The 794 Million Dollar Man.

This week, Joplin will begin giving the green light to millions of dollars in construction around town. A $75 million convention center, $55 million in ball fields and $258 million in new housing — it’s all on the table, thanks to one man: David Wallace. But are his massive plans actually sustainable for this town of 50,000?

story by Dan Oshinsky / photos by Dan Oshinsky
published June 30, 2012

David Wallace stands before the Joplin City Council with a PowerPoint presentation. Technically, he stands before the City Council with a dream, but in 2012, dreams have dollar figures and blueprints attached to them, which means that dreams get laid out in PowerPoint presentations. [1]

So on a Monday night in Joplin, on the fifth floor of City Hall, David Wallace stands before council with several dozen slides — his dream for the city. Council members have been waiting for this presentation for some time. So have the people of Joplin, more than 100 in all squeezed into the council’s quarters.

They are here for a glimpse into the future of their city. They are here to see what the newly minted master developer from the dreamy-sounding Texas town of Sugar Land has decreed for Joplin. They are optimistic, maybe even a little star-struck. David Wallace is a man who has made a business of showing up in a place, finding a few hundred million dollars and remaking that city however he sees fit. He is charming [2], and he does what’s almost an “Extreme Makeover” sort of routine on the cities he works in. He conceals, reveals and rebuilds them, and then grandly re-presents them to the outside world. He plans on doing the same for Joplin.

What’s on the slides today is a plan for Joplin that’s nothing short of monumentally grand. He is pitching 12 projects representing nearly $794 million in investments in the Joplin community. If the City Council were to approve all 12 projects, it would represent a package of spending unlike anything this city has ever seen.

Tonight, in front of City Council, there are no dreams too big. Wallace believes that he can get the money – much of it from private sources, but some of it from federal and state funds that are only available for a limited window of time following a natural disaster – which means that he can pitch some really big ideas. He goes for it all.

On this night, David Wallace pitches $794 million in projects for Joplin. To put that in perspective: In all of 2010, the city of Joplin approved permits for $60.4 million in residential and commercial construction projects. What Wallace is proposing is an unprecedented amount of spending in this town.

It’s all part of a very big bet that, A) The city of Joplin can build it all, and B) They have enough of a population to sustain and support it all.

But this is just what the city of Joplin brought Wallace in for: big promises and big dreams. A week earlier, on July 2, City Council approved Wallace’s company, Wallace Bajjali Development Partners, L.P., as the master developer of Joplin. For 59 weeks, the city has been running all post-storm development through its doors. Now Wallace’s company has signed on to take the lead in Joplin. It’s his team that will guide — and more importantly, help find funding for — the coming years of construction and planning in this southwest Missouri town. His company could be here for three years or five years or beyond — the specifics are still unknown.

The projects themselves are massive. Nothing on the table is small. The proposed projects include:

  • $258 million in new housing
  • $68 million for a performing arts center
  • $74 million for medical office buildings
  • $56 million for a mixed-use commercial and residential space
  • $55 million for a multi-purpose event venue and sports complex
  • $70 million for a hotel and convention center

They’re not calling him the “master developer” for nothing. The man is the new kingmaker here in Joplin. If he says it’ll happen — and if City Council gives the thumbs up — Wallace has the power to pump millions into this community. He boasts that his team has done more than $3 billion in public-private partnerships. He’s done it elsewhere; now he’ll do it here.

What’s unusual is that Joplin is even in this position. There was nothing like this on the table before the tornado. But post-disaster developments have opened up a series of new opportunities for the city.

It’s also just the first potential wave of investment from the city’s master developer. If all goes to plan, Wallace could soon be pitching even more investment projects — several dozen more, he says.

“Joplin has an opportunity to reinvent itself, to use funding tools, to use creative solutions to make itself better,” he tells the council. “Not just for today, but for the next 100-plus years.”

All this talk about long-term growth has made Joplin wide-eyed. Before the storm, Joplin was a just small town best known for a line in a song about Route 66. After the storm, insurance companies, investors and the government started pumping billions into the rebuilding efforts. Suddenly, everyone knew Joplin. They knew where Joplin was, and they knew Joplin’s story.

The city built back faster than expected. FEMA told them it would take years to get their businesses back. It took a year. FEMA told them it would take months and months to clear the city of debris. It happened by the end of summer 2011.

