much one tries to profess how much things are changing," he said. "It really hasn't changed."

Rawlings said that the city's housing strategy will prevent displacement, and that economic opportunities, which many have long wanted in southern Dallas, will pop up.

"Who knows what's going to happen in the next five years? But I believe it's going to grow," Rawlings said.

Ticket sales for this week's tournament are on track to beat last year's with $15.6 million in sales as of May 10 - up 10 percent from the same time in 2017.

Eddy Moore, a Salesmanship Club member and 2018 AT&T Byron Nelson chairman, said the new venue could boost fundraising for the Momentous Institute.

But he knew there'd be some skepticism. The group hired a community engagement specialist, met with neighborhood and civic groups and invited local contractors to the course to hear about business opportunities. And they spread the word about free admission and parking for Wednesday's pre-tournament events.

"We know that anytime a big event comes into a new place, there are naturally people who have lots of questions," Moore said. "And we wanted to make sure to the best of our ability we had someone who was able to answer those questions and, if necessary, go farther."

(City columnist Robert Wilonsky contributed to this report.)

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