By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Cox considered borrowing more money to keep the business but became so impressed with Atkins' apparent insider's knowledge of the city's plans that he decided to sell. "Maybe he was showing off," says Cox, "but he was able to call the aviation director and get him right on the phone. It would take me days to talk to the man."
To structure the sale, Cox hired George Day, an elderly airport tenant who he says introduced himself as a lawyer. Day didn't bother to mention that the State Bar of Texas suspended him in 1990 following his conviction on federal bank fraud charges in Fort Worth, Cox says. "He was from Brownwood and I grew up in [nearby] Breckenridge. He seemed like a nice guy," recalls Cox, talking in the cafeteria of an airplane mechanics' and pilots' school he built in Arlington.
Tenants at the airport remember Day as a pleasant enough white-haired man who, in shorts and black socks, would cane his way around the grounds for exercise. He lived at least part-time in an apartment on the airport grounds.
Day's strategy, says Cox, was to form a new company, Redbird Development Corp., assign it the airport leases, and sell the new company to Atkins, all of which was permitted under Cox's contract with the city.
Cox says the deal required Atkins to pay him $600,000 within a year, plus Atkins would assume responsibility for $118,000 in back rent due the city.
Atkins recalls the transaction differently. He says he bought the company for the rental debt alone, an assertion that set up a three-year legal battle over who owed what in the company transfer. Cox came away last year with an agreed judgment signed by U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Massie Tillman that Atkins pay him $61,000, money that is still owed.
At City Hall, Atkins did have his political support lined up. In March 1995, Crenshaw and Hicks--as well as Lipscomb, who was campaigning to win back his seat in District 8, which includes Redbird--led a charge to reduce Atkins' annual rent by 32 percent, from $315,000 to $215,000 per year. Rather than cancel Redbird's lease over the $118,000 in overdue rent, the city gave Atkins a low-interest loan--at 6 percent--and two years to pay it off.
Business owners and others who rented space at Redbird adamantly opposed the rent reduction and its de facto seal of approval on Atkins' ownership. Atkins didn't seem to know anything about running airport facilities, and he was just what they didn't need. But Atkins was certain of one thing: Redbird had the potential to be "one hell of a deal."
"To me, you have this property here, and four, five years down the road it's gonna be a gold mine," Atkins recalls thinking. "Just hang on, and this is going to be a reliever airport to Love Field."
But several council members, including Bob Stimson, questioned Atkins' involvement, wondering behind the scenes whether Atkins was simply a facade.
"I was concerned he was a front for Cox or somebody else," says Stimson. "I was hoping for an operator who was pro-active and financially capable. Redbird Development wouldn't show us any financial information. When I asked to see their financials, Gayle White called me a racial son-of-a-bitch."
Discussion around the council table was not any more to the point.
Because most of the airport's subtenants were white, and Atkins' support on the council was mostly black, the rent reduction became an issue of why whites were opposed to giving a black man a break. Both Crenshaw and Hicks noted the opponents' race, a tape of the March 8, 1995, council meeting shows. "I commend Mr. White and Mr. Atkins for what they're doing out there," Lipscomb told the council. "A transition like this happens and people are put under a microscope. Don't buy into it."
In the end, the council approved the rent reduction on a 7-5 vote.
Tennell Atkins was in the airport business.
If the city's file of complaint letters is any indication, though, he had more problems than that.
Only two months after the city cut its rent, Redbird Development missed its payment to the city, and three months later the company began paying late every month. Within a year, after Redbird Development bounced 10 rent checks, the city aviation department put Atkins on notice it would accept only money orders or cashier's checks.
"There were problems from the beginning," says a city official who had direct control over the lease. Tenant and city staff complaints about potholes and trash began to add up in the file. Meanwhile, in direct opposition to lease requirements that the premises be used for aviation, Redbird Development began filling up the hangars with any and all comers. One of the largest hangars on the property became the home of a cabinet shop. Bus refurbishers, auto repair outfits, an air conditioning company, and a company conducting weekend flea markets and junk auctions filled some of the rest. Once, a tenant drove by an open hangar and saw men in white aprons working around a couple of tables, cutting up meat.