Joplin’s always been a self-reliant kind of town. City officials proudly boast their residents’ work ethic. This isn’t a town that sits around and waits for help, officials say. If they need something fixed, they fix it. Joplin people bring Joplin solutions.

But for the first time, after the storm, the town started seeing how much could happen with outside help. They started building back, and quickly. They started feeling a little famous.

These outsiders started showing up with shovels and telling them how special this town was. Nobody else had built back as quickly as they had after a disaster, they said. The work ethic in town is real, but it started to take on almost a mythic quality in Joplin. The people here started to think that with work and a little bit of money, nothing was impossible.

Maybe that’s true for building homes or neighborhoods. But then then these other outsiders — these ones wearing suits, and not hard hats — started showing up and suggesting that maybe there was something more to this town. Maybe this town really was special, and this was just the beginning. Maybe with that Joplin work ethic and a whole lot of new money, this place could really become something great.

That sense of limitless potential exists around town, and it’s certainly here in this room on the fifth floor of City Hall: Everyone here wants to believe. They want to show the world what that famous Joplin spirit can do. They want people to remember them not for what happened to them on May 22, 2011, but for how they responded.

Maybe it’s made them naïve, or maybe it’s made them idealistic, or maybe it’s made them unrealistic, but there’s an excitement in the council’s chambers. Wallace is pitching them massive new ideas about a future for Joplin that’s only now being imagined, and who in town is to say what Joplin can’t or shouldn’t be?

And best yet: Wallace is pitching ideas that could grow Joplin without costing local taxpayers money. His plans include a lot of private funding and some federal funding. They include some grant money and tax incentives, and they include very little in the way of tax dollars. Wallace is promising to build a bigger, better, more powerful Joplin, and he’s promising to do it with someone else’s money. Of course the people in the room are excited.

Mark Rohr sits facing Wallace. Rohr is Joplin’s city manager, now in his seventh year on the job. In the weeks since the storm, Rohr’s often spoken of this idea of the “human spirit.” In Joplin, he says, he sees locals who want to build a city that can be great. He sees volunteers who want to enable that vision.

In Joplin, he says, he’s seen the best of what we as a society are capable of.

But now the man who speaks of the miracle of the human spirit is watching as his city turns into a case study for the power of the almighty dollar. The big question now is, How far can $794 million go?

There’s a consensus in the room: pretty damn far.

Of the ideas presented to council, Rohr says, “I would call them transformative to Joplin’s future.” And he’s not the only one who’s excited. Kirstie Smith, communications director at the Joplin Chamber of Commerce, says, “They have a lot of ambitious plans. But they also have ways to fund those ambitious plans. And that will be key to the community.”

Out in the crowd, there’s Kevin Steele, a developer with Four-State Homes, who comes away impressed by the proceedings. He’s here looking for building opportunities. He’s hopeful that all this might lead to a paycheck coming his way. His assessment: “If the city and the joint corporation can agree on funding, quite a few of the projects are very realistic.”

Even those who’ve seen Joplin through good times and bad are ecstatic about Wallace’s ideas. Jo Mueller, executive director of the George A. Spiva Center for the Arts, says the ideas presented represent a leap toward offering “the full package” to future residents. “It’s not like Joplin is just this tornado zone,” she says. “You’ve got the downtown redevelopment that’s already started, and if you can make a corridor that’s continuous and encompasses everything, I think it would be fantastic.”

Also in attendance is a local woman who’s done as much as anyone else to get Joplin to this historic day. Her name is Jane Cage. Two years ago, she was just the COO of an IT company, Heartland Technology Solutions, on Main Street. After the tornado, she became Jane Cage, chairman of the Citizen’s Advisory Recovery Team (CART), the most influential citizen’s group in Joplin. She sums up the feeling in the room nicely. “Not everyone gets a do-over. We have a giant do-over….” she says. “We get a chance to make things the way we want them to be.”

She says Wallace Bajjali’s plan is the thing they’ve been waiting for. It represents the kind of future that everyone in Joplin seems to want, but that until recently, no one had thought possible for a town of this size.

There is so much optimism in the room, and so much hope. But what no one on the fifth floor seems to be asking is the obvious question: Is all of this as easy as David Wallace is making it out to be?

