CONSIDER THE BATON PASSED. TWENTY years from now, Fort Worth will no longer dwell in Dallas’ shadow, Cowtown is fast becoming a boomtown, and soon it could be bigger geographically and stronger financially than its neighbor to the east. The chief architect of the plan that will bring about this power shift: Ross Perot Jr., the 37-year-old son of Dallas’ most famous billionaire.
Physically, the younger Perot doesn’t much resemble his father. Sure, he wears an EDS-appropriate wardrobe with the HRP monogram stitched into his starched white shirt, but Perot Jr. is taller, his voice is deeper, and his barber-shop clip is longer and more stylish. He doesn’t speak in corny sound bites, and he must have inherited his ears from his mother. But what Perot did inherit from his father is his mythic concept of the American dream, symbolized by the Remingtons and Rockwells that decorate the lobby of his Hillwood Development Corp. in North Dallas. On the walls of his office are several maps of America’s Western frontier from the country’s Manifest Destiny days, a time when people believed the West was where both individual prosperity and the future of the nation would be found.
But the biggest map in Perot’s office is not of the Louisiana Purchase; it is a wall-size aerial photograph of the greater Dallas-Fort Worth area. “The cities are so economically intertwined,” he says, annoyed that some perceive the success of his Alliance Airport project in Fort Worth as threatening to Dallas. “Dallas-Fort Worth is one city of 4.2 million people. What’s good for Fort Worth is good for Dallas and vice versa. There isn’t anybody of any substance that worries about city rivalries.” Perot’s properties comprise much of the upper left-hand quadrant of the map. They are centered around Alliance Airport, which straddles the Tarrant-Denton county line. Behind his desk is a photo of its runway at dusk. Facing the picture, you are looking toward the airport itself, which lies just over the western horizon. Go West, young man.
That’s where Perot is hoping to realize his American dream with Alliance, which is the first airport of its kind built from the ground up solely to serve industrial needs. Designed to lure corporations heavily dependent on cargo transportation, it sits adjacent to space reserved for manufacturing plants and distribution warehouses. It has no passenger terminal, but it does have a runway long enough to accommodate the largest jets, which can fly fully loaded non-stop to Asia. Alliance will make north Fort Worth a sort of inland port.
In all, Perot’s land holdings in the area total 20,000 acres and represent almost $2 billion in both private and public investments. Operational since 1989, the airport already has brought in more than 7,000 jobs and given $1 billion to Dallas-based contractors and sub-contractors. It is the second-largest ongoing development in the country, built on land that just 10 years ago was little more than unincorporated prairie. “Imagine a line that runs from DFW airport through Love Field to downtown Dallas. Then go up the Tollway to LBJ and back across to DFW,” he says. “Imagine developing all the land in that triangle. That’s how big this project is.” Investing heavily in the last significant chunk of undeveloped land in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Perot has established himself as Texas’ top real estate tycoon-poised to make hundreds of millions of dollars.
Though Perot has done business for his dad in the past, he is running the Alliance project independently and, he says, with little funding from his father. With this airport, built atop land that was once a part of the Chisolm Trail, Perot Jr. is venturing away from the nest to pursue his own fortune. Still, when it comes to the art of a deal, he is vintage Perot. A former Air Force pilot who co-piloted the first round-the-world helicopter flight, Perot Jr. attacks his business objectives with a military proficiency that starts with intensive planning and ends with efficient execution. And he has a knack for communicating his vision to others. With Alliance, he was able to sell dozens of investors and public officials alike on a major development that was completely speculative.
IT ALL BEGAN IN THE EARLY 1980S WHEN, hoping to find the next North Dallas, Perot bought 2,500 acres just west of IH-35W and south of what has become state Highway 114. At the time, he wasn’t sure what he would do with the site, but he believed in its potential because old rail lines ran nearby, and good roads connected it closely to DFW airport, downtown Dallas and, just 15 miles away, downtown Fort Worth.
The idea for Alliance emerged in late 1986 when the FAA, looking for land for a new airport to complement DFW, contacted Perot, who then began quietly buying up more of the surrounding land. He donated some of it, including the 418 acres where the airport sits, to Fort Worth. The city, in exchange, provided his property with basic infrastructure, such as sewers and fire protection. In an unprecedented 18-month burst of activity, Perot’s proposal for an industrial airport won approval from the FAA, environmental agencies, the city council, and Congress. He also convinced utility companies to extend their services to the area.
Fort Worth ultimately annexed 7,000 acres, enough land to allow for a 9,600-foot runway-soon to be expanded to 13,000 feet, making it about as large as DFW’s longest runway. Because of its extraterritorial jurisdiction that allows the city to annex even more land, the acquisition makes Fort Worth capable of almost doubling its size, to about 500 square miles. (Dallas, land-locked by suburbs, covers about 380 square miles.) Growing in area bits at a time, Fort Worth can gamble conservatively on the sustainable growth that the city believes Alliance will produce.
“We made it easy for everyone,” says Perot. “We were the marketing force and we did all the engineering for them, so it was never a public works project. There were no public dollars at risk. They could really only benefit.”
