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

··· As complaints about Redbird Development poured in to the city, they made their way from low-level managers up the city bureaucracy to the city council. But for several years, the council took no action, because Atkins had lined up the support of former council member Al Lipscomb and other southern Dallas politicians. Atkins, in fact, ran Lipscomb's 1999 re-election campaign from the Redbird Development offices, according to Lucy Stewart, a campaign volunteer, and stored his signs and even a parade float in Redbird hangars. "Lipscomb was a good friend to have," says one mid-level city official who talked under the condition that he not be identified. "Complaints got to the council and they died there."

··· Redbird's public image as a minority-owned business served it well at the upper levels of city government. But its minority-owned status is questionable. Issues surrounding Redbird Development's corporate matters are so tangled that neither an experienced investor who looked at Redbird in 1998 nor the federal prosecutor in Lubbock who put George Day in prison say they could figure them out with certainty. The Days of Brownwood show up as "president" or "chairman" of the company in Dallas County deed records, corporate filings to the secretary of state, and franchise tax records kept by the state comptroller of public accounts. The Days themselves allege control in letters to an assistant city manager and a creditor, and in notices sent to hangar tenants in 1997 and 1999. When the city finally canceled Redbird Development's lease last October, it cited as a serious problem the company's failure to answer questions related to the Days' involvement in Redbird, questions brought to the city's attention in the summer of 1999. It was about that time, files show, that aviation department officials learned that George Day had been convicted in 1989 and 1995 of various white-collar crimes and, while on probation, was being investigated for a variety of nickel-and-dime scams designed to cheat people out of their investments.

Tennell Atkins insists he was the majority owner and president of Redbird, and that he was a Day victim, too. "I bought the corporation. I ran the corporation," says Atkins, adding that Day was "messing with the company's paperwork" to somehow steal Redbird Development from under him. His partner and operations manager, Gayle White, also says that he and Atkins ran the company. "George and Shirley Day did not take out a dime," White says.

Tennell Atkins says Redbird Airport should have been a gold mine.
Mark Graham
Tennell Atkins says Redbird Airport should have been a gold mine.
George Allen Day looks harmless enough, which may explain why he was so good at helping himself to other people's money.
Mark Graham
George Allen Day looks harmless enough, which may explain why he was so good at helping himself to other people's money.

But a string of correspondence stretching from a creditor, to the city, to Atkins, and then to a Brownwood-area attorney with whom George Day worked demonstrates an ongoing relationship among the Days, Atkins, and White. The attorney told the city that the Days indeed had control.

··· Always in some sort of need, Redbird was a magnet for opportunists looking to cash in. In a lawsuit filed in June, Atkins alleges that Dwaine Caraway, husband of city council member Barbara Mallory Caraway, demanded and received $3,000 for introducing him to Vernon Jordan, an Irving businessman who provided Atkins a $40,000 loan. Caraway denies the allegation, but White, the operations manager, told the Observer he witnessed two of the alleged three $1,000 cash payments. "He was shaking us down," says White, who claims Caraway would call Redbird Development demanding his money. Atkins and White allege that Caraway threatened to use his influence with his wife, the head of the city council's transportation committee, to hurt the company if they did not cooperate. The council member declined to comment; her husband denies making the threat or taking the money.

In all, says former council member Bob Stimson, the Redbird saga is "a typical city story." Who you are and who you know, and how the political forces line up, counted more than performance. The result, which is only now being turned around by new management, is a thatch of lawsuits and a pile of rusty buildings, a taxpayer-funded dump in need of a cleanup.

Redbird Development Corp. was born in 1994 out of a cynical calculation: The Dallas City Council would do for Tennell Atkins what it wouldn't do for Jack Cox, a white airport developer from Arlington who made a number of enemies in his two years as the primary Redbird leaseholder.

In early 1994, Cox was behind on his rent to the city and having trouble charging hangar tenants enough to make repairs. Cox says at least some of his problems came because the city was studying the possibility of closing the airport and turning it into a subdivision. "Who wants to do business with something about to shut down?" he says, explaining that he had to heavily discount rents.

Atkins, whose small construction business had done work for Cox at several area airports, approached him with a solution, Cox says. "Tennell told me, 'I have contacts in the city.' He specifically mentioned [council members] Don Hicks, Sandra Crenshaw, Barbara Mallory Caraway. He said, 'The city wants you off the airport. It's in southern Dallas, and there isn't enough minority participation.'

"He said, 'If you assign me the leases, they won't default them. In fact, they'll give me a rent reduction.' That upset me, because I had asked for a rent reduction and they turned me down."

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