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Dallas' Inland Port of Gall

I write a lot about how the city, Dallas proper, needs to defend itself against the suburbs. Sometimes I feel as if we are an urban Jerusalem surrounded by Nebuchadnezzar and all his Babylonian, golf-playing horde.

But lately I'm wondering: Who's the horde? Them or us?

I'm talking about this "inland port" thing, but please put that term out of your mind, because it doesn't make any sense. How can there be a port in Dallas? How will the ships get here? Won't it scrape all the paint off their bottoms?


inland port

They already do get here. Sort of. Look, it's not something any of us can grasp easily, because it's so new and beyond our ken. Trains haul shipping containers here from Pacific Coast ports and the Port of Houston. The containers are hoisted onto trucks in Dallas and then hauled to the Northeast or to warehouses the size of small towns in southern Dallas and Dallas County.

The bottom line is that this new "logistics" industry could make Dallas the biggest shipping center on the continent.

I know. Who knew?

There are other spots around the nation where this operation could develop instead, and some of them already are being developed in competition with this one. The one reason for it to be here is Richard Allen, a shipping magnate from California.

Allen came here five years ago, looked around, said, "This is it," and bought 6,000 acres in southern Dallas County. If this is it, it's because of him.

I wrote about this whole thing November 13 in a column called, "The Big Stall." I said Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price and Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert are working together to screw up and sabotage the inland port in ways that would seem to benefit the Ross Perot family, which owns a directly competing shipping facility in Tarrant County around their privately owned Alliance Airport.

The Perots are not the bad guys here. They're just pursuing their own interests. Ross Perot Jr. calls the southern Dallas inland port a "direct threat" to the shipping center his family has developed at Alliance.

The problem is the mayor of Dallas and Commissioner Price. They should be fighting for the interests of their own constituents. Instead, they are pushing for land-use studies and rules and enforcement for the Dallas inland port, all of which threaten to stall the inland port and turn the advantage toward the Perots at Alliance.

I suggested in my last column about this that Leppert and Price have joined in a kind of sicko good-old-boy embrace: They want to help a well-connected local family ward off competition from an outsider, even if it means screwing their own constituents.

As if to prove my point, Commissioner Price called me the day after the story came out and accused me and Allen of being "carpetbaggers."

I moved here from Detroit 30 years ago. I checked with my wife that evening. She's a Dallas native. I asked how long I'm going to be a carpetbagger. She said until I die. OK, so I give Price a point on that one.

But he also was calling Richard Allen a carpetbagger, a point he made again in a letter to the Observer. "The only thing worse than a carpetbagger is a convening or collaboration of the same," he said in the letter.

Carpetbagger? This guy is trying to change southern Dallas from an impoverished Third World slum into a boomtown.

I need to say right here that John Wiley Price's position on this is not universally shared. A couple weeks ago I attended a breakfast meeting of the Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce at which Richard Allen was the featured—and, I must say, honored—guest. The proceedings opened with an invocation in which the pastor called on the deity to bless Richard Allen.

Then Allen was introduced by John Ellis Price (no relation). This Price is vice chancellor of the University of North Texas over the new UNT southern Dallas campus, where he is developing a whole "logistics" curriculum to prepare students for management positions in the industry expected to spring up in and around the Allen Group developments.

Vice Chancellor Price opened by making sure everybody in the large audience understood that his relationship with Allen is more than professional. Speaking to Allen, who was standing at his side, but also to the audience, Price said: "On my most recent visit to California in October, I had a chance to meet you and members of your family and friends. I had an absolutely delightful time."

Vice Chancellor Price said he spent part of his time driving Allen's vintage pickup on the streets of San Diego. Then he launched into a description of the Allen project and what it promises:

"The 6,000-acre master plan with 60 million square feet of distribution, manufacturing, office and retail development is slated to become one of the biggest economic engines for northern Texas," he said.

"The Dallas Logistics Hub is projected to create 31,000 new direct jobs, plus 32,000 new indirect jobs. The hub also expects to increase the tax base for the municipalities of Dallas, Lancaster, Wilmer and Hutchins by $2.4 billion. The economic impact of the facility, construction and employment for operations within the hub from 2006 to 2035 is projected to be $68.85 billion dollars."

He was addressing a well-dressed, snappy-looking crowd of about 100 business and professional people who had been clinking their breakfast plates up to that point. But when he started ticking off those numbers, you could have heard a pin drop. Every face turned upward, as if to a trumpet fanfare from on high.

The inland port area is at the southwest corner of the intersection of Interstate 20 and I-45 and includes a goodly portion of Lancaster, a city of approximately 35,000 souls 12 miles south of downtown Dallas in southern Dallas County. Lancaster, a sleepy hick town 20 years ago, is now an upwardly mobile bedroom community with a population that's about half black, according to census estimates.

The night before the Oak Cliff Chamber breakfast, I attended an evening workshop session of the Lancaster City Council. They were debating whether to participate in the "master-plan" project that Leppert and Commissioner Price are pushing for the inland port area.

You have to know the dodge here. Allen Group has already done $6 million worth of planning for its own project. Various local and regional governmental agencies have shelves overflowing with plans already completed for everything from water to roads in the area.

Now, just as Allen Group is ready to open its doors for business and start selling and leasing warehouse space, John Wiley Price and Tom Leppert come along and say they need 18 months to do more planning.

Allen says top potential clients already at the table, companies like Target and Walmart, won't ink deals if unresolved planning and political problems are still hanging fire, especially given Dallas' history of trying to create new supervisory "districts," authorities and rule-making bodies for the area.

Meanwhile, Allen's pain is the pleasure of the well-connected Perot interests, who threw a closed-door Christmas party for Leppert last December in Ross Perot Jr.'s penthouse atop the W Hotel.

Commissioner Price called me another time specifically to deny any connection with the Perots or that he wants to delay or injure the inland port in any way. It's a claim that flies in the face of a clear trail of evidence.

In May 2007, Price tried but failed to delay creation of a foreign trade zone at the Dallas inland port for a year, specifically so that a Perot-owned property could be added to it. In June of this year he tried but failed to stall construction of a bridge badly needed to make the inland port viable.

I have been making Public Information Act demands for correspondence and documents on this topic. One letter—a mere sample of what I'm seeing—tells it all. Two years ago Commissioner Price wrote to Richard Allen expressing contempt for the thousands of jobs promised by the Allen Group project.

"During slavery everybody had a job," Price told Allen.

Commissioner Price has his history wrong. No slave had a job. That was the problem.

Price also said to Allen, "I am fully cognizant of the notion that Southerners are slow and incapable of keeping pace." Is that really how Dallas talks to outsiders willing to invest new money in our community?

Seems to me Dallas has one set of rules and one kind of manners for the local good old boys, another set for outsiders. Wouldn't that make us the hicks?

At the Lancaster workshop session I attended, city council member Todd Love said he thought the call for more planning was a subterfuge: "I want to understand this, because I smell something," he said. "It seems to me that this is a competition, and the competition is between Alliance Airport and our new opportunity here."

Councilman Love said the call for yet another study was a threat to the success of the inland port. "This has put an air of uncertainty over this and has hamstrung and hampered the development community from going forward."

Finally Love said what you'd expect to hear, it seems to me, from an elected official anywhere in or near southern Dallas or Dallas County.

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"I am not interested," he said, "in anyone coming and getting our nice little golden goose that lays the egg. They've already got geese that lay their eggs. I want to see ours flourish, and I want to see it flourish now."

The Lancaster council wound up voting to table consideration of the plan. My own counting of heads, based on what each council member had to say, led me to believe a majority of them favor the plan but were willing to wait a few weeks and think about it.

You know what else about the Lancaster City Council? It's about half minority, with a membership that ranges from young to senior. I am going to guess and peg economic status at middle and above. Every single one I heard speak was head and shoulders over most of the Dallas City Council in terms of sharpness and business sophistication.

I thought they were the hicks and we were the cosmopolites. Could the contrary be true? Knock me over with a feather. Maybe I have misspent my life. How much are golf lessons, anyway?

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