By Jim Schutze
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By Lauren Drewes Daniels
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Gilbert Aranza darts down two flights of stairs from the offices of Star Concessions Ltd. into Dallas Love Field Airport's main lobby. "It's my daily exercise," the 57-year-old explains as he shoots by an elevator on the third floor and then skips an escalator ride on the second, "and a way to keep my eyes on employees."
Aranza, the grandson of Mexican immigrants, has reason to hustle. He oversees 200 employees (of which 90 percent are minorities or women) and 10 eateries dishing food to hurried travelers passing through Love Field on their way out of town—folks like the man wearing boots and a cowboy hat who hoists a guitar over the railing of Chili's Too before he sits down and orders a burger and beer. Aranza expanded the Chili's to accommodate travelers' growing desire for sit-down meals, and he seems to have landed a happy customer in the cowboy. The man huffs out a great sigh after his first sip of beer, while nearby, a young woman drops a large duffle bag on the floor to put cream in her coffee at Cinnabon.
Star's the franchisee for both these food stops, and the money his hungry customers shell out feeds both Aranza's and the airport's bottom lines. Because Aranza pays rent based on a percentage of his sales, the better his business, the more money flows to keep Love Field running smoothly.
Business at Love these days is booming, but that wasn't always the case.
As Aranza disappears into a sea of potential customers, it's hard to imagine that this busy airport was once so moribund that the city tried to turn it into a kind of amusement park with wings. In 1975, the city leased space to an ice rink, video arcade, bowling alley, roller rink and movie theaters to fill the void left by air carriers that had bolted a year earlier for the recently completed Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
Southwest Airlines was alone in fighting to remain at Love Field, and its successful effort allowed the airport to avoid a fate as the Llove Entertainment Complex, which closed in 1978. Now arguably the airline industry's most profitable carrier with 37 consecutive years in the black, Southwest is primed to reap the benefits of the $519 million airport facelift scheduled for completion in October 2014. That's also when the Wright Amendment—federal legislation passed in 1979 that restricted flights from Love Field to states other than those bordering Texas—will be fully phased out.
Bustling today, Love Field is set to explode in the years ahead, with the number of passengers passing through annually expected to double from 4 million to 8 million by 2021. Aranza, whose award-winning Star Concessions has operated the food businesses at Love since 1996, weathered the travel bust after 9/11 and brought in national chain restaurants to improve the quality of food. Now, he thinks he's earned the right to benefit from the coming explosion. And because he's operating during the construction period, which includes tearing down the current terminal and erecting a state-of-the-art replacement in phases, Aranza says an extension on his lease with the city will allow him to recoup any losses.
For a while, after nearly three years of negotiations and debate through its Transportation and Environment Committee, the Dallas City Council seemed to agree. By a 10-0 vote on February 22, the committee recommended extending Aranza's contract, which expires in June 2011, through the construction period in 2014 and then added another 12 years with one three-year option. Hudson Group, which operates the airport's retail concessions, would receive the same deal.
Unfortunately for Aranza, Mayor Tom Leppert had other ideas. On March 3 he asked city staff, who had backed the extensions, to appear before the full council and explain why the contracts weren't put out for competitive bids.
The Dallas Morning News jumped in with a series of stories leading up to the scheduled April 28 vote by the full council. The stories criticized the no-bid process and repeatedly mentioned Aranza's campaign contributions to council members and his tenure as a director of the Dallas Citizens Council, a powerful consortium made up mostly of white businessmen.
The paper also questioned whether the city was getting the best deal it could with Hudson, another company wired politically and supported by some on the council because it's 40 percent minority-owned. Multiplex, a company owned by state Representative Helen Giddings, has a 25 percent stake in the newsstands and sunglasses stores at Love through a local joint venture with Hudson, one of the country's most well-known airport concessionaires. A blind trust that controls U.S. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson's assets owns 15 percent. Giddings and Johnson, who are black, became part of Hudson Retail Dallas six years after Hudson's initial contract was unanimously approved by the council. Giddings refused to comment for this story other than stating that she started her business in 1989—three years before her election to the Texas House. Dena Craig, a spokesperson for Johnson, says Johnson has no information about the concessions at Love Field because she has no control over the trust.
Leppert's efforts and the onslaught of bad press surrounding the contracts caused the council to delay its April 28 vote and form an ad hoc committee to evaluate the issue, but after three committee meetings, the city council appears deadlocked. In fact, the two-hour sessions only strengthened the resolve of both Leppert, who says it's the city's duty to seek bids on contracts this large, and the council's black and Latino members, who maintain that the concessionaires should be compensated for their losses stemming from the post-9/11 travel slowdown and the additional costs associated with operating during construction.