The airport was completed six years ago, only three years after the idea’s inception. Since then, corporate investors have steadily planted operations there. First, Perot and his business allies persuaded American Airlines to build a $481 million maintenance facility at Alliance, which also became the new base for the Drug Enforcement Agency’s fleet of 44 planes. And Santa Fe Railway, without solicitation from Perot, built a $100 million rail yard next to the airport where trucks and trains can exchange cargo. That rail access then helped entice Ford and Food Lion to construct major distribution centers there. Nestle also has a new distribution facility sitting on 45 acres of the Alliance development, and Federal Express has built a $300 million air freight center even closer to the airport itself. To further attract companies, Perot built speculative, state-of-the-art warehouses.
And so came companies such as Zenith, relocating from Chicago, and cellular phone giant Nokia, who will employ 2,000 at its Alliance site. These companies can take advantage of Alliance’s foreign trade zone, one of the largest in the country. In lobbying for the 2,000-acre zone, which allows companies with manufacturing plants located within it to import materials and export finished products tariff-free, Perot Jr. publicly espoused the benefits of the North American Free Trade Agreement at the very time his father was leading a national effort to throt-tle NAFTA.
About 2.5 miles north of the airport, racetrack mogul Bruton Smith is building a $75 million, 200,000-seat NASCAR oval that he promises will be the envy of the auto racing world. “This will bring all the heads of the auto industry to see us, and ideally that would bring in an auto factory,” says Perot Jr.
Alliance’s alluring amenities are not limited to commercial benefits. Surrounded by a diverse array of suburbs and neighborhood developments, Alliance offers conveniently located housing for everyone from the warehouse worker to the CEO. Many of these neighborhoods Perot is developing himself, with exact specifications designed to keep the area thriving decades down the road. For example, the new highways, which have been an instrumental part of the package, were built with extra-large medians, allowing room for expansion from two to seven lanes in each direction. And because the state mows those medians only once a month, Perot has hired mowers for the period in between to make sure the grass always looks perfect. The little niceties can count for a lot when trying to sell a company on the holistic ideal of Alliance, which is why Perot keeps buffalo and longhorns grazing on some of the property and requires builders to plant at least two trees on each residential lot. He also encouraged Fort Worth to pass ordinances that will prohibit billboards in an attempt to prevent the roadsides from becoming eyesores as growth continues.
“This place will be right for a long time,” Perot says. “We’ve made sure it will always be a place where people will want to live.” So far, it has been just that. The Perot community of Park Glen is a leader in home sales in Tarrant County. A sort of neotraditional suburban Utopia larger than the Park Cities, it will eventually encompass 8,000 homes. The neighborhood is connected to the2,000-acre Circle T Ranch Perot acquired at a bargain price from oilman Bunker Hunt. The ranch will be re-landscaped to include parks and walking trails. And on a small island in the middle of Lake Turner, a “downtown” village, complete with an ice cream shop and baseball fields, will give many families a reason to take a weekend stroll.
Of course, what is a vision to Perot seems like a delusion of grandeur to some, and these critics accuse him of controlling Fort Worth with puppet strings. While Perot may not run the city, he does pretty much have free reign, as his investments have made Fort Worth officials his biggest cheerleaders. During the late 1980s, 90 percent of all the building permits in Fort Worth belonged to Perot Jr. And Fort Worth, not wanting to bite the hand that feeds it, has done its best to protect his interests. For example, Dallas city officials were furious when a Fort Worth assistant city manager encouraged the suburb of DeSoto to expand a landfill near the spot in southern Dallas County where Dallas was trying to build its own cargo airport. Because landfills attract large birds, thus making it unsafe for planes, Dallas accused Fort Worth of trying to sabotage the project to prevent competition for Alliance.
But while Fort Worth politicians may be looking to better their longtime rival, Perot, with his sense of Manifest Destiny, ignores any divisiveness between the two cities. “We bring a net gain to our whole region,” he says. “Economic benefit does not stop at city limits or county lines.”
And, by avoiding political bickering, Perot has circumvented most bureaucratic speed bumps. Recognizing that public agencies are overworked and understaffed, he believes cities should outsource more and let private industry do the work for them. “With massive consolidation, you can pool your resources and cut the overlap,” says Perot Jr. Minus the homespun wit about cleaning out the bam, he sounds a lot like Perot Sr. delivering an oration on efficiency.
But ever the real estate pioneer, his future hopes lie further over the horizon-in developing countries. Several foreign nations have approached Perot about building industrial airports in their cities. Many of these cities are surrounded by undeveloped (and inexpensive) land. It’s fertile ground where Perot can replicate the Alliance Airport prototype, turning virtual wasteland into a major gold mine.
It took Perot just a few years to build the world’s first industrial airport from scratch, and in the process, he learned to create, and then sell people on, those high-paying, high-skill, blue-collar jobs and white-collar manufacturing positions that built America 100 years ago. If Perot has learned anything throughout his life, it’s that the American dream can be a profitable venture.