High Noon in Sundance Square: Reata’s Micallef takes a stand

Mike Micallef (Photo courtesy Reata)

Mike Micallef, an expert bass fisherman and a mild-mannered entrepreneur, stood tall Wednesday on ground once trod by the likes of Butch Cassidy – and he looked a lot like a Western movie gunfighter.

Using the patience and wit it takes to land a big fish, Micallef put on his cowboy hat, strapped on his six-shooters (symbolically speaking), held a news conference instead of a Main Street duel, and announced March 30 that his iconic Western restaurant, Reata, will most likely pull up stakes (steaks, too) and move from Sundance Square.

Unless ….

Unless the management of Sundance Square will negotiate with him on a new lease. His lease at Reata’s current location, 310 Houston St., runs out in 2024 and Micallef said his inclination to leave was spurred by the unwillingness by the Sundance folks to meet with him – plus what he believes to be exorbitant parking fees recently put in place.

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This is High Noon, Part Two: The Sundance Prequel with a hearty nod to 1952 movie classic High Noon starring Gary Cooper as dauntless Old West Marshal Will Kane – one man standing alone in the face of danger.

In this case Micallef is standing up against Sundance Square management and ownership to say he is an unhappy tenant looking for a new location. He is unfortunately speaking for several business owners with offices and retail space downtown who have been complaining for at least a couple of years but do not dare to speak out on the record.

There are constant references to fear of retribution when Sundance tenants air their complaints. This self-imposed silence and fear is perhaps the worst aspect of the controversy – Fort Worth, Texas, a city where no one dares speak out about problems?

WFAA-TV Channel 8 produced an excellent story about the Sundance Square turmoil. One of the more chilling quotes in the story was this:

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“WFAA spoke to nearly a dozen current and former tenants who shared concerns about management. All declined on-the-record interviews, citing concerns of retaliation from management.”

It should be pointed out that no examples of retaliation were offered.

Sundance Square is 35 blocks of downtown Fort Worth real estate owned by Ed and Sasha Bass. Both Sid and Lee Bass, two of Ed’s brothers, exited the Sundance partnership and sold their interests to him and his wife. The concept for Sundance was eldest brother Sid’s idea and he put the plan together back in the early1970s. It was his brainchild and it developed into a unique and classy urban development, admired by many cities across the country. It came to epitomize Fort Worth’s motto of “Cowboys and Culture,” with its reference to famed Western outlaws and rascals, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, juxtaposed with the addition of a small, world-class art museum, The Sid Richardson. Sundance Square set the tone for the entire city. Today it is dotted by vacant storefronts and is the subject of intense controversy.

Earlier in the year a website listed 40 occupied spaces and 47 vacant ones.

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Critics say that if there is a vision for a newly imagined Sundance Square, they do not see it. The management often ignores media questions about future plans or about the rifts that have developed between the ownership and retailers, office tenants and assorted downtown advocates and boosters.

Amid these complaints and fears, Micallef brought the aura of Gary Cooper/Will Kane to the heart of Sundance Square.

Here is an online description of High Noon:

“… Will Kane (Gary Cooper) is preparing to leave the small town of Hadleyville, New Mexico, with his new bride, Amy ( Grace Kelly), when he learns that local criminal Frank Miller has been set free and is coming to seek revenge on the marshal who turned him in. When he starts recruiting deputies to fight Miller, Kane is discouraged to find that the people of Hadleyville turn cowardly when the time comes for a showdown, and he must face Miller and his cronies alone.”

Absent the gang of invading outlaws, Micallef is dealing with the discontent in Sundance Square practically alone. He seems more than equal to the task.

Tall, handsome and with a welcoming smile and almost laconic demeanor, Micallef at first glance would seem an unlikely combatant in this fight. That is as opposed to his father, Al, who had the initial idea for Reata and is a larger-than-life, cigar-chomping figure, a longtime risk-taking entrepreneur. They make a formidable team of contrasting personalities.

Mike, 46 years old, is almost perfect as a front-of-the-house personality greeting folks in an aw-shucks manner and making them feel at ease and comfortable in his restaurants. He is also a go-getter who has worked hard to branch out and build the brand. He often shows up on Facebook smiling, holding a large bass he’s caught at Possum Kingdom. As busy as he is, it’s a wonder he has time for a hobby.

Micallef has shown a willingness to mix it up and fight while others are standing in the shadows complaining about Sundance management. Now he has threatened to leave in what was an expertly choreographed announcement on Wednesday. The story about his desire to move was first leaked to Channel 5 to be broadcast between 4 and 7 the morning of the announcement. Then came a 10 a.m. news conference at Reata to detail his plans and concerns.

He has already made his point about tenant unhappiness at Sundance, and he made it with a bang. A restaurant closing or moving these days is hardly big news. About 90,000 restaurants nationwide have closed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. But Micallef turned his decision to abandon a location he has occupied for two decades into front-page headlines.

Any number of downtown businesses and Fort Worth residents worry and fret about the future of Sundance Square. Often, the important discussions about what lies ahead are bogged down by personality conflicts and rumor-mongering on Facebook and other social media.

At the heart of the matter is this: Sundance Square, all 35 blocks of it, is privately owned and the landlords can do what landlords usually do. They set the rules. If folks don’t like it they can, like Micallef, leave (or threaten to leave).

Two news stories have given the best overview of the situation. One is the WFAA story; the other is the Fort Worth Business Press March 21 cover story by senior reporter Marice Richter, who detailed a fight between Downtown Fort Worth Inc. and Sundance management that led to the city’s first-ever public duel between competing arts festivals. How silly. Here’s an excerpt from Richter’s account:

A disagreement erupted earlier this year over a Sundance Square proposal to replace Sundance Square landscaping with its own new design.
Sundance Square officials asked the board of the city-run Public Improvement District to formally adopt an informal arrangement that allowed Sundance management to maintain landscaping within its property. Sundance management hired an arborist to create a sample of their preferred design.
But the board rejected the proposal in favor of maintaining a unified downtown landscape design under the management of Downtown Fort Worth Inc.
Shortly after the landscape decision, Sundance Square officials announced they would operate a separate art festival in the Sundance Square Plaza during the Main Street Fort Worth Arts Festival, which is run by Downtown Fort Worth Inc.
Downtown Fort Worth Inc. officials said they offered to pay full rent for the plaza to incorporate the space into the arts festival but the offer was rejected.

The Sundance controversy is a public relations disaster in the making for a city that has become the 12th largest in the country, has a vibrant, energetic, smart 38-year-old mayor, Mattie Parker, and a world-class arena, Dickies, bringing national attention and envy.

The problems for the city of Fort Worth are bigger than personality disputes. It is difficult for the downtown business district to remain vibrant and attractive when a key component, Sundance Square, appears to be in decline and drifting, with no direction home.