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The neighborhoods in the Expedited Debris Removal zone -- like this one, just off 20th Street -- are among the areas that will likely see major development under Wallace's plans.
(Above) The neighborhoods in the Expedited Debris Removal zone — like this one, just off 20th Street — would see major development under Wallace’s plans. (At top) Wallace talks with citizens after pitching his projects to the council.

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Some towns have famous residents. Some are home to famous museums.

Joplin has the storm.

“You don’t even have to say Missouri,” says Todd Loudis, director of sales at the local Holiday Inn. “You say ‘Joplin,’ and they know exactly where you are. So that’s been a great strength. Being in the national spotlight has opened up some great opportunities for us.”

Patrick Tuttle, director of the Joplin Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, likens the city’s name to Madonna. These days in Joplin, one name is all they need.

What it’s led to is a new effort by the city to rebrand Joplin. At the turn of the 20th century, Joplin was a small mining town. Thanks to Nat King Cole, the city gained unexpected notoriety — and some tourism — when it was mentioned in the song “(Get Your Kicks on) Route 66.”

But now Joplin’s become famous for a new reason. 134,888 volunteers — those are city figures updated June 13 — have already come to Joplin to help in the rebuilding efforts. “Voluntourism” has pumped giant sums of money into the local economy. But how, the city has been asking, can they get those volunteers to come back as tourists?

That question is what’s behind the new branding campaign Joplin is about to launch this month: “Joplin, America — Discover Missouri’s Hometown.” Tuttle says the campaign is all about reminding those volunteers that thanks to their efforts, Joplin belongs to so many more people than just those who live within city limits. The campaign is about rebranding Joplin as a place where it’s possible to experience that human spirit firsthand.

“That was a campaign not marketing disaster, but marketing rebirth — and that we’re still open for business,” Loudis says.

Locals like Loudis and Tuttle aren’t too focused on Wallace’s big plans for the future. Their focus is on what’s happening now, 59 weeks after the tornado. These days, Joplin remains a very small, very out-of-the-way kind of destination. Joplin’s airport is served by only two daily flights to Dallas. The Joplin Convention Center, which is attached to the Holiday Inn, has only 50,000 square feet of space. It’s about the size of a small grocery store.

And Loudis’ Holiday Inn — Joplin’s only full-service hotel — has only 262 rooms.

This city is still a Tier 3 destination — the lowest level designation among cities. “No doubt about it,” Loudis says. This city does not attract big concerts or big events. Population wise, it’s unclear if Joplin could even support such things. The cities nearby that tend to host such events are places like major metropolitan areas, like Kansas City or Tulsa; tourist destinations, like Branson; mid-size cities or college towns, like Springfield or Fayetteville, Ark.; or places with massive corporate headquarters, like Bentonville, Ark.

Joplin has none of those things going for it. It does not have any major corporations. It does not have a sizable university base. It does not have major attractions.

What it does have is that famed Joplin spirit, and it has the identity it forged in the days and months after the storm.

But the tornado has attracted some new regional attention, Loudis notes. He says several state associations and conventions have allowed Joplin to bid on bringing events to southwest Missouri, and he says in previous years, the city wouldn’t have even been considered for such events. The city made a simple pitch across the region: Want to help? Bring a shovel, or bring a meeting. It’s helped Joplin land some small events — a high school baseball tournament here, a reunion or a banquet there.

Still, no contracts have been signed for a big convention or gathering. The local hotel business still mostly caters to day travelers.

But here’s David Wallace, coming to town with big plans and his major re-imagining of Joplin. He’s coming to a Tier 3 city and promising Tier 1 amenities and a world-class lifestyle. Frankly, he’s promising everything short of a new Guggenheim.

Wallace suggests that he can see the road from Joplin today to Joplin tomorrow, and the people of this city so badly want him to lead them there.

Not all that long ago, though, this city had goals that were so much simpler.

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Mark Rohr (center) listens to David Wallace's pitch to council on July 9.
Mark Rohr (center) listens to David Wallace’s pitch to council on July 9. Rohr believes the ideas presented may be “transformative to Joplin’s future.”

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On the second day after the storm, Rohr called his team together in City Hall. He had three goals:

  1. Clear the streets of debris.
  2. Continue search and rescue efforts.
  3. Keep the population from leaving.

The long-term plans of Joplin have been shaped by that May 23, 2011, meeting, particularly by that third objective. Rohr shared the concerns of many in City Hall, fearing that any government intervention that slowed relief or construction efforts might cause a drastic drop in the city’s overall population.

