In the ongoing debate about economic growth and equity in the lead-up to Fort Worth’s June 5 mayoral runoff between Deborah Peoples and Mattie Parker, there is one area where they agree: education.
“Every single student deserves access to quality education in Tarrant County,” says Parker, founding CEO of Fort Worth Cradle to Career, a nonprofit designed to ensure all children have access to quality education, and the Tarrant To & Through (T3) Partnership, which aims to ensure more students have the training needed to thrive in today’s workforce. “And until we take that responsibility seriously, our economic development efforts will continue to stall. But the good news is, there’s answers here.”
Peoples is on the same page: “I’m a big believer in public education because I believe that’s where our next workforce is coming from. Eighty percent of the students in Fort Worth ISD are students of color. So, I think we need to be education focused.”
But when it comes to economic development, the two candidates often part company. Their comments quoted in this story are gathered from statements they’ve made in various public forums while campaigning for the runoff.
Parker, 37, is a former chief of staff to Mayor Betsy Price and the city council and in that role promoted efforts made in Stop Six, the North Side, Ash Crescent, Rosemont and Como. She cites a Fort Worth program that annually selects a Neighborhood Improvement Zone for special attention as an example of the city’s efforts to encourage development. The criteria for determining the neighborhood selection include median household income, poverty rate percentage, unemployment rate percentage, percentage of population without high school diploma, substandard structure violations per year, crime and other factors.
Peoples, 68, who recently stepped down as Tarrant County Democratic Party chairwoman and has made inclusivity a major theme of her campaign, has called those efforts mere “lip service.”
“You can keep talking about these things, but we haven’t seen our leaders do anything about them,” Peoples says. “There are areas in East Fort Worth, there are areas in North Fort Worth, there are areas in South Fort Worth that have historically been systematically left out of the equation. And until you get a leader who is going to focus on those areas and stop spouting platitudes about what we need to do … we’re going to see those communities continue to suffer, and not thrive. My plan is to look at those specific under-utilized neighborhoods and focus on them. And you won’t hear me spouting statistics. You’re going to see me hands-on in the community, working with the Black Chamber, working with the Hispanic Chamber, working with the Asian American Chamber, to make sure that we’re providing those opportunities.”
Peoples believes she can do this well because she has the “lived” experiences as a person of color.
Economic development is crucial to improving city services as a whole, most experts believe, because luring more business to Fort Worth can create a more dynamic, more sustainable tax base – the consensus being that the city has relied too heavily on residential property taxes and needs to generate more revenue from commercial property valuation.
In 2017, the city took a cold, hard look in the mirror at the effectiveness of its economic development strategies and, along with TIP Strategies created an Economic Development Strategic Plan. The plan aims to establish Fort Worth’s competitive edge by making the city a hub for creative business and ensuring community vitality. If successfully implemented, the result should be high-wage job growth; a more sustainable tax base driven less by residential property valuation and more by commercial and industrial investment; an economy that capitalizes on high-growth businesses and the creative individuals who fuel them; and a commitment to quality of place throughout the community.
As the COVID-19 pandemic began to take an economic toll on the city in 2020, Mayor Betsy Price established Fort Worth Now as yet another tool in the city’s economic development tool belt. Fort Worth Now is an economic recovery and growth task force headed by JPMorgan Chase’s Elaine Agather and business leader John Goff. The program was designed to aid businesses impacted by the pandemic and to help attract more high-profile corporations to the city.
The 2017 look at the city’s economic development issues noted that the city’s ability to attract business and industry had not kept up with the city’s booming population trends. Throughout the mayoral campaign, Parker has pointed to a dreaded data point: Only about 190,000 of Fort Worth’s nearly 1 million residents both live and work in the city.
The rest commute out of the city, many to the archrival metropolis to the east, but many more to its suburbs in Frisco and Plano.
“We’re a thriving economy, the fourth-largest metro in the country,” Parker says, adding that “it makes sense people will commute across DFW for work and live in Fort Worth,” but saying she believes the city needs to “focus on doubling” the number of residents who live and work in the city.
Peoples has touted her 30 years at AT&T as a corporate executive and as the only candidate with an MBA (Parker has a law degree) as evidence that she knows what business wants – a diverse workforce.
Parker points to some areas of economic development in the city that work – and to some areas that need work.
“We have to enhance our infrastructure and support for small businesses and entrepreneurs,” she says, adding that it’s also imperative to adequately support the businesses that are here now. “We have fantastic examples. Things like Tech Fort Worth are on a shoestring budget, that are really creating the next level of biotech entrepreneurship in Fort Worth. You need an incubation system that works, you need innovation that works. We lose young talent every single day, to go to cities like Denver, or Miami, or Austin because they feel supported. You also have to include access to capital. An early stage capital to start your business and be successful. I’d be a huge proponent of capital funding here.”
As far as young workers who want to move here to climb the corporate ladder, Parker says, the city needs more than the West Seventh Street corridor as an entertainment district. “The joke when I moved here with my husband … was, ‘I’d hate to be single in this city.’ Those are conversations we have to have in Fort Worth, to have a thriving workplace, and a place that people want to live, work and play.”
Parker has said now is the time to act aggressively in attracting new business in the wake of COVID, which can be an opportunity as business and industry reevaluate every facet of how and where to operate.
“We need to be telling our story,” Parker says. “It’s not going to be by the mayor. The mayor can help assemble the bench, but it’ll be business leaders who are already well connected to open those doors.”
Parker also noted that there are companies who already do business in Fort Worth who are looking to relocate headquarters here. The city needs to “roll out the red carpet,” she says.
As far as incentives – rolling out the red carpet, per se – Parker says there’s plenty of room for conversation on those, but “we aren’t even in the game.”
Peoples wants a close examination of corporate incentives.
“One of my top priorities is making sure we use smart incentives – no more abatements that give away the store – to attract job creators to Fort Worth and unlock the economic benefits to be found in our underserved communities,” Peoples says. “The city should not be paying a company to mainly create jobs outside the city when we have so many qualified residents who could benefit from these new jobs.”
The runoff election for mayor and for council districts is June 5. Early voting begins May 24 and runs through June 1. For more information, click here.