Dunce Cap

So once in a while I don't get something just perfectly right-on, 100 percent gold-plate correct. So, sue...uh, cancel that. In a case where I have been less than totally right I need to provide...well, I'm still not going to call it a correction...elaboration. I'm not talking about actual factual errors. I mean more like not having provided the fullest possible context.

For example: I wrote a column recently ("Cash Money," September 21) in which I suggested that an enormous rail yard and a nearby 6,000-acre commercial real estate development had sort of appeared as if by magic wand--boink!--out of nowhere and overnight in southern Dallas.

"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," I wrote. "We didn't do squat to bring it here."

Well, wouldn't you just know. Apparently vast rail yards and 6,000-acre commercial developments do not just pop up out of nowhere. There's a bit more to it.

The point of my earlier column was that southern Dallas--long neglected and ignored because of racism and the push to develop the north--suddenly now is at the epicenter of a tripartite continental rail and truck commerce between Mexico, the United States and Canada. And I admit I did take it for an example of opportunity knocking in spite of the best efforts of local government and local business leaders to bar the door.

So what was missing from my scenario? Aha! I was writing about the sequel, but I had skipped the prequel. I thought this all started about two years ago. Last week I spent some time talking to two people--one a local political leader and the other a real estate guy--who have been on this case since the mid-1980s.

Together they saw the whole thing almost happen once before and then crater. They suffered many false starts. But they stuck to it anyway, and that is a whole lot of why it's happening now.

Mike Rader, the principal in Prime Rail Interests, a commercial real estate company in Fort Worth, began focusing on southern Dallas as an international "intermodal" rail and truck hub fully 10 years before passage of the North American Free Trade Act: "I've been interested in that area probably since about 1984," Rader told me last week.

Even pre-NAFTA, Rader saw the right ingredients--a confluence of interstate highways and rail lines, availability of cheap land and proximity to workforce. All of this was within the reach of local governments with the means to provide the roads, bridges and other infrastructure industry would require.

"Over a period of time I figured out that none of the big boys were going to come down there and try to make anything out of that area, which is the best logistics location in all of North Texas," he said.

Rader, who thought the big boys in Dallas were missing a sure bet, found an ally in Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price. Price cut his political teeth back in the late 1970s fighting for black communities in southern Dallas County where people were still living in Post-Reconstruction Era peonage without public water, sanitary sewers, paved streets, curbs or sidewalks. Price has argued ever since then that southern Dallas and Dallas County need an economy, but they can't get one without infrastructure.

Price saw a good bet in Rader and went to work putting together the public money and commitments Rader needed to back up the big deals he was pitching to companies such as FedEx, Burlington Northern and Union Pacific. Now that it's all finally happening after two decades of false starts and disappointments, each man tends to credit the other.

"Mike Rader could have taken his money and run," Price told me on the phone last week. "Mike has been the single person who has stayed hitched. I can be the best damn road-builder in the world, but if I don't have a developer to stay hitched with me with the commitment on the land, it doesn't make any difference."

I asked Rader about the common perception that outside interests have to pay a certain "toll" to local officials lined up with their hands out in the south.

"The only toll I had to pay was what I had to do in buying land and the time and energy spent in trying to bring some development there," he said. "There have not been handouts. I have never been asked to deliver a handout.

"It's been very cooperative from the people there in Hutchins and Wilmer looking for and desiring some economic development. All of them have been very positive. Commissioner Price has been very positive. Congresswoman [Eddie Bernice] Johnson was very positive. Everybody has been supportive of the effort to bring economic development there."

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze