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 closing, Gleason offered to extend his lease term to expire six years after the opening of the fourth location or the remodel of his existing 3E store, whichever occurred last. The above proposals, Gleason added, were subject to board approval.

Crews thought the offers in Gleason's letter were more than reasonable. What he didn't know was that Gleason never presented the proposal to the board. Gleason also never told Crews that Delta was not going to release the second location until after the master concession plan was finished, the airline was paid for all the space they were relinquishing, and they completed any relocation work that needed to be done. As it turns out, the earliest Crews could have hoped to open his third new store was March 1996--two years after he signed his lease for space the airport represented as having already been released.

In the summer of 1995, Delta announced that they would be reducing their flight schedule at the airport. Crews claims Gleason told him he thought this might affect business if he were to open a second location at Delta. In early September, Crews wrote to Gleason and told him he had decided not to develop the second Delta store. He asked for a refund and said that if space came available in the American terminal, he was still interested in opening a fourth location.

Several weeks later, after Crews had talked directly with Delta personnel about the impending changes, he realized he had been misinformed. He sent a letter to airport staff, telling them he had changed his mind and wanted to go ahead with his original plans. But he was too late. The space had already been leased to Anton's, a food service company. Apparently, Gleason thought fewer Delta passengers meant they would buy fewer books, but would still be as hungry. (Anton's lost their DBE certification a few months later, when a woman no longer owned the business. Anton's appealed and was eventually recertified.)

In mid-October, shortly after Crews gave up the third store, Mario Trevino, director of airport minority and economic affairs, sent him a letter telling him he needed to immediately address his commitment to bring in local minority partners. Crews responded that he was still committed to finding minority partners, but under the agreement he was obligated to do so when he had three stores and an expansion on his fourth. He informed Trevino that he had talked with Delta officials and learned that their plans would not interfere with a second bookstore location, and he wanted to again pursue this site. He vowed to complete one partnership agreement by the end of November and the other before beginning construction on a third bookstore.

By the end of October, Crews had also come to an agreement with American Airlines to pay for acquiring the space presently occupied by two bathrooms instead of the four he had originally intended. He sent them a check for $39,000--about $70 a square foot. Once again, Crews seemed back on track. In November, as promised, he selected a local partner. Through a black church in Fort Worth that The Benjamin Co. had adopted several years earlier--"part of our commitment to give back to the community," Crews explains--he had met Gerrod Anderson, a retired teacher turned insurance agent, who was interested in learning about the book business. Crews told Anderson that their joint venture would begin when his third store or expansion was complete.

The news that Crews finally selected a partner did not seem to please Mario Trevino. In January, he fired off an angry letter asking Crews to provide his department with an explanation stating why he was rejecting Quintanilla's and Puente's proposals. Crews had already told one of Trevino's co-workers that he didn't see the point of bringing on partners who already had direct contracts with the board. Besides, Crews says, Quintanilla and Puente were competitors. They both sold books, and, in fact, Puente's newsstand was right next to a Benjamin Books store. And, as he would later tell one of the board members, he sat in one board meeting and heard Fort Worth board members complain that not enough African-Americans were getting concession contracts. So, he made a conscious decision to find blacks with whom to form a partnership.

Throughout the spring and summer of 1996, the airport staff continued to give Crews a hard time. They objected to the joint-partnership agreement because Anderson was not investing money directly. Instead, Crews had devised a mentoring arrangement, where Anderson would contribute his time to learning the business in exchange for an equity share in the company. They had similar objections when Crews formed another joint venture with Joe Epps, a local black attorney, who wanted to learn the book business.

Crews tried to explain to the airport staff that requiring his partners to pay into the deal wasn't fair. "The whole economics of the original deal had eroded," Crews says. "I contracted for three new stores and an expansion on a fourth to be open for six years. Two stores open a year and a half late, I don't have the third store or the expansion. In these deals, you make money from the third year on. If you don't start for two to three years, you break even on the last day of the contract. Gerrod will never make money. I was trying to protect the partners from losses. If he signed a note owing the company $300,000, he could have never paid it off.

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