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The Inland Port Files For Chapter 11, Which Doesn't Surprise Given The Economic Climate And The Political One (aka John Wiley Price)

Richard Allen may have put his Inland Port project in Chapter 11, but he isn’t giving up, despite the political and financial obstacles he faces.

So, that was why Richard Allen stood us all up at the altar a week ago. I think I feel...better. Strangely. It's kind of like: Good news, the groom's not dead. Bad news: The groom's not coming.

I got the answer to the mystery Wednesday morning when Allen confirmed to me that his company, The Allen Group, which controls the huge "Inland Port" freight project in southern Dallas, had filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy in federal court the night before. In my admittedly somewhat gloomy worldview, that counted as good news. I was predicting worse.

Chapter 11 is the "reorganization" type of bankruptcy in which the company lives. The same ownership stays in control, and hopefully everybody gets paid. But let's be frank: It's trouble.

The company is stepping under the court's umbrella to get shelter from debt. Creditors are protected too. The court makes sure everybody gets paid in the right order. It's a way to keep a greedy alligator from slithering in and gobbling up a weakened company while nobody's looking.

That was what I thought was about to happen. So, sure, use me as a barometer. If I predict damaging winds and basketball-sized hail, it's gonna rain.

Last week I was seeing some very bad weather gathering along this front. I covered one of the weirder public meetings I have attended in a long career of weird meetings—a public event put on by the Dallas League of Women Voters to discuss the Inland Port.

Inland Port is kind of a marketing name for an immense real estate development in southern Dallas County—high-tech rail yards and million-plus-square-foot warehouses. This is all about the flow of goods from China and the Pacific Rim to the heartland of North America and on into the immense markets of the American Northeast. Think in terms of gigantic ships disgorging mountains of containers in ports in California and Mexico, all of it hauled right here—to Dallas—on rail lines dating from this city's 19th-century role as a continental distribution hub.

The prime mover in all this has been The Allen Group, a family-owned company started by Richard Allen's father, originally in the Middle West, then headquartered in California, now here. It's a successful player in a global industry that calls itself "logistics," which I would have called shipping.

Allen came here because he looked at the map. He saw continent-spanning rail lines and highways converging in southern Dallas County. He did some research and found that the land in southern Dallas was undeveloped and relatively cheap, surrounded by a large, underemployed populace of potential workers.

Six years ago he sold off most of his family's holdings in California, came here and bought 6,000 acres. For southern Dallas, this should have been a kind of unearned grace. For the first time, southern Dallas had a shot at economic self-determination, freeing it finally from a century and a half of feudal dependency.

But as Allen has conceded to me ruefully, he should have thought longer about why land there is so cheap. I could have offered him a five-word answer that would at least have partially explained it. John. Wiley. Price. And friends.

Instead of welcoming Allen with open arms, Price, the powerful Dallas County commissioner from District 3 in the southern half of the county, has battled Allen tooth-and-nail over everything from bridge-building to state law, while friends of Price have pestered Allen to hire them as high-priced "consultants."

Consultants about what? These would have been consultants specializing in the area of how to avoid trouble with John Wiley Price. At one point, a group of would-be consultants even demanded that Allen give them an ownership share in his family's business.

Of course, here's the problem with that. This development offers 60,000 new, well-paid jobs with benefits and professional advancement. Southern Dallas staggers under an abysmal unemployment rate that dates back to Reconstruction. Normally you don't go in to a guy who may have a job for you and slap a list of demands on his desk.

In conversations with me but also in public statements on the radio and elsewhere, Price has derided wage-paying jobs as suitable for "slaves." He says the only thing that counts is ownership, and the way to get a piece of the pie is to trade political peace for it. No piece, no peace.

I sure was predicting something bad after I showed up for the League of Women Voters deal last week. I had been promised a panel discussion of the port featuring Price, Allen and a guy named Randall Romig, a member of the staff of the regional office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The panel was to be moderated by Kevin Krause, a reporter for The Dallas Morning News.

As soon as I got there, Katharine Homan, a vice president of the league, informed me that, unfortunately, Allen would not be able to attend. I wrote that down in my notebook.

 

Then she informed me that, unfortunately, Price also had to cancel. I wrote that down in my notebook.

Then she said she was sorry to have to inform me that, at the very last minute and as quite a surprise to the league, even the guy from the EPA had stood them up. I didn't bother writing that down, because I felt the moment called instead for a response of raised eyebrows and silence.

Speaking of which, Homan said she was happy to inform me that Kevin Krause of the Morning News was present and would still be serving as moderator. So, to paraphrase West Texas, this event was going to be all moderator, no panel.

I asked Mr. Krause if he would be doing both sides of the debate, possibly in voices. As in, "OK, this is Richard Allen: 'I came here six years ago because I saw a great opportunity in southern Dallas.' And then here is Commissioner Price: 'HOW DARE YOU? How dare you come into southern Dallas and tell us what our opportunities are?' And then here's Allen back..."

Krause did not agree to do it in voices, but he said he would try to reflect all sides. Eventually the league found two other people in the room who agreed to join Krause at the dais. I could recount the ensuing event for you, but why? I think you can guess how much got done.

Here's what worried me. For the previous month, I had been trying to track down rumors that Allen was going to sell his interest in the Inland Port. The most consistent rumor—replete with names and specific terms and conditions—turns out to have been utter bullshit. Welcome to my world. Almost every working day, I guarantee you somebody hangs up from a call with me, turns to a colleague and says, "Wow, I wonder what that guy's been smokin'?" Believe me, I wanted to be wrong.

It would have been a crushing disappointment to see Allen lose control of this thing, especially if, as I feared, it would have meant passing control to someone who would not have had the interests of southern Dallas first in his or her heart.

Do I mean that? Yeah. This is one of those rare stories so important and so meaningful in the lives of the human beings it affects that even an old newsroom curmudgeon can't be cynical. I want to see it happen.

In retrospect, I guess Allen did the best he could to signal to me what was going on. Right after the meeting when I called him to ask why he had walked on the league, he said he was in the midst of crucial negotiations with lenders and couldn't even leave the table to attend the league event.

I left messages for Price but received no response. I asked league officials what Price had told them. Former city council member Sandy Greyson, now president of the league, said, "It is because he's having this feud with Richard Allen."

A little bird at the meeting told me that the EPA guy didn't show because, hours before the meeting, an edict went out from the EPA's Department of External Affairs to the effect that no EPA personnel were to appear at the meeting.

I asked EPA spokesman David Bary why the agency had bailed. He said, "I am not sure of the timing of this. It was simply better to decline their invitation rather than have somebody speak who was not prepared to go into discussion at length about this issue."

Here's the bottom line on all this. I'm thrilled and we should all be thrilled that Allen, in spite of this setback, is still in the saddle and still determined to see it through, as he vowed on the phone when I spoke to him about the bankruptcy.

But Allen shouldn't have been in this spot at this point in time. He spent five years putting this deal together. He already had all of the local units of governments signed on dotted lines two years ago. He should have had at least a full year to sell his deal to clients and make money before the national economy went off the cliff.

Instead he spent that entire year fighting off John Wiley Price. In that sense, Price has won his pound of flesh. He has succeeded in slowing Allen down, weakening him and putting the entire project in some degree of clear peril.

This saga has significance beyond even this one monumental opportunity. Every investor with a buck to spend in southern Dallas will watch this story closely with a single burning question in mind: Why is that land so cheap? What keeps it cheap? What drives investment away?

 

I've got a five-word answer for you. Some day I hope I'll be wrong.


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