Dallas Leaders Walked Arm-in-Arm with John Wiley Price in the Betrayal of Southern Dallas
Richard Allen saw the destiny of Dallas in lines on the land. Dallas couldn't see it.
You could almost forget about the indictment last week of Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, put it out of your mind's eye, not even think where it will end and better spend your time thinking about trucking. It's the more compelling story.
Logistics is the business of taking cargo off ships, putting it on trains, taking it off the trains and putting it in warehouses, storing it and sending it where it needs to go. It's enormously technical and computer driven. Richard Allen is the head of one of the world's premiere logistics companies.
At some point before 2000, Allen looked at a map of the United States and a pattern leaped out at him like Peruvian Nasca lines etched in the surface of the planet, visible from 30,000 feet up but unknown to the people who plod across it every day. What Allen saw was a pinwheel of highways and railroad lines spinning out across North America with a central hub in a place he had never thought of before called southern Dallas.
That pattern was a gigantic skeleton of 19th century trade routes. The creation myth Dallas likes to tell itself for some bizarre reason -- how it was established in the middle of nowhere for no good reason but made it anyway, sort of the plucky nitwit theory of our origins -- has always been nonsense. Dallas was settled at a confluence of Indian trade routes that hardened into roads. Daguerreotype pictures in the Dallas Public Library Texas and Dallas Collection made before the Civil War show wagon trains loaded with goods stretching over the horizon, leaving Dallas bound for Mexico and the Southwest.
After the Civil War when North Texas became the world's biggest cotton producing region, those roads hardened into highways and rail lines. Dallas continued to be a major continental shipping hub into the second half of the 20th century, until trucks running helter-skelter on freeways blew up the old hardscape infrastructure of shipping by making it irrelevant.
But at the end of the 20th century with fuel costs pinching hard, trains came back into vogue; Richard Allen looked at a map; and there it was still, the bone structure of a continental shipping hub based in southern Dallas.
There was a rub. The North Texas region already had a major logistics center at Alliance, the freight airport developed by the powerful Perot family near neighboring Fort Worth. But Allen viewed Alliance as in the wrong place, stuck up in a corner of the region, underserved by rail and freeways, a kind of monument to the Texas "build-it-and-they-will-come" mentality. His thinking was, "Yeah, but build it where they already are, and you'll do way better."
He checked land costs. He couldn't believe it. Land in southern Dallas was almost free by the standards of Southern California, the Chicago area and other places where his company operated. And southern Dallas suffered from huge long-term unemployment. He wrongly and naively interpreted that as a large available workforce.
In the late 1990s he came to town silently, as one does when one wants to buy a lot of land, and by 2005 he had put together 5,000 acres in southern Dallas and Dallas County, enough to form the nucleus of a 60-million-square-foot warehousing center that he believed would become the largest on the continent, providing between 40,000 and 60,000 jobs.
In 2006 Ross Perot Jr. told a luncheon of the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce that Allen's planned development in Dallas was a "direct threat" to Alliance. Especially in the wake of the Price indictment last week, the Perot position on the Dallas Inland Port has been seized by some observers as proof of a conspiracy in which Perot used Price to sabotage Allen's project. There is already stuff being written about why the Perots aren't in trouble with Price. We'll see. Story not yet told.
But for conspirators they sure were obvious about it. As far along as 2008 the Perot-owned development company, Hillwood, was talking pretty damn frankly and pretty damn publicly about not wanting Dallas to steal a march on them in gobbling up scarce public infrastructure dollars. They told me they weren't afraid of Allen as a business competitor, but they were concerned about Dallas going down to Austin and diverting a lot of public dollars from them, especially in highway money. That wasn't business, they said. That was politics. And they didn't intend to lose at either one.
David Pelletier, Hillwood's director of corporate communications, said to me in 2008: "Our point is that at Alliance we have 30 million square feet developed and 29,000 employees. Alliance is a proven commodity. Our point is, let's finish Alliance, extend the runway to where it needs to be extended to, get the rail infrastructure completed, the highway infrastructure completed before we start spending infrastructure dollars on a project that hasn't really proven itself yet."
