Could South Dallas County become home to one of the world’s largest factories? Developers and local officials recently learned electric-car manufacturer Tesla is checking out an area known as the Inland Port as it considers where to build its battery plant.
The industrial development, 20 minutes south of downtown Dallas, can feel like a world away.
Less than a mile from Interstate 45, corn ripples in the hot summer breeze. Hay fields grow green with recent rain. Small homes -- some of them vacant -- dot the landscape.
Developer Mike Rader turns his Chevy SUV onto Pleasant Run Road, as he surveys property near the towns of Wilmer and Hutchins he began buying up 30 years ago.
“This is a new company coming in to do some kind of an oil product. A small business,” Rader explains as he points out a construction site in the midst of undeveloped farm land.
Rader’s Prime Pointe investment group now owns 4,000 of the 77,000 acres that make up the privately-owned industrial area called the Inland Port.
In the past decade, it’s become home to large distribution warehouses for some of the country’s best-known brands.
“We’ve got Corporate America here,” Rader says as he ticks off some of the companies: Kohl’s, Quaker Oats, L’Oreal, Unilever, Procter & Gamble and Georgia Pacific.
Rader believes the secret to success for this generally impoverished part of Dallas County is something he recognized decades ago: it’s a natural transportation hub.
The so-called Inland Port, which isn’t on a waterway and doesn’t have a port-authority, sits within four miles of three major interstates: I-35, I-45 and I-20.
With Rader’s urging, Union Pacific nine years ago built another facility that’s a key selling point -- something called an intermodal terminal.
Every day, a steady stream of 18-wheelers bearing the names of international shipping companies like Yang Ming, Hapag-Loyd and Hanjin pass through the Intermodal gates.
Inside the rail yard, cargo containers that arrived by train are hoisted onto the trucks in a smooth operation that takes just 30 to 90 seconds. Intermodal lifted more than 300,000 containers last year.
The trucks then hit the highways, taking the goods to nearby distribution centers and other destinations.
“What we’re trying to do down here is build a port that distributes goods throughout the Southwest,” says Guy Brown, the economic development contractor for Hutchins.
He says the recession brought growth to a standstill in 2008. Now, the phones are ringing.
“We’ve had more interest the past 12 months than we’ve had in the last five years. We’re talking about large companies,” Brown said.
And one of the largest? Tesla, the electric car maker that’s scouting a location for its gigafactory, which is expected to hire 6,500 employees and produce 500,000 lithium-ion batteries a year by 2020.
Brown says just having Tesla check out the Inland Port is a big deal.
“The Tesla project would be the largest new industrial project in North America this year. It would have a profound impact not only on Hutchins but the entire North Texas area,” Brown said.
There is, of course, stiff competition. Tesla is reportedly looking at locations in Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico. Some consider San Antonio the favored location in Texas.
But Rader, the developer, isn’t deterred. He’s shifted into sell mode.
“The key things we have are the logistics with the interstates and rail systems," he said. "We have an abundant power supply here … great for manufacturing, technology companies, computer companies.”
Rader isn’t concerned about the North Central Texas Council of Government (NCTCOG) infrastructure assessment in 2012 that found the Inland Port has the basics for growth but needs more of everything: additional water, sewer and roads.
He says the city of Dallas, the county and the Council of Government have signed on to a plan to build infrastructure as it’s needed.
And for a big customer?
“We can deliver. It can definitely come together for everybody for a big manufacturer,” Rader said.
With or without Tesla, Rader sees his 30-year vision for some corn fields and vacant land coming into focus.
“Basics are done," he said. "Now we’re going to see it roll out.”