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

Crews answered immediately, outlining his ability to qualify for a prime contract. Responding directly to the qualifications cited in the airport board's letter, he explained that he held no debts with Host, had a proven track record in operations nationwide, and had the financial capability to build the stores along with sufficient inventory to stock them.

Crews did not hear anything back from the airport, so on a trip to Dallas, he visited with several airport board staff members. He told them he was interested in opening three new stores at the airport and enhancing his shops to include a cafe that sold coffee and light pastries. Each of the staff members told Crews that the board would require him to take a local minority partner if it awarded him a direct contract. In June 1993, he wrote the board that The Benjamin Co. was willing to take on one local minority partner. By the time Jeff Fegan presented the proposal for a lease with Benjamin Books to the board in November 1993, Crews had agreed to select two minority partners, who would have 25 percent of the three new stores, and whom he would help select through a board-approved bidding process.

But minutes before the board meeting was to begin, airport board Executive Director Vernell Sturns and board member Bert Williams pulled Crews into a meeting in Sturns' office. Sturns insisted that Crews increase the local DBE participation from 25 to 30 percent or they would not present the deal to the board. Crews says he objected to this last minute squeeze. He says he acquiesced only after extracting a promise from Sturns and Williams that he could recoup the lost revenue by expanding his menu to include more high-margin items such as frozen desserts, plus adding 2,000 square feet to his existing store in Terminal 3E. In fact, shortly after that meeting, he sent the staff a letter about the expanded menu. The only response he received was a request for a price list on the merchandise mentioned.

In a deposition, Williams recalls the meeting, but not his commitment to menu changes. He maintains that Crews simply volunteered to give up another 5 percent of his business. Regardless, in presenting Benjamin Books' proposal to the board that night, Fegan enthusiastically told the board that Crews had decided to increase the level of local minority partnership.

In March 1994, when the lease was completed and approved, Crews thought it would be only a matter of months before he would have a lucrative, expanded presence at D/FW. He had signed the six-year lease promising him three stores/cafes and an expansion to his original store. It takes Crews about 60 days to build out his stores, but throughout the spring and summer and into the fall, the airport staff threw Crews one unexpected curveball after another that put him seriously behind schedule.

Crews hoped to design and construct the stores all at once, which helps keep costs down. But he quickly ran into his first problem: The airport was trying to develop new construction criteria for the scores of new restaurants and stores that would be opening in the next few years. The airport rejected the plans for Crews' stores, because they didn't comply with plans that the airport had not even developed yet. In fact, the new construction criteria handbook was not finished until October--months after Crews signed his lease. The criteria and the delays doubled Crews' construction costs over his original projections.

The staff also delayed the process for selecting local minority partners. They were revamping the process and wouldn't be finished until the fall. Crews didn't know then that not all businesses were required to go through the bidding process to find a minority partner. Out of frustration, and in an effort to speed things up, Crews called board member Adelfa Callejo in August and asked her for some recommendations for possible minority partners. Her list included Dallas furniture storeowner Ray Quintanilla and Fort Worth businessman Victor Puente, who owned several newsstands at the airport, as well as dentist Jim Rodriguez, Dallas Independent School District board president Rene Castilla, and Dallas lawyer Regina Montoya, who worked for Westcott Communications. Montoya is also the wife of Paul Coggins, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Texas.

With the store design and minority partnership process stalled, Crews got more bad news. The airport staff said they would not approve the menu changes he thought had been promised in exchange for increasing the minority partnership. After discussing the problem with board member Bert Williams, Crews advised the staff that Williams thought the partnership should be reduced to the original 25 percent. Plus, the staff told him he would have to pay American and Delta hundreds of thousands of dollars in order for them to turn over the space he had leased. This expense had never been discussed during lease negotiations and nowhere in his lease did it mention what the airport called space acquisition fees. (The capital-improvement clause in Crews' contract does mention that this includes the cost of capturing space from a former tenant. However, at the same time, the lease states that the airlines have released the space to Benjamin Books. Later concession leases would spell out space-acquisition fees and the exact terms.)

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