The Inland Port Is Still Screwed. Score One for the Perots.
I guess if you took a pickax and a fire hose to it, you could have dug out a little bit of the truth from this morning's City Hall briefing on the inland port, but you needed to have your tall rubber boots on.
Before we wade into the bullshit, please allow me to tell you what's really going on. The inland port is a huge trucking and rail development trying to turn southern Dallas into a national and continental hub for goods from China. In spite of a federal criminal probe based on his actions with regard to the inland port, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price is still jacking with it big time.
Two weeks ago I got a call from a very involved and informed person in a city in southern Dallas County telling me about Price's latest involvement -- an attempt to force through construction of a big water pipe to help a particular developer. The guy told me people down there are praying Price gets sent to the pen so they can get out from under his crap.
That's the background.
So this morning the city's economic development staff briefs a council committee on the latest haps. Right off the bat, on one of the first slides in their PowerPoint presentation, there's a huge red flag, which nobody even mentions. Let me give it to you first in bureaucratic pig Latin, the way they put it, and then I will try to translate it into Observerese.
The slide says: "A successful third phase of regional intermodal development (leveraging DFW Airport and Alliance) and is a key driver in making Dallas the nation's premier logistics and distribution center." Later on the slide show lists Hillwood, a company owned by the powerful Perot family, developers of Alliance, as a major partner in the inland port.
Actually that's not a red flag. It's a white one. It means Dallas is surrendering to the Perot family interests, who have always regarded the southern Dallas development as a dangerous competitor to their Alliance Logistics Center outside Fort Worth.
The original concept was that southern Dallas, at a crossroads of continent-spanning rail lines and freeways, had a natural edge over Alliance, which the Perots built in the middle of nowhere with their typical "build it and they will come" brashness.
The idea was not to line up behind the Perots and wait half a century for some of their extra peaches to fall into our basket. It was to beat them at their own game. Not now. Now, apparently, we have decided to lie down with the wolf.
Price, who is closely allied with the Perots, has fought long and hard to slow down development of the inland port, even though it is the single biggest economic promise ever to visit his own territory and constituency. Several of his allies in that effort have been called before a federal grand jury. His own offices and home have been searched by the FBI. The feds also have subpoenaed the records of Hillwood.
No indictments have been issued by the grand jury, but it looks like the Perots win, whether the federal investigation produces charges or not. It's a huge loss for southern Dallas -- for the whole city. We got swifted. So what else is new?
Price's best weapon in sabotaging the inland port was a call for additional planning studies. What's wrong with planning? Nothing, the first time you do it. The inland port's original developer, Richard Allen, had carried out five years of planning, signed off on by all of the local units of government. He was ready to start leasing and selling five years ago, before the economy tanked.
Price insisted on a do-over. What that meant was that nobody could sell space at the inland port to companies until the planning studies were redone. The clients were all going to say, "Wait a minute, you've got a big government zoning study going on that's going to change all the rules. We don't want to sign on any dotted lines until that's all settled."
And that's what happened. The stupid study is still ongoing. Allen is in bankruptcy. The inland port is stalled.
Perots one, Dallas zip.
One guy at today's city council briefing, city council member Jerry Allen -- no relation to Richard -- sort of nosed around the topic very politely and obliquely. He pointed out that Price's "infrastructure study" is not slated to be completed before 2013.
Karl Zavitkovksy, Dallas' economic development director, told Allen: "That one got delayed because of a lot of politics involving the Allen Group and the county. It was something that probably was delayed for about a year."
Try three years. Three years to get the study going, two years to do it, that's five years gone for the inland port.
Allen said, "Politics, sometimes that creates uncertainty for the private investors coming in. Have we got past the uncertainty? Do you see a clearer road where investors would want to come in, unlike Alliance that's more of a straight-up business deal?"
"This was a harder thing to manage," Zavitkovsky said. "I think we've gotten past that. All of the cities, Lancaster, Wilmer Hutchins, the county, actually Ferris got on board with this. I think there's pretty much a unified feeling in the sense that this is going to benefit everybody."
"Would it be fair to say," Allen asked, "that you feel like the majority of the uncertainty is behind us?"
"I think so."
Ha! Bullshit! I'm talking to those people in southern Dallas County all the time. They're begging for mercy. Price, who said this whole study thing was about rational planning, is showing up at their city halls before the study ever gets completed arm-twisting them to build stuff on behalf of individual developers.
Hey, commissioner? You want to challenge me on that? I'll be glad to bring some chapter and verse with me next time.
The message to would-be developers in the inland port is clear. The "infrastructure study" is a bullshit smokescreen. You want to come in here and do business? You're going to have to go kiss the ring of the commissioner, and if you wait too long you may have to get on his visitors list at the Big House. Try to be real careful how you handle yourself to be sure they'll let you leave.
And that's just the sort of miserable down-and-dirty details of it. Back away, take a bird's eye view of today's briefing, and you will see a picture on the ground that will make you cry. It's all about what could have been and is not.