Imagination has long been a critical ingredient in the secret sauce that spawned the dynamic North Texas economy. It helped transform the Dallas Cowboys into America’s Team, with cheerleaders as marketable as players and a palatial stadium that has redefined the meaning of “big-screen TV.” It has shaped iconic gathering places from the corporate enclave of Las Colinas to the inviting streetscape of Sundance Square, and the one-of-a-kind urban green space that is Klyde Warren Park.
And in North Fort Worth, it turned thousands of acres of dry, hot Texas prairie into one of the nation’s busiest ports, far from any ocean or gulf.
Twenty-five years ago this month, Alliance Airport opened pretty much in the middle of nowhere—18 miles north of downtown Fort Worth and 20 miles west of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. But Ross Perot Jr. and his famous father had accumulated more than 10,000 acres as land prices fell in the 1980s, and had a vision for more when the Federal Aviation Administration approached them with the idea for a cargo airport to relieve pressure at DFW Airport. With a rail line and I-35W nearby, they saw unlimited potential to create an inland version of a seaport to serve the global economy.
Today, AllianceTexas stands as one of the most successful industrial developments in the country. Anchored by the airport and a BNSF Railway facility, where cargo arrives daily from West Coast ports for distribution throughout the United States, Alliance has attracted a host of warehouses, factories, and e-commerce fulfillment centers.
The numbers are staggering: 37 million square feet of space spread over 18,000 acres, 37,000 jobs, and more than $50 billion in cumulative economic impact, according to Hillwood, Perot’s development company. More than 100,000 people are living in the Alliance region of North Fort Worth on land annexed by the city that now includes shopping centers, a hospital, and apartments.
But when the airport opened, the surrounding fields were empty, and Hillwood had to drum up business.
“We were selling off of drawings and vision,” says Mike Berry, president of Hillwood Properties. “And it was pretty tough, because you had to really convince people in those early days that this could happen.”
The aerospace industry was initially targeted, with the belief that manufacturers could be lured next to the runway. Alliance won a new American Airlines maintenance base, then tried to convince Bell Helicopter to locate an assembly plant there for its novel V-22 tilt-rotor aircraft. But Bell chose Amarillo, which offered more incentives and a non-union setting. Later efforts to lure big Boeing and Airbus plants also failed.
The “game-changer” for Alliance would come on the rail side, when Santa Fe Railway (which merged with Fort Worth-based Burlington Northern to form BNSF in 1995) opened its intermodal facility in 1992. This new concept, developed with J.B. Hunt, involved moving trailers on trains over long distances and then loading them onto 18-wheelers for regional deliveries. FedEx put a hub at the Alliance airport, and big things followed: cellphone factories for Nokia and Motorola, huge warehouses for companies like LG Electronics and Nestlé. Nearby, Texas Motor Speedway was built and subdivisions took hold—including the upscale Vaquero on the old Circle T Ranch. Today, Alliance is “far bigger and far more diverse than anything we ever envisioned,” Perot says.
Even NAFTA, which the elder Perot famously criticized, has helped. Perot Jr. says his father was concerned about details of the pact, not free trade itself, and that “NAFTA has been positive for North America.”
He and Berry, who has spent the bulk of his career overseeing Alliance, say a key to the success has been staying open to new opportunities. As some operations have closed, others have opened, like a 1 million-square-foot Amazon fulfillment center last year. More recently, Berry’s team was prospecting to fill the American Airlines maintenance facility, which closed in 2013. “The market always has a vote on what you do,” Perot says.
And there’s another important lesson: Alliance couldn’t have happened without a big dose of government help—$55 million from the FAA to build the airport; millions more from the city of Fort Worth for roads, water and sewer lines, and other services; and funding for a state highway that cuts through the project. The development’s name is a nod to those critical public-private partnerships. “I think the public sector’s role in infrastructure is critical and will continue to be critical,” Perot says. So one of the region’s biggest job creators of the past quarter century was built with a foundation of public money? Imagine that.