Cut the population in the long run and you cut the amount the city can collect in ad valorem taxes. [3]

Cut that, and City Hall has to slash its budget.

Rohr was determined not to let that happen in Joplin. This city is his fifth stop as a city manager. He’d worked in Ohio in Newton Falls, Washington Courthouse and Piqua, and he’d served in Punta Gorda, Fla.

But in every city, he’s always thought back to Blue Ash, Ohio. He’d done an internship there — that was more than two decades ago, he chuckles — but he saw then how transformation could happen in a place like Blue Ash.

He’d grown up down the road from the city, but as he went through college, he saw Blue Ash completely change. He saw it transform itself. He saw businesses set up in town. He saw city government invest money back in the community. He saw an entire city raise its expectations for itself.

“Blue Ash is my template,” he says. They were progressive, and they were active. And most of all: They refused to settle for the way things were.

Now he looks across Joplin and sees what administrators saw decades ago in Blue Ash: a tremendous opportunity.

“The citizens of Joplin realize that it doesn’t always have to look the way it was in the past,” he says. “There’s a better way. So why not use this as an opportunity to arrive at that point?”

Rohr has seen the human spirit, alive and well in Joplin. He’s seen the dedication of volunteers and locals, working side-by-side to build back.

Now he sees a Joplin that’s more than just the sleepy mining town it was a century ago.

“I don’t subscribe to the fact that we ought to just settle for something,” he says. “I don’t believe that for a moment. I think you have to do what’s realistic and practical, but I don’t think we should just sit on our hands.”

Few would accuse Joplin of sitting idle. The rebuilding efforts in Joplin have progressed at an astonishing pace, with more than four out of five storm-damaged businesses already back up and running, and many displaced Joplin residents back in permanent housing. The full effects of the storm on Joplin’s total population won’t be known until the next Census, but the numbers so far seem to point to one thing: The city’s swift action may have kept many residents from leaving Joplin. [4]

Rohr and his team are partially to thank for that. But officials also give credit to a team of citizens, who have been working to keep the voice of Joplin present in every city discussion since the tornado. On June 30, the city formed the CART board, to collect input from both the public and the business communities and relay that information to City Hall.

What CART has heard over and over again are simple goals, says Cage, CART’s chairman. Citizens in Joplin want more jobs — and better paying ones, too. They want new sidewalks, and safer neighborhoods, and better schools.

They want some bigger things, like new development for housing and commercial purposes. They want Joplin to look better than it did before the storm.

“As we looked at the ideas of what people wanted, we realized we didn’t have the internal resources, the knowledge and financing to accomplish some of the items on the list,” she says. “We thought it would be to our advantage to find someone who had this much bigger experience and background than anyone here had.”

She believes the city needs someone to work with them, not for them. This is a town that prides itself on self-reliance. But for the first time since the storm, the city realized that it needed help. The CART team has influence in town, but no formal authority to make change.

Which is when David Wallace showed up.

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Jane Cage, chairman of CART, takes notes during Wallace's presentation. Cage was among those who strongly advocated for Wallace Bajjali as master developer.
Jane Cage, chairman of CART, takes notes during Wallace’s presentation. Cage is among the company’s strongest advocates in Joplin.

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There’s no clear answer as to when Wallace Bajjali formally came into the picture. Rohr says David Wallace was looking at construction projects in Joplin in the days before the storm. Cage remembers Wallace showing up at meetings in the weeks after the tornado.

What is certain is that Wallace started talking about a formal partnership long before Joplin was ready to take action.

“They called, frankly, at a point where we’re like, ‘Huh? What? Okay? Sure! We’re not there yet,” says the Chamber’s Smith. But Smith says Wallace remained active in the community, visiting regularly and getting involved early on in “drawing this picture for us of what this area could look like.”

In the fall, CART brought in designers to help draw up sketches of what citizens had been proposing. It was the first time, Cage says, when her committee actually began to visualize the options on the table.

In December, the city sent out a request for proposals from developers. Six came back, Cage says. Four were serious options, but two were from developers who wanted to serve as consultants. Another two were from developers who wanted to put their own money into Joplin.

