It is a fall weekday in the AllianceTexas area of northeast Fort Worth.

Along I-35W, commuters might see one of Amazon’s 18 daily flights into or out of Fort Worth Alliance Airport and moments later brake to let one of the e-commerce giant’s blue delivery vans merge into traffic.

Statistically, people are even more likely to see a plane landing or taking off with FedEx’s purple and orange branding as, according to a spokesperson, the multinational conglomerate now has 190 flights per week at the airport.

Out of sight from the interstate, but just three miles to the west, is the BNSF Alliance Intermodal Facility. There, railroad tracks connect Fort Worth directly to the Port of Los Angeles. More than 1 million cargo container lifts were performed at the facility in 2020, per officials at Hillwood, the developer behind AllianceTexas.

Together, the airport, the intermodal facility and adjacent roads and highways—most prominently I-35W—comprise what Hillwood leadership calls an “inland port.”

According to a forecast report by Adobe Analytics, the online retail holiday season in the U.S. is expected to top $200 billion in sales for the first time this year. That shift in consumer habits, paired with the inland port infrastructure, have helped make space in AllianceTexas more sought after than ever, according to officials with Hillwood. That demand is underscored by an economic impact of $8.24 billion and $273.6 million paid in property taxes in 2020, according to an AllianceTexas fact sheet.

Joining Amazon and FedEx in close proximity to the inland port are distribution and fulfillment centers for UPS, Walmart, JCPenney and Callaway Golf, among others. This year, Hillwood announced groundbreakings on three large speculative industrial buildings—spaces developed without a specific tenant—totaling more than 2 million square feet. Officials for the development team say they are confident those new buildings will fill fast.

“We’re in the most rapid expansion period that we’ve experienced in the history of AllianceTexas on the industrial side,” Hillwood Senior Vice President of Industrial Development Reid Goetz said. “The demand has accelerated faster than we can even continue to build [speculative warehouses].”

Airport origins

Where today there is rapid growth in AllianceTexas, in the mid- to late-1980s there was mostly just open space. That is, until the Federal Aviation Administration decided it would eventually need an airport in north Fort Worth.

According to Bill Burton, executive vice president for Hillwood, the FAA approached the Perot family about acquiring part of its land in the area for the reliever airport. Burton said Ross Perot Jr. envisioned more than what the FAA had in mind.

Perot Jr. reached out to contacts in other industries, Burton said, and from those discussions decided there was demand for what would become known as an industrial airport—or an airport focused on cargo and corporate services as opposed to commercial passenger travel.

The city of Fort Worth became a partner, and the airport opened in December 1989. The name Alliance was coined to reflect the public-private partnership among Hillwood, Fort Worth and the FAA.

“I mean, the entire project started with the airport—and then it evolved, clearly, into a lot more,” Burton said.

In 2020, Alliance Airport received planes carrying nearly 1.7 billion pounds of cargo. That is a 63.8% year-over-year increase and ranks 23rd among all cargo airports nationwide, according to the FAA. That figure includes more than just the cargo of regular customers such as Amazon and FedEx, too.

“We do a lot of ad hoc cargo,” said Chris Ash, senior vice president of aviation business development. “In my time here, I have moved planes, cars, a train car, racehorses, elephants—you name it, we’ve seen it.”

Transformation and attraction

Before Robert Sturns was the economic development director for the city of Fort Worth, he was a student at Eastern Hills High in Fort Worth in the 1980s. He can recall making the drive north to Denton over the years and passing through the area that has become AllianceTexas.

“It’s almost kind of hard to keep it in perspective,” Sturns said, reflecting on the transformation.

Sturns’ role with the city includes attracting firms and talent to Fort Worth, so the elements AllianceTexas bring to it can be helpful, he said.

“When we’re talking about selling the Alliance area [to businesses] ... we lead a lot with the aspects of having the airport and having that rail capacity [near] the location,” Sturns said.

Because of that, the role of the rail yard looms large. Ash said several trains arrive each day from the Port of Los Angeles with ocean containers loaded with cargo.

“From [the intermodal yard] ... they can continue on to their final destination locally by semi-truck to a distribution facility; they can continue to their final destination via long-haul trucking ... or they can go to another train and be shipped out farther out east to the Northeast,” Ash said.

Another attracting factor for the Alliance region, Hillwood officials say, is the Mobility Innovation Zone—or MIZ. The MIZ refers to infrastructure present within AllianceTexas for partnerships geared toward testing, scaling and commercializing technologies related to mobility.

Ian Kinne, the director of logistics innovation at Hillwood, said that means there is an emphasis on thinking about what comes next.

“A lot of the Mobility Innovation Zone effort is, really, how do we meet the infrastructure needs of tomorrow?” Kinne said.

Because of the MIZ, testing regularly occurs within Alliance involving drones and autonomous vehicles, according to Kinne and Ash. A handful of companies are focused on autonomous trucking.

AllianceTexas may have started with the airport. But Hillwood officials say 62,767 jobs are located in AllianceTexas as of 2020, and 533 firms are doing business within the development—and there is more in the works, according to Goetz.

“It’s both a combination of ... new companies coming into AllianceTexas and also significant organic growth of the ... companies that are already within Alliance today,” Goetz said, adding, “We’re going to continue to attract world-class companies.”