The Dallas City Council approved a no-bid real estate deal with a former city employee for a development at Dallas Executive Airport, despite concerns from some council members that the deal has unsavory overtones.
The project, approved with an 8-7 vote, awarded to Rodney Burchfield, a former employee with the city’s economic development office, extends for 39 years and 11 months, with three automatic ten-year extensions.
Burchfield, with capital from several prominent Dallas investors, will build a $15.9 million hangar space, assisted by $7.6 million from the city’s aviation department for taxiway improvements and part of the building.
The two-hour debate Wednesday was impacted by the news that the council on April 25 will consider implementing a landing fee at Dallas’ Love Field Airport, influencing traffic that will likely look for a new place to do business.
That place, city leaders hope, will be Executive Airport.
The proposed landing fee, which would apply to general aviation that includes transport jets but not commercial traffic, had not been widely divulged.
“This looks like a secret deal that was given to someone with connections to the city and then backfilled with this policy change…” council member Philip Kingston said.
Proponents of the deal insisted it is a key part of developing the historically depreciated and ignored South Dallas region.
Burchfield “took advantage of an opportunity,” said council member Dwaine Caraway. “Other people could have done it and they didn’t.”
Added member Lee Kleinman: “When you are voting against this project, you are voting against further development in southern Dallas.”
The landing fee would impact general aircraft which includes private jets and transportation airliners. General aviation traffic is down two percent in the current fiscal year, according to Love Field statistics. General traffic was also down slightly last year, after a four percent increase in fiscal year 2016.
Traffic seeking to avoid the landing fee would consider new options. Among them, a newly lengthened runway on the west side of Executive Airport.
Several council members wanted to put the project out for bid, unsettled by the insider status of Burchfield and the somewhat secretive general aviation fee.
Burchfield, who was with the city from 2009 to 2015, comes to the deal with financing and a tenant who is seeking new digs after a jump in his rent at Love Field.
In an interview with The Texas Monitor earlier this month, city aviation director Mark Duebner said his department has invested in Executive Airport with the expanded landing strip. He believes the proposed deal with Burchfield — who worked with Duebner at the city — is a good move for the city.
“All we’ve been doing is investing in this airport, as we believe the proximity to the downtown will make it the go-to airport with great facilities,” Duebner said.
He did not mention the proposed landing fee at Love Field.
Dallas Executive Airport struggles to compete with smaller airports in Addison, Arlington and McKinney, none of which have a landing fee.
Grand Prairie’s airport has a landing fee for turbo and prop jets. Fees are based on loaded aircraft weight. The proposed fee at Love Field is $5.08 per 1,000 pounds. At Grand Prairie, that fee varies by weight between $4.57 to $6.86 per 2,200 pounds.
The public had no idea of the proposal for the landing fees at Love Field, noted council member Scott Griggs, nor the disgruntled tenant. Apparently, Burchfield did know, though. He said that now, with more knowledge of the situation — a tenant seeking a new place, a landing fee that could send more traffic to Executive Airport — the idea of building at Executive Airport would be more attractive to other developers.
The tenant, Griggs said, “is only known by the landlord at Love Field, which is the city of Dallas…[and is] unhappy with the rates at Love Field. The general public doesn’t know that. This deal also makes a lot of sense when you move the tenant from Love Field to Executive Airport, but that’s not known to the general public. The right way to do this is to put this out for a competitive bid. Let the public know that we are going to increase the general aviation landing fee at Love Field and have a long-term strategy to drive traffic to the west side of exec airport, and we put this out for bid.”
Duebner told the council that the fee had been mentioned in a meeting of the city’s Mobility Solutions, Infrastructure and Sustainability committee at one point.
“Part of what we’re concerned about is the pushback from the general aviation community at Dallas Love Field,” he said. “But we haven’t seen very much pushback, so we’re moving forward and putting it on the on council agenda.”
Even if Burchfield was tipped off to the deal, it’s still a good deal for the city, one council member said.
“Yes, he maybe had some information that gave him a good idea and so forth,” council member Rick Callahan said. “But he’s a pioneer, he’s going out to do something that really nobody else has done. He had a good idea and if it’s his good idea, why does he need to go out and compete against other bidders when it was his idea?”
Finally, Mayor Mike Rawlings said there is no need to go out for a bid.
“This process was public, everybody in town knew that we were taking all bids and comers for Executive Airport.”
Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].