One of those developers was Wallace Bajjali Development Partners, L.P., of Sugar Land, Texas.

This spring, CART began listening to Wallace Bajjali’s pitch. Reed went to Waco, Texas, for a site visit of a Wallace Bajjali project. She saw the student housing for Baylor University that the company had helped develop. She saw warehouses that they had turned into retail and housing space.

She was impressed.

David Wallace’s credentials were equally impressive, especially those from his term as mayor of Sugar Land. During his tenure, he helped grow the city’s population, and he attracted new business to town. Most notably, Minute Maid moved its headquarters to the Houston suburb.

But some things from Wallace Bajjali’s background nearly derailed a deal. In February, the comapny agreed to a deal with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to pay back $1.2 million to investors. The SEC says the company was involved in a fraudulent scheme involving a media entity called BizRadio. The investors were less kind, saying Wallace Bajjali knowingly backed a Ponzi scheme.

In Amarillo, Texas, where Wallace Bajjali is working on a $113 million development project, one of their partners was forced into bankruptcy.

Rohr says he personally investigated the matters. He says he’s spoken to multiple officials in Amarillo about Wallace. When asked by council members about the SEC fines, Rohr says: “I described David as being a very trusting person. And in some of his business dealings, he got involved with people that, in retrospect, didn’t warrant that trust.”

In April, city councilman Benjamin Rosenberg publicly criticized Rohr for not disclosing more information about the five other applicants. At that meeting, according to a Joplin Globe report, Rohr told council members that he would stake his reputation on Wallace’s company.

On April 2, the cities of Joplin and Duquesne, Joplin School District, Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce and CART approved a resolution recommending Wallace Bajjali as the pick for master developer. On July 2, City Council agreed, and signed a contract with the company.

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The current convention center, operated by John Q. Hammons Hotels & Resorts of Springfield, would be replaced by a new $75 million complex under Wallace's plan.
The current convention center, operated by John Q. Hammons Hotels & Resorts of Springfield, would be replaced by a new $75 million complex under Wallace’s plan.

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When City Council signed off on the deal, they were empowering Wallace Bajjali to work with the city as a developer. The company isn’t a builder. They’ll broker deals and track down sources of funding, but other partners will be brought to the table to actually put those plans into action.

Going forward, Wallace Bajjali will be working with the city on a public-private partnership (PPP). Such partnerships have worked in cities like Denver, Miami and Seattle. Wallace Bajjali has used a PPP to build in Waco, and its PPP project in Amarillo is underway.

On paper, the plan is simple: By joining forces, a city government and a developer can work together to get more money on the table to fund more projects. On paper, the two can overcome many of the economic and political hurdles that a single entity would face. On paper, a PPP could close the loopholes that often exist on big construction projects.

But communities aren’t built on paper.

“I’ve seen a lot of failed public-private partnerships,” Wallace tells the council at the unveiling of the development plans. “And when it’s failed, it’s because one party has tried to take advantage of the other.”

When it fails, you end up with scenes like this, in Amarillo, with local citizens assailing the city for a lack of transparency in the development process. The issue there, which was brought up again in Joplin: If Wallace Bajjali is going to reap millions from its role as master developer, citizens want to know that the company is putting in its own money first.

In Joplin, Wallace Bajjali has pledged to spend $2 million of its own on “pursuit costs,” which will cover analysis and market research in Joplin about the feasibility of some of its proposed projects.

Those projects are numerous and wide-ranging in scope. As part of its pitch, the company has submitted letters of intent from potential partners, including ACE Theatrical Group — which operates venues like the Warner Theater in Washington, D.C., and the Majestic Theater in San Antonio — and the American Association of Independent Professional Baseball. Crossland Construction Company, based in Columbus, Kan., submitted a letter of intent to build many of the projects.

In all, Wallace says he has $1 billion in promises from development partners already submitted.

That number alone is staggering. Rohr, the city manager, sees this development as the next step toward creating a perfect hometown. He thinks about that blueprint he once saw in Blue Ash, Ohio, and he wants to recreate it here in Joplin. But Blue Ash is a town of 12,114 citizens, as of the last Census. Joplin is a town of just over 50,000.

These are small towns, where development and change happens over the course of decades. These are the kinds of towns where progress is measured block by block.

