2014: The Business Forecast: Economic Challenges

Scott Nishimura and Jack Z. Smith Special Projects Reporters

Improvements in public education and the need to develop a trained, skilled workforce top the list of challenges facing Fort Worth and North Texas in 2014, according to business and civic leaders asked to evaluate the area’s prospects for sustaining the economic growth and progress of recent years. Other key needs, leaders say: • continued expansion of the region’s transportation infrastructure to keep pace with commercial and residential growth; • meeting the ever-increasing demand for water resources to support economic development. • School district responding The Fort Worth Independent School District is responding to the challenges it faces and has set the stage for significant changes in a district where inconsistent student performance has been a nagging concern. FWISD voters approved a $490 million bond package last fall that calls for more classrooms and better security as well as a downtown academy dedicated to science, technology, engineering and math; a performing and fine arts academy; and laptops or tablets for high school students. Also on tap: new student desks, band uniforms, musical instruments and athletic facilities. Earlier in 2013, members of the community recruited three candidates who won seats on the nine-school member board: Jacinto Ramos Jr., Matt Avila and Ashley Paz. The bond package also advances the district’s schools-of-choice program that allows students to attend schools outside their neighborhood. Citizens have “become increasingly aware of the need to improve public education choices in the city,” said former Fort Worth Congressman Pete Geren, now chief executive of the Sid Richardson Foundation. “The number of low-skill jobs will shrink relative to the size of the population.” The Richardson Foundation, long interested in education, has focused lately on the “schools of choice” math and science programs. The foundation teamed up last spring with Fort Worth’s Radler Foundation in a three-year commitment to back a program that brought advanced placement programs in math and science to the Trimble Tech and North Side high schools. The foundations each put up $450,000 to pay for, among other things, teacher training and financial rewards for students and teachers. The foundation also approved a one-year, $50,000 grant for laboratory equipment at the Young Men’s Leadership Academy. All this follows the Richardson Foundation’s 2010 commitment of $720,000 over five years to the Texas Academy of Biological Sciences. The money provides operational funds to help prepare high school students for health careers. Time was, Geren said, when “just a strong back and a good work ethic were enough to get you a good middle-class job. We’ve got a world filled with people who have strong backs and good work ethics. Education is going to give us an edge.” In response to a question some have raised – whether school choice undermines neighborhoods – Geren said: “I think that is a good question. I believe the ISD is doing the right thing. There are trade-offs, but the benefit that comes from giving the children a choice is worth the trade-offs.”

Build them and we will drive When it comes to transportation, the region has moved aggressively in recent years but much remains to be done. Which means that not only those ubiquitous orange highway cones signaling road construction but also constant conversation about passenger rail will remain staples of Fort Worth’s march into the future. City Councilman Jungus Jordan, the council’s designated transportation expert, says transportation is the most important of Fort Worth’s infrastructure needs, closely followed by water, energy and education. “We can only build so much concrete,” he said. Jordan touts a checklist of major transportation projects that the region has been tackling. They include the Chisholm Trail Parkway, which is scheduled to open in June; the DFW Connector makeover of Texas 114/121 in Northeast Tarrant County; the Tower 55 project designed to relieve train congestion at the major railroad intersection in downtown Fort Worth; the North Tarrant Express overhaul of the Loop 820-Texas 121/183 intersection in Northeast Tarrant County; and ongoing work on Interstate 35W. Regional authorities also have been wrestling with the challenges of commuter and high-speed rail. The City Council and Tarrant County Commissioners Court – disappointed with the progress bringing commuter rail to the county – replaced all nine members of the Fort Worth Transportation Authority’s board of directors last February. The goal: speed the process of applying for a federal grant and securing right of way for the TexRail line to run from Southwest Tarrant County to downtown and on to D/FW Airport through Grapevine. The T board says it is on track to get the downtown/airport phase of TexRail in place by 2016. The service to southwest Tarrant County will come later. To accelerate the pace of passenger rail construction, the board says, the region has to focus on obtaining its own right of way and avoid having to negotiate with reluctant freight lines. “We need some kind of transit system to move people,” Jordan said. “Our economics are based on moving people.” High-speed rail is a politically charged regional debate. One proposal to run a line from Houston to Dallas includes a regional stop only in Southeast Dallas. “With high-speed rail, it’s important that it comes to a neutral site, maybe D/FW (Airport),” said John Roach, a longtime Fort Worth business leader and former chairman of Tandy Corp. “We will have to be diligent and fight to make that happen.”

We’ve got water on our minds The region’s explosive growth along with projections of even more development this year and beyond have made water a concern that turns up at or near the top of nearly everyone’s list of challenges. Water is and will continue to be a big worry for community and business leaders in Fort Worth and throughout the region. With that in mind, the Tarrant Regional Water District and Dallas Water Utilities are working together to build a $2.3 billion, 149-mile pipeline from Lake Palestine in East Texas to Benbrook Lake, with connections at the TRWD’s Richland Chambers and Cedar Creek reservoirs in east Texas. Those reservoirs are Fort Worth’s two biggest sources of water. The pipeline promises to bring 350 million more gallons of water per day to North Central Texas. More than two thirds of that capacity is expected to be realized by 2020, and the rest by 2030. With water conservation, that could delay by decades the need for TRWD to secure new water sources. Mike Berry, president of Hillwood, developer of the 18,000-acre Alliance development in far north Fort Worth and Denton County, says reliability of water supply is an overriding concern of prospective major tenants. “Guarantees are hard to do,” Berry said. “You really can’t guarantee it. We have to prove our capabilities. You just have to try to show the capabilities of our system, the capabilities of our reserves, the sources of water.” Berry counts road and water infrastructure as the region’s two biggest challenges. “This area is growing at a high rate,” he said. “We’re projecting that we’ll probably add two million people in the next 10 years in DFW. You’ve got to keep the infrastructure and expansion going.”