Friday, July 13, 2012

Our Airport's Idea Should Never Fly

It's baaaack.

Plans for a new mixed-use development on the sprawling grounds of Dallas - Fort Worth International Airport.

"So what," you say?

OK, so maybe this doesn't compete for significance with Ralph Lauren's uniforms for the US Olympic team being made in China.  Or with a staffer in Barak Obama's re-election campaign recklessly calling Mitt Romney a felon.

But if you ever fly into or out of what we call the "Big Airport" - DFW - then you might end up paying for this project.

It was 2007, and construction cranes were swinging over brand-new building projects all over north Texas.  People were joking how those tall steel cranes had become the unofficial state bird, they proliferated so throughout the horizon.

Apparently feeling left out of all of the excitement new office buildings, hotels, retail centers, and restaurants can bring, even though they were building a monstrous new international terminal and hotel complex themselves, executives at the Big Airport decided they needed one of those hip new urban lifestyle centers.  An office tower or two, a couple of high-rise hotels, an open-air shopping center, and trendy restaurants sprinkled throughout.  Some extended-stay facilities and even private apartment buildings were probably in the mix, too, although they weren't going to be the big draw.

Airport officials said they needed to provide air travelers with something to do while they waited for flights.  They said they had so much land just sitting idle, they felt like they weren't being good public stewards.  After all, they can only tack on so many revenue-generating fees to airplane tickets and reservations at the hotels and car rental firms already operating on the airport's property.  With this new urban village on the fringes of their mighty runways, they could raise more money to maintain the airport and fund future expansions.

Nothing came of those grand plans then, but now, the airport is dusting them off, and mulling the options for jump-starting things by building a new administration headquarters for themselves.  Southgate Plaza, as their dream development is called, could become reality in as little as two years.

Except that the airport's charter says it's supposed to be an airport, not a real estate developer.  Granted, inside each of their terminals, they already rent space to restaurants, coffee shops, newsstands, and other traveler-oriented businesses.  The airport also operates two high-rise luxury hotels adjacent to two existing terminals.  Very little of what they're proposing to incorporate into their new project will be a new form of business for them.

But should the airport be in business to basically poach business from other local businesses?  Think about it:  the reason restaurants and hotels already exist on the airport's property involves their proximity to travelers.  It's a convenience issue as well as a security issue, especially since only ticketed travelers can access any of the restaurants.  Nobody complains about the amount of retail, restaurant, and hospitality business the airport currently does because it doesn't really take any customers away from other for-profit and taxable businesses outside of the airport.

And the word "taxable" is key here.  All municipalities derive significant operating funds from sales taxes.  With DFW, it gets a little tricky, since the airport is a complex organization controlled to varying degrees by several municipalities, from suburban Grapevine on its western side to Fort Worth, whose city boundaries were intentionally gerry-mandered to reach the airport's grounds when it was being built, and Dallas, which is miles from the airport.  Indeed, federal legislation was necessary to get Fort Worth and Dallas to jointly lead the venture of constructing what was, when it opened in the 1970's, the world's largest airport.  It's still a large airport, both in terms of geographic size, and in terms of the number of passengers, daily departures, and every other airline industry metric.

We sure don't call it the "Big Airport" for nothing!

Indeed, it boasts two main entrances, one at either end of a long, broad parkway which connects all of the various terminals.  A recently-completed people-mover system, which replaced the antiquated and unreliable original, makes getting around the airport a breeze, especially if you don't have a car.  Crime is low at the airport, and practically invisible to most travelers.  It's not as clean as it used to be, but then again, most travelers today aren't as clean as they used to be, either.

It all makes for a fairly engaging package, as big airports go, which is why the airport's executives think a glorified shopping plaza will work on their grounds.  And they've got plenty of room for it.  Acres of natural woodland spread across their property's southern flanks, along a major freeway which runs between both Fort Worth and Dallas, as well as between two other perpendicular freeways.  As the Realtor's mantra goes, "location location location" certainly fits the site upon which airport executives want to build.

But even if travelers need more dining, retail, and hospitality options on the airport's property, and even if people planning on flying out to glamorous destinations like New York or Hawaii or London want to spend an hour or two before their flight browsing some chain stores just inside the airport's perimeter, can't you see the flaws here?

First, although the sales taxes collected would go to the airport, they're already proposing an increase of the fees they tack on every hotel stay and rental car at DFW.  Those new fees will pay for that deluxe new headquarters building of theirs designed to anchor Southgate Plaza.  Does anybody really think the airport board will get rid of those fees when additional revenue from sales taxes start rolling in?

Will it be a cash cow for the airport anyway?  Plenty of restaurants and hotels already line the freeway outside its doorsteps, both to the north and the south.  And plenty of private land is still available for development, which means the retail, restaurant, and hospitality market is not yet saturated around the airport.  Shouldn't the airport, as a public entity, wait for the free-market dynamics available to private property owners to get exhausted before they copy such development on their own land?

And speaking of land, how do we know that at some point in the future, the airport won't need this land for further development of its core competency:  air travel?  Might it need this land for longer runways?  More radar and communications installations?  Maybe even a new mass transit depot?  Or more stringent security measures?

Back in 2007, when I learned of their original plans, I raised a bit of a stink with a couple of local politicos I know, and at least one fairly influential leader came forward as being staunchly opposed to the project.  I know, because he e-mailed me.  Another leader vowed to fight for new rules to try and mitigate the impact such a project could have on other cities around the airport.

Then the economy tanked in 2008, and brand-new shopping plazas were left half-built or half-empty across north Texas.  Even today, retail construction has yet to bounce back, although both Fort Worth and Dallas have built brand-new high-rise luxury hotels for their convention centers.

Which brings up another question:  how much more airport-centric lodging is needed?  Don't travelers prefer staying near their destinations anyway?  Who spends their vacation at the airport?  (By choice, anyway?)

If Southgate Plaza gains any traction, perhaps our region's power brokers will force some concessions that will address the sales tax issue and the poaching of customers from other businesses already located around the airport.  But even the airport's idea of building its own brand-new headquarters to consolidate functions currently scattered throughout multiple buildings reeks more of bureaucratic boondoggle than sound quasi-government policy.

Doesn't blaming inefficiencies on geographic distance in today's era of communication technologies sound more like a leadership problem than an administrative one?

I don't see how adding more fees for the traveling public to pay - so airport bigwigs can play real estate developer - will help solve anything.
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