Cash Money

A South Korean shipping firm named its new ship the "Hanjin Dallas" because so much of its cargo comes here.

History has this way of throwing bean balls at us. Just about now, the city finally has escaped its South Dallas guilt complex. People no longer feel obligated to sluice money into boondoggle rip-off scams that do nothing to relieve poverty and only benefit the same six people. For a heart-rending example, read the item that ran last week on Unfair Park, our blog, titled, "Build It...and They Won't Come."

City Councilman Ed Oakley has been showing off a recent poll which found that zero percent of voters in Dallas--I repeat, zero percent--are interested in developing southern Dallas. I'm a tad skeptical of his poll, but I do believe that people--even people deeply troubled by the divisions in our city and society--are sick of getting blackmailed into spending tax money on stuff that plainly will not do any good.

So, forget about spending tax money to develop southern Dallas, right? Yeah, but here's the bean ball:

A huge economic opportunity for the whole city, maybe the biggest thing to happen to Dallas in this century--and the previous one, too--has just come our way.

We didn't do squat to bring it here. It may be the best shot at a prosperous future that we're ever going to see. But making it happen will require major investment. And guess where it is: square in the middle of southern Dallas.

I'm talking about this whole weird "inland port," "river of trade," NAFTA, "intermodal," gobbledygook thing that nobody knows what it is. I've done my best for the last year to totally ignore it. "Intermodal," for me, is a buzz word for "boring." And I always assumed those inland ports would never work because it would be too hard to drag the ships to them.

But last week I got it. I sat down with several people, notably Dallas City Councilman Bill Blaydes, who has been a point person in all this, and I forced myself to stay awake and concentrate no matter how many times they said intermodal.

Why did I do it? Strange little tale. My wife and I spent a few days recently in Marfa, down by the Big Bend country. We did not see the famous and mysteriously unexplained Marfa lights, by the way, but I figure that was our fault for failing to do the drugs.

But one day we were way the heck out in the middle of the desert on a rise, and miles away from us on the far horizon was a train, the longest train I think I have ever seen in my life, like a snake sliding around the edge of the earth. Later that day in town I watched while more of these monster trains swept through dusty little downtown Marfa, all of them double-decked with containers, all of the containers marked either "Hanjin" or "China."

All bound for southern Dallas.

Why in the world?

The words Union Pacific Wilmer Intermodal Terminal actually escaped my pen, to my own surprise, a year ago when I wrote a column about the Dallas school district agreeing to take over the failed Wilmer-Hutchins suburban school system ("Hope Chest," July 21, 2005). I had been calling people up, asking them why the Dallas school system, already hump-backed and foot-dragging beneath its burdens, would agree to take responsibility for an even more screwed-up school system.

A smarter-than-I friend in a position to know the answer said, "Drive down I-45, genius, and figure it out."

I did. And there it was--this enormous new rail facility, then still under construction, now open, designed to load and off-load as many as five monster trains at a time, with a parking lot that's the square-footage equivalent of 25 miles of freeway.

Obviously the Dallas school system was eager to ingest the Wilmer-Hutchins territory because it was looking at this facility, a big juicy turkey already on the platter, carved, dressed and ready to tax.

But I still sort of didn't know what the industry was. Train unloading? Where I grew up, we made cars. We loaded them up on trains and ships and trucks, and off they went. But is this a real industry? Unloading and re-loading other people's stuff?

To find out, I had to boost myself up out of my parochialism another inch or so and go sit like a second-grader on a little chair in front of the desk of Councilman Bill Blaydes. And don't you know that hurt? Blaydes is somebody I like to beat up on over unfair cemetery condemnations and stuff like that. Now I have to go take notes while he teaches me World Trade 101.

Not only that, but when Blaydes, a large man, speaks to me about it, he gets up out of his chair and comes over and watches me take notes, and when he thinks I'm missing something he repeats himself.  

