The son almost rises

Ross Perot Jr. is pushing 40, and still trying to slip from his father's shadow. He's built Alliance Airport, bought the Mavericks, and is trying to ramrod a new arena. But he isn't a pit bull like his old man. That's where Frank Zaccanelli comes in.

When the Perots began exploring the idea, the Federal Aviation Administration had already authorized a second airport for Fort Worth. Close to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, major highways, and rail lines, the facility would create a transportation hub for companies that ship products nationwide.

The Perots already owned most of the land needed for the project, but building it would require a hefty contribution from taxpayers. Federal and state agencies--and the city of Fort Worth--had to pitch in. In addition to the actual airport, infrastructure like roads and sewers needed to be built. Ultimately, government kicked about $194 million of taxpayer money into the deal. Fort Worth's share was about $68 million. Zaccanelli and other Hillwood executives decline to say how much their company invested.

Convincing various public entities to spend that kind of money took some coaxing. After all, the deal allowed the Perots to turn 20,000 acres of empty land into a gold mine for themselves.

As the effort progressed, Perot Jr. increasingly tapped Zaccanelli to keep it on track. Zaccanelli made his usual strong impression. "He is very aggressive," recalls Bob Bolen, who was the mayor of Fort Worth at the time. Bolen says he had to insist that Zaccanelli leave his office on several occasions. "I would tell him to go out and come back in later...that the way things were going, we couldn't do any more on that day."

In most quarters, Alliance is billed these days as a success story. In its marketing material on Alliance, Hillwood claims the project has created 10,900 permanent jobs. Intel Corporation recently announced plans to build a $1.3 billion plant at the airport, where it will join AMR Corp., the parent of American Airlines, CompUSA, Inc., and Federal Express. (It didn't hurt that Perot lobbyists in Austin helped ease through legislation allowing Intel, the semiconductor giant, not to pay school taxes. Junior has followed his father's tradition of helping out public office holders with money. In 1995 and 1996, the Federal Elections Commission shows that Perot Jr. and his wife gave $14,000 to national candidates.)

As a moneymaker for Hillwood Development, the airport park has yet to prove itself. Perot Jr. undoubtedly lost money during all the years the vacant land sat undeveloped, and it is unclear how much profit the privately held Hillwood has realized since the airport opened.

But in other real estate ventures, there's no question that Perot Jr. is making money. In the early 1990s, his company bought up roughly $100 million in properties at fire-sale prices from the Resolution Trust Corporation.

Even his detractors give Zaccanelli the lion's share of credit for bringing together the RTC transactions. "Nobody else could have convinced Ross Jr. to pull the trigger on those deals other than Frank," says one former Hillwood employee.

Driving through the northern suburbs of Dallas, the pricey subdivisions built on Hillwood's bargain properties stand out. They are the ones with multi-million-dollar homes built on relatively small lots, always with a golf course nearby.

Hillwood's theory in developing the land has been to pack in the newly rich by giving them a lot of bathrooms, gables, cornices, and fancy moldings, as well as 18 holes within view. It has worked. One of Hillwood's newest subdivisions, Stonebriar in Frisco, has 605 lots sold, and only four acres left unsold.

Two former Hillwood employees say the RTC deals were particularly sweet for Perot Jr., and by extension solidified his support for Zaccanelli. The son had used his own money, not Dad's, to purchase much of the property, the former Hillwood employees say. So the profits are rightfully the son's.

The deals also made Zaccanelli a rich man, helping pay for his own monstrosity of a home in Willow Bend, a subdivision in Plano that Hillwood developed.

Financial success has not yet visited Ross Perot Jr. on his Circle T Ranch property in Westlake, Texas. Instead, his efforts to develop the property have spawned a nasty political fight. Perot Jr. and his company stand accused of bulldozing local residents and politicians who have dared to oppose the project.

Since Perot Jr. bought the famed 2,500-acre ranch in 1993 from bankrupt Bunker Hunt--an oil man and heir to legendary fortune himself--the ranch has produced mostly headaches, litigation, and bad press.

Back when he was rich, Hunt used the ranch to raise thoroughbred horses. The property remains lovely, unspoiled Texas countryside with a horse track, a ranch house, a farm house, boat quarters, a sizable lake, and two ponds. Perot Jr. has transformed the ranch house into a marketing tool, using it to entertain clients. Several tenants lease the farm house.

Perot Jr. wants to keep the ranch intact, but use the bulk of the empty property to build a historical Texas town as a tourist attraction, as well as single-family homes, corporate headquarters, and a regional shopping center.

(Rick Patterson, the president of Alliance Development Corp. and Perot Jr.'s point man on Circle T, says he doesn't like to use the word "mall" to describe the development plans because it carries negative connotations.)

Perot Jr.'s plans should not have surprised anyone. The land was zoned for commercial use before he bought it. It's a 10-minute drive from his Alliance Airport park and sits on state Highway 114, which leads to nearly 9,000 other acres of raw land the Perots own in the area.

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