Deadbird

How vicious racial politics, mismanagement, and dirty dealing turned Dallas' Redbird Airport into a Third-World airfield

The brick house on Good Shepherd Drive in the West Texas town of Brownwood seems an unlikely place for the headquarters of a minority-owned Dallas company with a big city contract. A wreath of plastic sunflowers hangs on the front door, two Cadillacs fill the garage, and a six-foot satellite dish peeks over the newly stained fence. Everything appears exceedingly normal here among the yuccas and prickly pears at the edge of this rural county seat 185 miles west of Dallas.

Except for one thing.

The man of the house, George Allen Day, isn't in, and he won't be coming home anytime soon. Since May, the 72-year-old former prosecutor, financier, and lifelong white male has been doing time in a federal prison camp in Beaumont, serving a four-year sentence for bank fraud, embezzlement, and other charges relating to the insider looting of the Early Bank near Brownwood, which Day owned until it failed in 1985.In a series of documents sent over several years to state corporate record-keepers, as well as letters sent to Dallas city officials and others, George Day and his wife, Shirley, claimed to own or control the company that ran southern Dallas' Redbird Airport. Never mind that the Redbird Development Corp. attained its status with the city by presenting itself as a minority-run company, getting reduced rents, low-interest loans, and other favors thanks to the support of black city council members Al Lipscomb, Sandra Crenshaw, and Don Hicks, among others.Whenever it was convenient or advantageous, the Days emerged to lay claim to a company they considered theirs.

Mark Graham
Redbird Airport's city-run tower, runways, and navigational aids weren't the problem. It was the facilities around them, managed by Redbird Development Corp., that caused pilots to flee.
Mark Graham
Redbird Airport's city-run tower, runways, and navigational aids weren't the problem. It was the facilities around them, managed by Redbird Development Corp., that caused pilots to flee.

From 1994 until late 1999, Redbird Development Corp. operated the airport's "front door," the fueling station, rental airplane hangars, and office buildings, under a long-term lease with the city. Redbird Development managed 21 acres of the general aviation field and was expected to maintain the buildings, pay the city rent, and attract new development to its open land.

Despite its proximity to downtown, its easy-to-reach location at the intersection of Interstate 20 and four-lane U.S. 67, and overcrowding at nearly every competing airport in the region, Redbird moved so little on the flight path to prosperity during the company's five-year run that users gave it a nickname: Deadbird.

The vast, empty acreage around the criss-crossing runways stands in vivid contrast to rows of charter services and computer-age aviation businesses clustered around Addison Airport, a one-runway airfield on Dallas' northern edge. "The runways and the navigational aids are there, but it's amazed me why the city wouldn't figure out what is needed to make Redbird another Addison or a junior Love Field," says Darrell Jordan, a former mayoral candidate and partner in Hughes & Luce, the law firm that represented Ross Perot Jr. in his development of Fort Worth's Alliance Airport. "You look at the potholes in the streets and the run-down hangars. Anybody surveying the area would wonder whether they're in Dallas or some Third-World country."

Why, during a decade of spectacular growth in North Texas aviation, did Redbird all but die? Why did this supposed engine for the development of minority-dominated South Oak Cliff seize up and rust?

A few of the answers can be found in six cardboard boxes piled in the back rooms of the Dallas Aviation Department offices at Love Field. These files, along with interviews with Redbird Development's officers, tenants, would-be investors, creditors, city officials, and a federal prosecutor, tell the story of the city's dealings with this ill-fated company. It is a tale of venomous racial politics, mismanagement, hidden ownership by a criminal, and blatant conflicts of interest if not outright corruption involving public officials.

During an investigation, the Dallas Observer found:

··· The city blessed Redbird Development Corp.'s takeover of the airport in 1995, even though its purported owner, Tennell Atkins, was in bankruptcy at the time. A former SMU track star and running back, Atkins used his race and connections like a good rusher uses his offensive line. Although he had no experience in aviation and no capital--he filed for personal bankruptcy in 1993, claiming about $25,000 in back taxes and mortgage and credit card debts--the Dallas City Council voted along racial lines and blessed Atkins with a big rent cut and a low-interest loan. "You got a black man out here, he's been there five months and hasn't had a chance to do anything," said then-Councilman Don Hicks, brushing aside concerns by the hangar tenants, weekend aviators with their single-engine Pipers who opposed giving the airport to a beginner with no money of his own.

··· In a little more than five years, lower-level city officials warned Redbird Development that it had defaulted on its lease more than 60 times, but it was allowed to keep operating the airport and even negotiate a new lease in 1999. The reasons for the defaults included habitually missing rent payments or bouncing rent checks, using the hangars for drug- and alcohol-fueled for-profit rave parties, and ignoring maintenance to the point where abandoned vehicles littered the property, rooftops rusted and leaked, and abandoned buildings sat filled with trash, derelict cars, and barrels of used oil. Aviation businesses moved out. Everything from a cabinet shop to a flea market moved in.

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