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."

Hey. Remember my story about West Point, Georgia, and the Kia factory? They bought the land at inflated prices and gave it to Kia. And then they asked what else they could do. That's standard practice in places trying to lure enterprises a fraction of the size of Allen's.

OK, we're up here. We're high enough to see what I wanted to show you. Look down. What do you see? Look way up there to the northwest. See all that railroad and airport and freeway stuff up there in Tarrant County, just west of Grapevine Lake? That is the Alliance Airport and multi-modal shipping hub developed in the 1980s and '90s by the family of H. Ross Perot, the guy with the charts who ran for president against Bush 41.

His son, Ross Perot Jr., now runs Hillwood, the real estate company that controls Alliance. In public statements, Perot Jr. has called the southern Dallas inland port a "direct threat" to Alliance.

Why? Because they're in the same business. Perot would never say this, but the Allen development has some natural advantages over Alliance—more railroads, more interstate highways and more people hungry for good hourly-wage jobs living nearby.

From up here, you can see it: Interstate 35E, I-30, I-20, I-45 all snaking right into southern Dallas County. The inland port will soon be the only shipping hub of its kind in the nation to have two major railroad companies bringing in freight and off-loading at super high-tech "multi-modal" centers. Lancaster Airport is sitting right there, ripe for expansion.

Alliance, on the other hand, has only one highway—I-35W—and one railroad. So Ross Perot Jr.'s words, echoed by a company spokesman who talked to me about it, make sense: Richard Allen is a threat.

Now look down over here, out the other side, right beneath us. That's downtown Dallas. See all that stuff around the American Airlines Center and the W Hotel—all that shiny new development? All that new stuff is Hillwood-driven. They don't own all of it by any means, but since opening the American Airlines Center in 2001, Hillwood has developed most of its 75-acre "Victory" project right there, in the big middle of that area.

The W, by the way, is where Ross Jr. threw a closed-door Christmas party a year ago for Mayor Leppert and several city council members.

OK, now look way down behind us. All of that green you see down there? That's southern Dallas and Dallas County. The unbroken canopy of green that you see is not the good kind of green. It is the green of neglect, of a place where nothing has ever happened, a place that never had a chance. That's where The Allen Group has all its money.

I reported last week that The Allen Group was approached three years ago by a group of black businessmen who wanted to become its political escorts in southern Dallas in exchange for half a million dollars a year and 15 percent "equity" in its venture. Shortly after The Allen Group turned them down, Commissioner Price started doing everything he could to undermine The Allen Group, showing up at public meetings shouting "Equity! Equity!"

The commissioner has expressed contempt for the promise of more than 60,000 jobs. "During slavery," he told me, "everybody had a job."

The mayor of Dallas has taken four different positions in the last two months on Price's proposed master plan. He was for it. Then, when he was confronted on it at the annual meeting of the Real Estate Council of Dallas, he said it was "off the table," according to people who were present. A month later his chief of staff told me he was back in favor of it. Then two weeks ago the chief of staff told me Leppert was in favor of delaying the study because of the softening economy, whatever that has to do with it.

So why are we up here in the helicopter? Because, frankly, you may be a lawyer, but I am not. I'm not a federal prosecutor, either. I'm not a mind-reader.

But you and I are American citizens, and we have a right to come up here, look down and judge what's going on according to the largest patterns we can see down there on the ground. Even if we can't dice this out in precise legal terms, we have a right and a duty to make judgments about the biggest political shapes we can see moving on the land beneath us.

We see Alliance and Hillwood up there in the northwest quadrant, with reason to sweat bullets over the southern Dallas inland port. Right beneath us, it's downtown party-time at the W—all the hoopla and action and glitz of the Hillwood Victory development, mayor and council members sipping at the bowl. And then down there to the south, where our political leaders ought to be on bended knee thanking Richard Allen for being born, they're throwing sticks in his spokes.

For one reason or another, everything is working out splendidly for the Perots in terms of those big political shapes, and nothing is working out for southern Dallas.

I think you get the picture. It's an old picture. Very old. Very sick. On second thought, hand me back that damn barf bag.

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