Dallas' Subsidy for Vintage Airplane Museum Could Total $8.7 Million

Dallas City Council members were treated to the Commemorative Air Force's cinematic masterpiece "If These Planes Could Talk."

There are known knowns about Dallas Executive Airport. These are things we know that we know. One of the known knowns, courtesy of Dallas City Council member Tennell Atkins, is this: "We know that Dallas Executive Airport is an airport."

Another known known is how much the city of Dallas pledged to lure the Commemorative Air Force and its collection of vintage WWII warbirds to Dallas Executive: $8.7 million in grants, plus generous rent breaks, provided the group builds a museum and meets certain other benchmarks.

There are also several known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. Like whether the CAF will in fact deliver the 60 full-time jobs and $36 million boost to City Hall's bottom line over the next two decades like Atkins and the city's economic development staff are predicting. Or whether CAF's arrival will be the thing that pulls DEA, formerly called Redbird, out of the red ink its been drenched in for years. Dallas Aviation Director Mark Duebner would only say that DEA will be in the black "as soon as possible."

The CAF's move to Dallas was announced in April. It was touted by Mayor Mike Rawlings as an economic game-changer for floundering Dallas Executive, which has yet to quite shake its "Deadbird" (rhymes with Redbird) sobriquet.

The details of the incentive package for CAF, which has been headquartered in Midland since 1991, were kept under wraps until a City Council committee briefing this morning. The full council will still have to approve the package.

Under the deal, CAF's move will happen in several phases, each of which will trigger an infusion of city money. A $200,000 grant, scheduled to be awarded by the end of 2015, will come after the organization has signed a 30-year lease, moved eight of its 162 vintage WWII aircraft to Dallas Executive, and created/transferred five full-time jobs to Dallas. A year later, the city will hand over $400,000 once CAF has brought over a ninth aircraft and created an additional 20 jobs at Dallas Executive. By the end of 2018, if CAF has brought over more people, it will get an extra $100,000.

Most of the city's incentives are reserved for CAF's construction of a museum. The group will get $2 million once it builds a $5 million, 35,000-square-foot hangar/museum building, expected to open by the end of 2020. Five years later, it could get another $6 million for constructing a $25 to $40 million museum expansion and permanently basing "Fifi," a B-29 superfortress that is the crown jewel of CAF's fleet.

Rent will be a modest $1,000 per year unless CAF fails to meet any of the above benchmarks, at which point it will balloon to $120,000 per year.

"The way this has been laid out is, if they don't deliver, they do not get the grants," said Assistant City Manager Ryan Evans. "It's a situation where they have to meet the terms before they get one penny, and we'll have another layer on top of that that says if you do not meet the terms of the agreement we'll also have an increase in your rental payments."

The only serious pushback came from council members Scott Griggs and Philip Kingston, who quizzed city staff on the CAF's potential impact on neighbors, many of whom are upset that they've been shut out of the planning process for an airport expansion.

Atkins, DEA's top backer on the council, interrupted Kingston as he pressed for a straight answer on whether CAF would move to DEA with a less generous subsidy, which set off a brief argument and prompted Kingston to decry the secrecy that has surrounded Dallas Executive improvements.

"This is disrespectful and not transparent and you have been not transparent with the neighbors in the area," he said.

Atkins eventually relented and allowed Hammond Perot, an economic development staffer, to field Kingston's question. "No, sir," he said.

Whatever objection neighbors might have about having extremely loud antique warplanes coming and going next door could be solved, Duebner suggested, by "explain[ing] the value proposition to neighbors about having [CAF] at airport."

Councilman Jerry Allen suggested they sit back and enjoy it, because America.

"My daddy was a tail gunner and I hear those planes and what I do is I go outside and look at 'em. Other people might find them to be an irritation. But I don't. That's just my two cents."

Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.

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