Is this any way to run an airport?

Black bookseller Robert Crews once ran a thriving store at D/FW. Now he's in court fighting to save his business, thanks to airport policies that boost local minorities and squeeze airport concessionaires

In early November 1993, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport was about to take a small but important step. The board members presiding over the world's second busiest airport were poised to approve its first direct contract with a retail business owned by a person of color.

It was a significant gesture. For years, local minority leaders had battled to get their constituents a bigger share of airport business. But progress was slow, particularly in the area of food and retail concessions, which were controlled by two huge companies that held 20-year contracts. In recent years, after pressure was brought to bear, only a few minorities had been able to finagle a subcontract for a newsstand here or a retail shop there.

But the long-term contracts were finally ending, and the airport was prepared to shake things up. Airports around the country were suddenly seen as valuable retail properties, and the D/FW airport staff was trying to convince the airlines to turn more of their terminal space over to restaurants and stores. They wanted to convert the airport into a thriving shopping mall for the 60 million people who streamed through each year. The board saw this as a way to increase airport revenue, provide shopping variety to the traveling public, and open opportunities for minority- and women-owned businesses.

The vote that November was the first step toward realizing these lofty goals.

At the board meeting, longtime airport employee Jeff Fegan, who would eventually become airport executive director, outlined the proposal. The airport staff wanted to negotiate a contract with black New Jersey businessman Robert Crews to expand his existing bookstore at American Terminal 3E, plus add three more locations, one at American and two at Delta's terminal.

The proposal, Fegan explained, made sense economically and politically. For the past five years Crews had operated Benjamin Books as a subtenant to Host International, which controlled all newsstand and gift shop concessions at D/FW. During that time, Benjamin Books had been one of the highest revenue producers per square foot at the airport. With 20 years in the business and a successful airport-based enterprise nationwide, Crews was in a strong position to operate independently of Host.

Now that the Host contract was almost up, the board's mandate to the staff, Fegan reminded them, was to get more minorities contracting directly with the airport. Benjamin Books, as a 100 percent certified disadvantaged business enterprise, or DBE, would help accomplish that goal, Fegan told the board members. Moreover, a recent survey cited a bookstore as the concession that passengers would most like to see more of at the airport, and Benjamin's was the only bookstore in the entire airport.

"This certainly meets a lot of the objectives we are attempting to accomplish throughout our concession policy," Fegan said.

The importance of what was before them was not lost on the board, composed of appointees from the Fort Worth and Dallas city councils and the mayors from both cities. Board member Betty Culbreath of Dallas was among the first to speak.

"I'm real pleased that we finally have a DBE prime contractor, because that's been my goal all the time, that DBEs should be able to come to this airport and rent space and start their own businesses and not always have to tag along or join on with someone else," Culbreath said. "I'm just finally glad that somebody can have a lease in their own hand and their own name at this airport. So thank you very kindly for that."

While some board members echoed Culbreath's sentiments, others had doubts. Long-term board members such as former Dallas City Councilman Al Gonzalez and Hispanic activist and attorney Adelfa Callejo were upset that the first minority contract was being awarded to someone from out of state. Both made it clear at the meeting that city council members were pressuring them to get more local minorities a piece of the action.

"They're a class operation; there's not a question about that," Gonzalez said of Benjamin Books. "But I also have a question at the back of my mind that well, gosh, we can't send all our money to the East Coast guys ... This may be the first step, Adelfa, in where we want to go ...," Gonzalez continued, "but we're only halfway there. You know the other half is to get the local people over here so that we can get the steam off of us from those council representatives."

Fegan assured the board that Robert Crews intended to take on two local minority partners. Upon hearing that, Callejo said she wanted to make sure that Hispanics got "their fair share of participation." Board members also asked Fegan if Delta had released the space needed for Benjamin Books' two locations. Fegan told them the spaces indeed had been released.

The board voted for the staff to proceed on the contract with Benjamin Books. No one was happier than Crews, who had long called for minority businesses to contract directly with airports around the country.

"Being a subtenant is like sharecropping," he would later say. "You make just enough to cover the seed and have food to eat, but you never get out of debt."

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