"If you look at a map of the United States..." he says. He stops. He is holding the requisite map. I was not looking at the map. Oh, yes, I am now. He continues. "If you look at a map of the United States and you look at the trade patterns of the United States..."

I'm still looking.

"...we have reversed our major trade profile," he says.

Hmm. Interesting. He's talking about China and the Pacific Rim, all that, plus Mexico since NAFTA, and Canada.

"That means that the majority of the trade now is not coming east-west. It's coming west-east or south-north. Listen again."

I was not doodling, damn it. I was trying to get my ballpoint to work.

"Listen again. Canada. China. Mexico. Japan. That's where it's coming from."

I'm trying to squeeze in a few syllables of reportorial inquiry. "Ummm...southern Dallas, again?"

"Because of the types of ships being used to get those goods over here, they're too big to go through the Panama Canal, so we have two ports in this country that they could come through." Pause.

No, I don't know that one.

"Seattle or L.A./Long Beach," he said.

Seattle is closed in the winter. Trains from Seattle to the east have to cross big mountain ranges. L.A./Long Beach is open 12 months. Trains from L.A./Long Beach come through Marfa, through the Big Flat Empty. So huge amounts of Asian trade are now pouring up from Marfa right through southern Dallas, through a nexus with Interstate 35, which is the NAFTA highway, and on north toward the American Northeast and Canada.

While we weren't watching, not me anyway, while I was beating up on Blaydes over cemetery condemnations and worried about school district annexations, the entire pattern of North American trade shifted--this "river of trade" they talk about--and it washed right up into southern Dallas.

And this isn't all from Blaydes. Last week I also spent time with David Dean, the lobbyist who has helped Dallas and a number of other cities along this new route shore up their positions. Dean showed me an impressive array of independent findings from government and business groups documenting the same phenomenon.

Here is one indication of what's going on: Hanjin Shipping, a huge South Korean container ship company, named a recently launched ship the "Hanjin Dallas," because so much of its cargo winds up here. And nobody here even knew about it!

Another very impressive indication that it's not a pipe dream is the investment the Allen Group of San Diego has made in southern Dallas County in the last three years. The Allen Group, which specializes in railroad business parks, has amassed 6,000 acres--count 'em, 6,000 bought or buying, not just optioned--in southern Dallas and southern Dallas County in the last three years. We're talking about million-square-foot warehouses and bigger, stocking and distributing goods not to the region but to the continent.

And 6,000 acres! I measured it on Google Earth. That's an area equivalent to downtown, Fair Park, Old East Dallas and the M Streets.

I spoke to Richard Allen, CEO of the Allen Group, about why they're making this enormous play. He said, "Our decision to go to south Dallas County has everything to do with the trade routes, the NAFTA corridor, Interstate 20, I-45 going to the Port of Houston, the rail intermodals, the potential cargo airport. It's all about logistics, and the dynamics of that particular golden box that encircles our 6,000 acres. It's probably one of the best logistics locations in the country in our opinion."

So I asked him what he wants. What does he need? What isn't there that has to happen for all of this to work? He didn't miss a beat on that one.

"Obviously we've got 6,000 acres with no infrastructure," he said. "Right now we're buying farm ground. So to turn farm ground into industrial land with roads and highways and sewers and water and bridges, that's a huge undertaking. What we need and what the city of Dallas has stepped up and is working with us on is infrastructure."

Big infrastructure. Major investment in southern Dallas. And nothing to do with our century and a half of terrible racial history or the more recent politics of guilt.

It's a fascinating story. Blaydes is actually very compelling when he gets going on it. I don't have room to explain the rest of it here, including a very complicated global competitive aspect having to do with modernized seaports in Mexico and a competing "intermodal" facility in Kansas City. The bottom line is that we could actually blow this.  

We could lose it. It could jump around us and pass us by. And to prevent that from happening, to jump up and grab it, we all have to lift up a little out of our parochialism. Like me listening to Blaydes and taking notes. Like a lot of important things, it's not easy. But talk about worth the effort!

More on that cemetery deal later.

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