That was fully three years after Price had begun his very open campaign to slow down the Inland Port in Dallas. Price, too, was right out front about it, openly fighting to delay a key decision on granting Allen an important free trade zone, fighting to slow down a crucial bridge construction project, insisting that Allen's five years of planning had produced nothing worthwhile and that the process needed to be started again from scratch -- a deftly planted poison pill where potential buyers were concerned.
In this effort the leadership of Dallas walked arm-in-arm, shoulder-to-shoulder with Price. Before the Perots targeted the Inland Port, Dallas City Council members Sandy Greyson and Bill Blaydes had championed the Inland Port at City Hall, putting together a stunning string of national and international agreements to guarantee its growth. After the Perots called foul, the port project was snatched away from Greyson and Blaydes and turned over to Mayor Tom Leppert and council member Ron Natinsky. From that point on Dallas' treatment of Allen turned into a jail-yard beat-down.
Allen even took it in the gut from the city's only daily newspaper. When he refused to give away a slice of his family-owned company -- give it away -- to a group of Price associates in exchange for political peace, The Dallas Morning News in an editorial used dog-whistle terms to paint Allen as a racist:
"Going forward, white-dominated companies must keep foremost in mind the unique history of southern Dallas," the paper said. "It is not simply a great business opportunity to be exploited for maximum profit."
Even the paper's respected and normally evenhanded reporting staff picked up the theme that Allen was somehow the bad guy. In a story under the shared byline of political columnist Gromer Jeffers and county reporter Kevin Krause, the paper reported as simple fact that, "Allen, who is white, appeared blind to the county's complicated racial politics."
Strange if true, given that Allen has operated all over the country and has never been accused of being blind to anybody else's complicated racial politics -- never. Then again, maybe our racial politics really are more complicated than everyone else's, a thought that should keep us awake nights.
In the decade that has been lost to the Dallas project, the Perots have been successful in attracting billions of dollars in public infrastructure to their project and the region around it. They said they would do it. They did it. Is that a crime?
The Inland Port, meanwhile, languished through the tough economic downturn but did not die. Allen's basic insight, after all, wasn't going away. Those lines are still waiting there in the surface of the earth, as if drawn by messengers from the past trying to tell Dallas about the future. The port may happen anyway, but only after Allen was put into bankruptcy and only after a full decade was lost.
A person close to all of it who would speak to me only without attribution said yesterday, "What about the decade of kids growing up in South Dallas who didn't get those jobs, who didn't have the future that would have meant for them? You can't get that back, either."
The federal prosecution of Price, who is accused of taking bribes, will proceed, and we will learn a lot more about all of this as it does. But even without the trial, if Price never had been indicted, Dallas would have tough questions to ask of itself. In fact, I think the city's betrayal of itself in the Inland Port project is way more difficult to fathom and more interesting, in a terrible way, than any criminal conspiracy could be.
In what started out as a fair fight between two competing business ideas -- one enormously promising for Dallas, the other for Fort Worth -- why did Dallas leaders go in the tank, take a dive, throw the fight? The Perots are a powerful Dallas family, but their project, Alliance, is in Fort Worth. Why wouldn't Dallas have stood up for Dallas?
We can't paint the abandonment of southern Dallas as racist, exactly, because of Price's role in helping to abandon it. Price is an especially edgy piece of the puzzle only because he's black, and black leaders are supposed to fight for the economic interests of their constituents. But what about white leaders? Allen's concept would have been hugely beneficial to all of Dallas, not just black southern Dallas. What was the white people's excuse?
I've known Price for a long time. I look at him sometimes, and I don't see a black guy anyway. I see a Dallas guy. He's a typical Dallas guy who worships money. He loves the thrill of the deal. He thinks of hardworking pluggers as just shy of losers and worse. In 2008, when I asked him how he could oppose something that promised so many jobs in southern Dallas, he told me sneeringly he associated labor with slavery.
In fact he put that thought in a letter to Allen. "During slavery," he wrote, "everybody had a job."
Put it in writing. That proud of it. That may be a cynicism so profound that it transcends race, or descends it. I wonder sometimes. If all anybody really believes in is the big money and the fast deal, is there no one left out there to believe in the city?
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