What Wallace is proposing is a small metropolis, a generation’s worth of development expected to be finished in less than 60 months.

But there are no signed documents just yet. The letters of intent indicate interest in partnering with Wallace Bajjali on projects in Joplin — provided future feasibility studies are done.

All parties have high hopes for those studies. If all goes as planned, Wallace Bajjali will take what’s already happened in Joplin — and use the brand that the city is slowly building — and fast-track everything.

If it all goes as planned, what Joplin’s about to experience is a radical change in the landscape of southwest Missouri. Fifty-nine weeks after losing everything, Joplin is poised for the biggest makeover this city has ever seen.

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David Wallace presents $794 million worth of ideas to the Joplin City Council on July 9.
David Wallace presents $794 million worth of ideas to the Joplin City Council

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“Some of these are going to happen quickly,” Wallace says. “All of these I think can be completed in the next three to five years.” He says that privately, his team has already started to talk to landowners about acquiring land.

It’s Monday, July 9, and Wallace is at the microphone at City Hall. This is his 22nd visit to Joplin since the tornado. In a room full of Joplin natives and locals, Wallace is clearly the outsider – and by far the most powerful person in the room.

There is a large crowd gathered. They want to see the plans, and they especially want to know how they’re being funded. They want to believe that David Wallace can make all of this happen, and they want to know that he won’t be dipping into their wallets to make it happen.

In all, Wallace presents 12 projects totaling $794 million to the council. [5]

He says it’ll take $30 million to acquire the land in Joplin. $8 million will come from a community development block grant specifically designed for disaster relief. The other $22 million will come from the sale of senior secured bonds. Wallace wants approval for both items at the following week’s council meeting.

He also has specifics on how they’ll fund the remaining $764 million in development. He mentions government loans from the Economic Development Administration and FEMA, tax credits, state monies and private funding. He mentions hotel occupancy taxes and revenue bonds. For projects like the mixed commercial/residential development, the operating budget would be funded by the building’s users.

Then Wallace gets into the heart of his presentation. Some of the ideas truly are transformative – and realistic. [6]

Take one partnership with the Salvation Army to acquire land — 3.7 acres — and build ten 1,200-square-foot single-family homes specifically for the homeless. Wallace estimates it’d take $250,000 to acquire the land. The Salvation Army would take a percentage of each household’s paychecks and use it as a down payment on the home.

He talks about major redevelopment all along the Main Street corridor, from downtown to the new hospital district near I-44. He talks about major investment on 20th Street, one of the hardest hit during the tornado.

He talks about pairing the public library with a theater, and using ticket sales to support the $20 million cost of the project.

As for the current library property, built in 1901 using $40,000 from Andrew Carnegie, Wallace has bigger plans. He wants to build lofts there, and use them as a selling point to attract the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences. He wants to bring their campus to Joplin.

These properties will be funded by the public-private partnership, but most would ultimately be privately owned, Wallaces notes in the presentation.

Wallace brings up Sugar Land, where he used to be mayor, and then he brings up Waco. One of the company’s biggest selling points has been that it helped Waco rebuild after a tornado. But that tornado, which killed 114, hit Waco in 1953. Wallace Bajjali showed up in Waco in 2003, Wallace says.

So that makes it a difficult comparison — at best, a stretch. That doesn’t keep Wallace from trying to make it anyway.

He talks about how they pumped $80 million into downtown Waco, and now they’re seeing the effects truly paying off. People are moving and living downtown. Businesses are moving downtown. Millions of dollars have been invested downtown.

“We invested $80 [million there]…,” he tells the council. “God knows what happens if we invest $800 million here.”

But that’s not a fair comparison. Waco has 124,805 people, and it has Baylor University, a Big 12 school. Joplin has 50,150 residents, and it’s surrounded by the vast expanse that is southwest Missouri. The nearest major university, Missouri State, is an hour away in Springfield.

Amarillo, another one of Wallace Bajjali’s prized PPP partners, has 190,695 people — nearly quadruple the number in Joplin. It’s the economic center of the Texas panhandle, and its airport is served by more major airlines (3) than Joplin’s airport has daily flights (2).

The best comparison for Joplin, at least among the cities presented to council, is Sugar Land. It has 78,817 people, and yes, it grew by nearly 25 percent in the past decade. Wallace pumps up the city’s credentials. It’s got a new Marriott! The fourth-largest convention center in the Houston area! 17,000 people at a Christmas lighting! And best yet: It’s also where Wallace worked on public-private partnerships!

