Port Whine: Delays on Inland Port Part of Familiar Pattern

On a clear day, you can see why development in southern Dallas has been screwed forever

Go for a helicopter ride with me, will you? Let's look down on Dallas from some perspective. And, uh, sit a few inches farther away from me and keep that air sickness bag handy if you don't mind.

Last week I reported on a powerful senior member of Congress, Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas, who said that a certain so-called "planning" project here is really a below-the-belt squeeze play to get money out of a major developer.

The squeeze-play Johnson was talking about has been supported by the city's wealthy white mayor, who is a standard-bearer for the city's old downtown business elite, and by one of the city's most powerful black elected officials. So what are we looking at here?

Hold on. I'm going to ask the pilot to take us on up higher. We need to be able to look down and see the whole region.

The developer in this saga is Richard Allen, chief executive of The Allen Group, a San Diego company that came here five years ago to develop an enormous rail, truck and warehousing center, big enough to make Dallas a major continental hub. The black politician, about whom Congresswoman Johnson used the word "shakedown," is Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, who has thrown roadblock after roadblock in Allen's way.

While we are achieving our new altitude here, let me try to put Price's actions in context. For that, I have to tell you a little story about a place called West Point, Georgia, a community of 3,300 souls on the banks of the Chattahoochee River on the Alabama border. Two years ago, West Point was able to persuade Kia, a Korean automaker, to build a plant there.

As part of wooing Kia there, the community and state bought all of the land Kia would need for its factory at a reported two and a half times market rates and gave it to Kia for free. The West Point Kia factory brought 2,500 jobs to Western Georgia.

The Allen Group bought 6,000 acres of land in southern Dallas County and in southern Dallas on their own nickel, at market rates, before they even showed their heads. Their project is the dominant centerpiece and critical mass in what is now being called Dallas' inland port. That project is expected to produce 31,000 new "direct jobs" (in the development itself) and 32,000 indirect jobs (hotels, suppliers, etc.), along with $2.4 billion in new tax base for the cities of Dallas, Wilmer, Hutchins and Lancaster and Dallas County, and $68.5 billion total economic impact between 2006 and 2035.

In the way of the world and by all reasonable standards, every local official in the region should be out in the road with red carpets and palm leaves offering praise, thanks and meaningful help to this project.

The Allen Group has made a paradigm-shifting investment in a traditionally black region of the city that has seen nothing but the back of the hand from City Hall since Reconstruction, a place that even now lacks basic amenities and infrastructure, a domain scarred by racism, neglect, economic blight and hopelessness.

Who more than black officials claiming to care about their own constituents should be working to welcome and smooth the way for this company? Instead, Commissioner Price held up a key bridge project, tried to stall an important trade zone designation for a year and has whittled on the project in countless other small ways.

We're almost at altitude, by the way. I think you're going to see this picture once we're up there.

Now Commissioner Price, with help from Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, has been pushing a new 18-month "master plan" study and new development standards for the inland port. Richard Allen says the study is perfectly timed to kill him.

He spent three years acquiring land and two years doing $6 million worth of his own studies. He negotiated final agreements with all of the local governments involved. He is just now ready to open his doors and begin selling warehouses to outfits like Target and Walmart.

Telling those clients now that all of the development standards on their land will be up in the air again for a year and a half will be deadly, he says. The point I have heard him make again and again in public meetings is that the typical homebuyer wouldn't ink a deal if the developer said the final shape and even the legal requirements of the development will not be determined for another year and a half.

I know what I would say. "Great. Thanks for warning me. I'll go somewhere else where they know what they're doing and I can sign a contract that actually means something."

But here's the point. This guy from California comes here and makes a huge, shape-shifting commitment to the most blighted portion of our city and region. It's a real deal.

He says please don't do this. I beg you. It will screw me. And how does Dallas respond?

Commissioner Price is derisive and calls him a carpetbagger. Leppert is dismissive in that odd, wary, grinning way he has, suggesting that Allen's fears are exaggerated. The Dallas Morning News editorial page is scathing, mocking Allen as someone who sees "enemies behind every tree."

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