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

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.

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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

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