Flying Right

It must have seemed to Robert Crews like that old joke by mystery novelist Kinky Friedman: Whether you're going to heaven or hell, you always have to change planes at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Crews knows of the special purgatory that is DFW.

For years, he always wanted one thing: to own and operate his own chain of bookstores, Benjamin Books, within the confines of DFW International Airport. It seemed at the beginning like such a simple, perfect, and obvious proposal. How could a man fail by giving weary travelers a place to read, drink coffee, sip wine, even shop a little on their journeys between here and there? After all, it had already worked for Crews, who had more than a dozen airport-based bookstores around the country by the end of the 1980s -- including one at DFW.

As long ago as November 1993, even the DFW board thought it a flawless idea, made even better by the fact that Robert Crews is a black man. Talk about killing two birds with one lease agreement: Fill the airport's corridors with a handful of bookstores, and fill the board's minority-owned business requirements with an African-American on his way up.

Crews' was such a good idea, it took only six years, a $17 million lawsuit, thousands in legal fees, and a warehouse full of court documents to come to fruition.

Finally, according to a settlement reached in May, Robert Crews is getting what he wants, what he was promised by the DFW board in November 1993: a fourth store in the airport and a long-term lease. That, plus hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue.

Two years ago, Crews sued the DFW board for $17 million, claiming board members and airport staff misrepresented the availability of space in his lease and wrongfully forced him to take on minority partners (previously the subject of a Dallas Observer cover story, "Is this anyway to run an airport?" on May 28, 1998). But all is forgotten, if not forgiven: The settlement compensates Crews for $500,000 in business losses and releases him from any partnership requirements.

He also was given space for a fourth store -- and without having to pay the space-acquisition fees normally forked over to the airlines to release the property. He also received a five-year extension on his lease of three existing stores, plus the new location.

"We are one of the unique tenants" at the airport, Crews says. "One of very few tenants with a store in every terminal."

Crews started his business at DFW with one store in 1988. As the second-highest-grossing store in the airport, Benjamin Books emerged as a leading contender for the airport's new affirmative action program, which was created in 1993 to increase minority businesses at the airport. Crews, a New Jersey businessman, was the first to take advantage of the program by signing a six-year lease that promised him a 2,000-square-foot expansion on his original store and three new stores. In exchange, he would take on a board-approved minority partner.

After the lease was signed in November 1993, Crews expected construction to begin immediately and be completed within months, but he discovered he had to pay hefty space-acquisition fees to the airlines. Then he was told by the airport's staff that the space had already been re-leased.

In the meantime, Crews tried to fulfill his end of the leasing agreement by finding a minority partner. When he contacted prospective partners suggested by the board, only two men responded -- both investors in the airport and direct competitors. Dissatisfied with his search, Crews selected two black men, Gerod Anderson and Joe Epps, in 1996.

The airport staff and board objected because Anderson wasn't investing money directly; DFW officials threatened to evict Benjamin Books. When Anderson and Epps agreed to pay $10,000 each, the board decided not to cancel the lease.

But by 1997, Crews had only half of what the airport had promised him, and he was four years into his lease. He had two new stores -- both of which opened a year and a half late. He had lost $500,000 in revenue on the fourth store, and he was unable to expand the original store by 2,000 square feet.

Crews tried to discuss these unresolved issues with board president Betty Culbreath and airport President Jeff Fegan, but was turned away. Crews saw no alternative but to enlist the services of attorney Kenneth Walker and sue for $17 million.

"Before we even filed the lawsuit, [the idea] was to solve it without filing the lawsuit," Walker says. "All along the way we pushed for settlement, but we couldn't get them to take settlement seriously."

As the parties were preparing to go trial in January, Crews, airport board members, myriad airline representatives, and their respective lawyers sat down in a conference room. After 12 hours of mediation, they drew up a rough draft of the settlement. It would take five more months of negotiations to iron out the settlement's specific terms.

"We didn't know why he sued," Culbreath says. "The claims were not true. No one discriminated against Mr. Crews or did anything to harm Mr. Crews to my knowledge."

Crews insists the legal battle hasn't hurt his business or his relationship with DFW. He says that he has had offers from Marriott and other "big dogs and cats" to buy his Dallas "territory," but that he hasn't begun to consider their offers. But if he sells his business within 18 months to a board-approved third party, he will receive an additional $250,000, according to the settlement.

"If he moves on, he gets an additional song," Culbreath says. "That was the incentive to get him to move on. If he chooses not to sell, then he stays with DFW. We see him just as a businessman. We don't have no special dislike or no special love."

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Elisa Bock

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