Profile: Wick Allison

Profile: Wick Allison

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Contributed by:
Nate Eudaly
Hon. AIA Dallas

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Profile: Wick Allison

Wick Allison, chairman and CEO of D Magazine Partners, believes strongly that Dallas must embrace a new urbanism focusing on density and walkability if it is to prosper. As Allison outlined last summer in his publisher’s letter in “Dallas and the New Urbanism,” a special issue of D Magazine: “Population growth is the tsunami coming right at us. Last year (2017) we were the fastest-growing region in the nation, a designation that can be for good or ill. Either we direct this growth to more efficient land use or we let inefficient sprawl exhaust our resources and burden our future. We either ride the wave or we will be engulfed by it.”

Allison, a Dallas native and sixth-generation Texan, attended the University of Texas in Austin. While there, he was editor of the student magazine The Texas Ranger and earned a degree in American studies. After graduation, he worked in the White House as a member of the President’s Commission on Campus Unrest and then joined the U.S. Army. Upon leaving the Army, he attended Southern Methodist University’s Cox Graduate School of Business, where he wrote his business plan for D Magazine. In 1974, he co-founded D Magazine with Jim Atkinson, with backing from Dallas investor Ray Hunt.

The cover story of the first issue featured “Power in Dallas: Who Holds the Cards,” an analysis of the Dallas business establishment and the interlocking corporate directorships through which those individuals ran the city. The magazine has not shied away from controversy since that first issue.

Over the next 10 years, Allison built D into a magazine company with $30 million in revenue and operations in Dallas, Houston, and New York. Allison sold his interest in D to American Express and moved to New York City in 1984. There he founded and published Art & Antiques magazine, which he grew to be the largest circulation magazine of its type in the world.

In 1985, William F. Buckley, Jr. asked Allison to join the board of directors of the National Review, and in 1990 he became its publisher, succeeding longtime publisher William A. Rusher. While serving as publisher, Allison made National Review the only profitable publication in the history of American journals of opinion.

In 1995, Allison sold Art & Antiques, resigned as editor of National Review and moved back to Dallas.  That same year he and investor Harlan Crow repurchased D Magazine, and in 2001 Allison bought out Crow to become the magazine company’s sole owner. D Magazine Partners encompasses D Magazine, D Home, D CEO, D Weddings, the FrontBurner blog, People Newspapers and specialty publications.

Allison has authored several books, including The Bible: Designed to Be Read as Living Literature and Condemned to Repeat It: Lessons of History for Leaders. He is married to Christine Peterson Allison, and they have four daughters.

I visited with Wick to learn more about his and D Magazine Partners’ journey to become a strong voice for new urbanism.

Wick, since you grew up in Dallas and have strong ties to the city, what caused you to select UT Austin for your undergraduate studies?  

I was planning to go to SMU since it was the hometown school. At the time, SMU’s campus was not very impressive. My brother convinced me to go down and tour the UT campus. Exploring the Austin campus convinced me that it was a better option. 

How did you get involved in journalism? 

I majored in history (American studies) at UT Austin. My junior year I helped get a friend elected as student body president. The next year, he in turn championed me becoming the editor of the university magazine. That was my first foray into journalism, and I really enjoyed it. That persuaded me to pursue a career in journalism.

Shortly after graduating from UT Austin, you became a member of the White House staff.  How were you selected, and what was your job at the White House? 

George H.W. Bush was serving in the Nixon administration. He asked me to join the White House staff to focus on a project related to the topic of college campus unrest. I traveled around the country meeting with student groups. My time at the White House was cut short when my birthdate was drawn as No. 8 for that year’s military draft lottery. I enlisted in the Army and after basic training was assigned to duty in Hawaii. We had to report every day at 6:30, but as long as I was on time for roll call, the duties weren’t too bad. The Vietnam War was near its end, and the U.S. was left with a huge military with nothing to do.

After you left the Army, you moved back to Dallas and attended SMU for graduate school.  Tell us about your time there. 

I enrolled in SMU’s Cox Graduate School of Business using my VA benefits. My goal was to learn business skills in order to launch a city magazine here in Dallas. I chose to focus my class projects on the magazine concept. My friend Jim Atkinson was by then a reporter for KERA’s daily Newsroom program. We both had a vision of giving Dallas an independent city magazine with an impact that would serve readers’ interests. I dropped out of graduate school, and I began to make the rounds with our business plan seeking investors to make our concept a reality.

Any interesting stories about how you were actually able to launch the magazine?

At that time there were only four city magazines in the U.S.: Chicago, San Diego, New York and Philadelphia. The publishers of all four magazines helped us as we finalized our plans to launch D Magazine. Jerrie Marcus Smith was an early backer. Her father, legendary retailer Stanley Marcus, also wanted Dallas to have a city magazine, and he sent a letter to his 200,000 Neiman Marcus card holders in the Dallas area recommending they subscribe to the as-yet-published new magazine. That promotion and financial backing from Ray Hunt and Carl Sewell made the launch possible. 

How did you get connected to William F. Buckley and National Review

I had introduced Bill Buckley a few times when he spoke at events here in Dallas. Based on these brief contacts, I asked Bill to write an article for our Art & Antiques magazine. Bill subsequently asked me to join the board of the National Review. I served on the board for a few years and then stepped in to be publisher for a few years. Bill was an incredible person to work with, always with that little sparkle in his eye. The world came to him, and I was privileged to sit in.  

What brought you back to Texas and D Magazine

After I left the National Review, I stayed in New York for three years. I was working with a group of investors who were looking for companies to buy. I realized that my four daughters had essentially become New Yorkers and I wanted them to connect with Texas. AmEx had driven D Magazine into the ground, so I decided to move back to Dallas to buy and run the magazine again. Harlan Crow was instrumental in enabling me to buy back the magazine.

Who developed the idea for the annual Best and Worst Awards for D Magazine?

I joke sometimes that I have never had an original idea. I am good at recognizing ideas that work well elsewhere and customizing those for D Magazine, which is how the awards were begun.

Has the internet helped or hurt D Magazine?

Overall, the internet has helped city magazines, including the D brand. It has hurt national magazines. Our print circulation hasn’t changed dramatically since the internet has become such a dominant force in media, but the D brand now reaches over 1.5 million people each month on a combined basis of print and the web. Seventeen years ago, Microsoft launched a city magazine in Seattle called Sidewalk. Dallas was the next market they identified for their media initiative. I was approached three years in a row to sell D Magazine to Microsoft. I declined all three times and finally, in the third year, the regional manager, who I knew from publishing circles, offered me $400,000 to have access to the D Magazine’s restaurant listings for their startup here. I agreed, and he overnighted the check to me. Very soon after I had deposited the check, Microsoft closed their entire magazine division. I offered to repay the money but was told that they would honor the deal. We used those funds to dramatically increase D’s online capabilities, which continue to yield great dividends for us today.

You have written several books, including Condemned to Repeat It: Lessons of History for Leaders. Are there any other topics on which you would like to write a tome?    

I’d like to write a book about the ancient civilization of Sparta. Plutarch documents much about this civilization, on which I would like to expand. Based on my research and reading, there are important lessons for us today. Sparta had a constitution that allowed it to exist for over 700 years. It was the first known republic, established 150 years before Athens. Fundamental to its core were the equitable distribution of resources and the liberation of women — ancient ideas still fundamental to just societies in current times. 

Moving forward to Dallas over the last decades, who are some leaders of the last 50 years or so who have had a positive impact on Dallas?

Going back about 60 years, [Texas Instruments founder and former Mayor] Erik Jonsson was a visionary who helped make DFW International Airport become a reality. I also give [former Mayor] Bob Folsom credit for leadership in the city obtaining land to develop Reunion Arena and the beginning of the Arts District. Some developers with foresight are Jack Matthews, Scott Rohrman, and Fehmi Karahan. Unfortunately, many of our recent city leaders have had a lack of understanding about urbanism.

What are Dallas’ greatest strengths?

Dallas’ geographical location at the center of the country is one of its major assets. The winter weather in Chicago works against it, but that is not a major problem for us. Our railroads in this area can receive and redistribute freight to all parts of the country. That, along with the global reach that DFW Airport provides, makes Dallas the regional capital of the Southwest.

What are aspects of Dallas needing improvement?

In the late 1960s and ’70s, the city’s leaders turned their back on the urban core in order to accommodate suburbia. This created a lot of self-inflicted wounds on the city. About five years ago, new city leadership finally got to a turning point and decided to not become another Detroit. The growth and vibrancy in Uptown have kept Dallas’ population from declining. We are finally starting to see an attempt to consider walkability in the choices being made by leaders of our city.

What were your major goals for the 2018 New Urbanism symposium?

The city and its leadership must embrace densification. It is crucial to Dallas’ success. We finally got rid of the Trinity Tollway [plan], and now we need to tear down I-345. We must improve education and resolve issues at Fair Park, including revitalizing the surrounding neighborhoods.

Dallas must fix its issues with South Dallas. The area has lost 50,000 people in the last four decades. There are fundamental infrastructure design problems that must be fixed.

We must change the way we think. Some people are embracing urbanism as though it’s only a new fad. People, starting with real estate professionals, need to actually read and understand the principles that urbanist Jane Jacobs laid out in her books. Developers need to place a premium on walkability and realize that there is money to be made in creating density.

These excerpts from Wick Allison’s essay “A City of Sprawl Goes Urban” from last summer’s special edition of D Magazine provide important food for thought for all of us.

“The Dallas region is playing a fast game of catch-up. A generational sea change back to the city is in full tide. … We’ve got all the ingredients to fuel a jump-start: solid population growth, a diverse economy, a strong civic culture, comparatively lower costs, and a world-renowned development community.

Population growth is the tsunami coming right at us. Last year we were the fastest-growing region in the nation, a designation that can be for good or ill. Either we direct this growth to more efficient land use or we let inefficient sprawl exhaust our resources and burden our future. We either ride the wave or we will be engulfed by it.

I’ve visited with business and civic leaders all over the region. They still exude typical Texas optimism, but no longer with the bravado that Texas is famous for. Instead, they realize that the past is no guide to the future. Sprawl is not infinite. ... Population growth and generational change require that we thoughtfully transition from a car-dependent culture to a future of transit options that allow people to live, work, and play where they are.

In the core of Dallas, a city designed for commuters must be overhauled for residents.  Millennials and baby boomers — the two largest generations in American history — demand walkability. The downtown Dallas area will be the largest of many urban mixed-use centers in the region. Its success will have a spillover effect on the poorer neighborhoods to its east, west, and south. If managed thoughtfully, it will channel the tide to lift all boats. The facts are in. Anyone who wants to argue with the future doesn’t have one. Dallas has a very bright future, but we have to move very fast to seize it.”

Photo: Shaun Menary

Interview conducted by Nate Eudaly, Hon. AIA Dallas, executive director of The Dallas Architecture Forum.