But it’s also a suburb of Houston — one of the 10 biggest cities in America.

Joplin officials like to boast that their city is 250,000 during the day, 50,000 at night. But that halo around Joplin is still a fraction of what Houston — or even those mid-size cities in Texas — can offer.

Can a town of 50,150 alone support a $75 million convention center and hotel? Can it support a $20 million library/theater? Wallace’s presentation estimates that the theater will sell 275,000 tickets in year one, generating $3.47 million in revenue. But those numbers are all hypothetical. The real feasibility studies, as Wallace points out, have yet to be completed.

The sports facility, too, seems an unlikely goal. What Wallace has in mind is bringing an independent baseball team to town, one separate from Major League Baseball’s minor leagues. But there’s already a pro team in Kansas City, and minor league ball in Springfield, Tulsa and Northwest Arkansas. And Joplin has a summer wooden bat league for college players. Part of the funding on this project would go toward an entire complex of ball fields, but the heart of the $55 million project would be a 4,000-seat stadium.

Wallace says that Sugar Land’s baseball stadium is sold out every year, but they’re pulling from the entirety of the Houston suburbs.

He mentions a development in Aberdeen, Md., run by Cal Ripken, Jr., but that’s hardly a fair comparison. Cal’s a Hall of Famer. Who does Joplin have to make such an ambitious project go?

Still, Wallace makes all the right promises. He pledges to use local talent, engineers and lawyers on these projects. This money will stay here, largely, he says. He doesn’t want to see the money flow to Texas or California.

Setting priorities is the tricky part, Wallace says. There is, as Rohr notes, no giant list of priorities for the master developer. Wallace tells council that he’d like to see the housing projects tackled first. “When you look at the hierarchy of needs, it’s food and shelter… and that would really be the primary focus,” he says. The $258 million in housing would build 1,300 homes. There is no priority set for the rest of the projects.

Will the development here lead to other private companies lining up to invest Joplin? the council asks. Wallace’s answer is an unequivocal “yes.” Money will come, he says with that “Field of Dreams” kind of ambition. Money will most definitely come.

Despite the optimism in the room, there are some skeptics in town. At the Holiday Inn, Loudis says he sees the plans as a great “want” list. He’s a fan of many of the projects, but with some of the larger endeavors, he’s worried that Joplin might be getting in over its head.

“Sometimes, getting the building built is easy,” he says. “It’s supporting it for a long time that doesn’t happen.”

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A crowd of more than 100 locals listens to the wide-ranging pitch from Wallace on July 9.
A crowd of more than 100 locals listens to the wide-ranging pitch from Wallace at Joplin City Hall on July 9.

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What happens next is a bit of a mystery. Not the bureaucratic next steps, mind you. Those are straightforward. Wallace Bajjali will start doing research. It will set up Facebook pages to get feedback from citizens. The City Council will start voting on plans, starting this Monday. Wallace Bajjali will begin acquiring land within 90 days.

No, what’s a mystery is how this all turns out. It’s easy to see how this could be an extraordinary success — or an epic failure. Wallace promises an equal partnership with the city, but what if it tips one way or the other? You end up with a situation like they had in Amarillo, with citizens pointing fingers at their own City Council, companies in bankruptcy. Will we see that here, too, in a year? In three?

Or will this be a town like Sugar Land, booming, growing, the model for how free enterprise and local government can join hands and build something bigger than themselves?

There are no answers yet, just slides on a PowerPoint, just ideas and dreams. There has not been a single dollar spent to date on one of David Wallace’s plans.

But soon, checks will be written, bonds will be issued and shovels will hit the dirt. In the coming weeks, the city will decide which projects will go forward, and which will not.

These developments will touch everyone who lives in Joplin, not just those who were affected by the storms — and not just those who lived here on May 22, 2011. Maybe it’ll bring back locals who’ve fled to Kansas City or Chicago or Dallas. Maybe outsiders will move here to experience the new Joplin.

City officials say they have an opportunity to build their community better than it was before. Joplin will find out soon enough whether David Wallace is the right man to show them that future.

Stry.us reporters Bari Bates, Sarah Elms and Zach Crizer contributed reporting to this story.