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

"If Gleason had made good on his promise to find me a fourth store and extend the lease six years, the deal would have penciled at some point. We wouldn't have made up for what we lost, but we would have made money from that point forward."

No matter what Crews did, he could not convince the staff that he was attempting to fairly honor his commitment. In the fall of 1996, he received a notice that he was in default on his lease for not having an approved joint venture with DBE partners. He had 30 days to comply or they would begin eviction proceedings. Crews retained Kenneth Walker, who could not believe the airport was trying to evict a minority concessionaire for not having local minority partners. On its face, it seemed absurd. Walker also argued that a local geographical preference used in awarding contracts is illegal. Even so, Walker insisted that Crews' joint venture/mentoring partnership was valid.

The board members remained unconvinced and at the March 1997 board meeting, they voted to evict Benjamin Books. "This man got a contract, and he never intended to comply with it," Culbreath told The Dallas Morning News.

The Federal Aviation Administration says that if a person makes a good faith effort to find DBE partners, then they have fulfilled their obligation under law. Finally, the board concluded that Robert Crews indeed had attempted in good faith to recruit local minority partners. After Epps and Anderson paid $10,000 each into the joint venture, the board decided not to cancel the lease.

Crews was relieved, but he still felt he had been treated unfairly. He wanted to speak with airport Executive Director Fegan about the other unresolved issues that had hurt his business--the space acquisition fees, the lease extension Gleason had proposed, the third store he never got and the American terminal expansion that had never been completed. Fegan refused to meet with him, as did board chair Betty Culbreath. So in May, he decided he had no choice but to file suit.

Crews is still operating his three stores at D/FW and they are doing well. They grossed $3.8 million last year. But that is not nearly what he would have been making, had he gotten what he contracted for and the stores had opened on timenot to mention what he had to pay in legal fees to fight the eviction and the hundreds of thousands of dollars he had to pay in acquisition fees. What he wanted from the board initially was for it to make him whole. He asked for $500,000, the fourth store and 2,000-square-foot expansion he was promised, and a six-year extension on his lease.

Fegan refused to present Crews' demand to the board. Now it is up to a court to decide if the airport owes him anything. Crews is asking for $17 million, which represents the revenues he lost, plus damages.

Crews firmly believes he was the victim of two sinister scenarios. First, the airport staff misrepresented to him--and to the board--that the space for his new stores had been released, when it had not. The delays this caused, and the fees he was unaware of when he signed the lease, hurt the economics of his deal. Staff could not give him the relief he was seeking--a lease extension, rent rebates, and a delay in choosing partners--because it would have meant telling the board that they had been deceived in the first place.

Crews also believes his minority partnership had been promised to two people with close ties to airport board and staff. When he rejected them, the staff retaliated by trying to evict him.

A state district court master recently held summary judgment hearings to determine whether the case has enough merit to proceed to trial. If the master decides that it does, a trial has been scheduled for November.

Win or lose, Crews must contend with what the whole ordeal has done to his once sterling reputation.

"I know I am seen as a problem child in the industry now," says Crews, whose company has shrunk from 50 stores to 35 in the last two years. "At airport conventions people walk up to me and say this person or that person from Dallas says you were a problem. What they don't understand is how these people screwed up a man's business. You know, all I wanted to do was give people a chance to buy Gone with the Wind and Tale of Two Cities. Isn't it ironic? This has become a tale of two cities.

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