History meets development: Stockyards plan moves forward

Scott Nishimura snishimura@bizpress.net

Ex-Fort Worth City Councilman Steve Murrin calls it “the best deal we could have done.” Another Stockyards investor labeled it a “hollow victory.”

Skepticism prevailed among numerous Stockyards stakeholders after the City Council voted 8-1 June 10 to grant incentives for a major Stockyards redevelopment and, facing criticism over the level of historical protections, said it would implement a special new zoning overlay.

At the heart: questions about the commitment of the two children of the Stockyards’ longtime largest property owner Holt Hickman, whose health has declined for years, and California partner Majestic Realty, which the

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Hickman family has brought in on a planned 1 million-square-foot $175 million redevelopment.

In several private meetings with the Hickmans and Majestic leading to the council vote, Stockyards stakeholders sought reassurances that the partnership would retain the area’s historic flavor in architecture, uses and tenants. They came away largely dissatisfied, say people who were in those meetings, and the questions exposed a rift among the stakeholders, including between business partners.

“Their only commitment is that they will keep the general architectural motif,” Murrin said prior to the council vote.

Murrin – a partner with the Hickmans in the Billy Bob’s Texas honky-tonk and other Stockyards ventures – sought to close the gap at the council meeting, shaking hands in front of the council dais with Hickman’s son, Brad. After the vote, Murrin sought out Majestic executive Craig Cavileer in the foyer outside the council chamber.

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“We want to be your partner,” Murrin told Cavileer.

Stockyards business people packed the council meeting and several spoke, most in favor of a delaying a vote on the incentives for least one month.

Longtime Billy Bob’s operators Bill and Pam Minick backed the partnership, stressing the fragile Stockyards needs the investment now. The Minicks are partners with the Hickmans in Stockyards 2000, which owns Billy Bob’s, and teamed up with Majestic several years ago in a Las Vegas entertainment venture.

The Majestic partners “understand the Stockyards is unique, and they understand how to market it,” Pam Minick told the council. “We can’t wait 25 years for another fairy godfather to come along.”

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The Minicks’ son, Concho, who currently heads Billy Bob’s, spoke in favor of a delay: “I want to say, what’s the rush?”

Red Steagall, the noted cowboy storyteller and Stockyards denizen, told the council: “Let’s don’t get in a real big hurry about this. You have a responsibility to the citizens of Fort Worth. The investors have a responsibility to themselves. It took us all working together to get to this point.”

The Majestic-Hickman partnership has been years in the making, dating to its germination in the Las Vegas venture. At one point, discussions included potentially all of the Hickmans’ Stockyards holdings, including Billy Bob’s, one person familiar with the talks said. The Stockyards 2000 holdings eventually were pulled off the table, the person said.

And as the private squabbling intensified, one unidentified group – not the Hickmans or Majestic – put a contract down on a 16-acre site at 400 E. Exchange St. owned by Chesapeake Energy and flanked by Hickman property.

Brad Hickman and Majestic vice president Craig Cavileer – one of two Majestic executives in Fort Worth heading up the Stockyards project for the firm – sought to allay the concerns in interviews before and after the council vote.

Holt Hickman accumulated his holdings (close to 70 acres of them will be included in the partnership) in the 1980s and ‘90s. He redeveloped the historic hog and sheep pens into the Stockyards Station festival center and built a visitors center and the Hyatt Place hotel.

But some of his holdings, including the old Mule Barns on East Exchange, are deteriorating and the family needed a major partner with significant resources to help move them forward, Brad Hickman said.

The partnership will include Stockyards Station, the Mule Barns, cattle pens, and vacant and unimproved property along Exchange, Packers Street, Niles City Boulevard and Northeast 23rd Street, but will not include the Hickmans’ Livestock Exchange Building.

In response to speakers’ contention that the incentive vote was rushed, Cavileer said Majestic and Hickman have been in discussions about the project, which was disclosed publicly on June 3, for two and a half years.

“With the state of disrepair of what we have in our partnership, without (the city incentives) in place, we really had almost an impossible task to bring forward a (plan for) redevelopment and new development,” he said. “This is the foundation from which we could move forward.”

In response to questions about the commitment of Hickman’s son Brad and daughter Brenda Kostohyrz, Brad Hickman said, “I think that my father has a pretty good track record in the Stockyards.”

Despite their father’s health, “he is 100 percent onboard” with the redevelopment plan, Brad Hickman said. “We keep my dad abreast of everything that’s going on.”

Among the potential uses being considered for the redevelopment, the partners say, are destination retail, restaurants, craft breweries, hotels, corporate relocations and live cattle auctions.

Stockyards stakeholders worry about the possibility of inappropriate uses and fear that the partnership could bring in national brands that don’t fit the Stockyards.

“We’re here to protect, preserve and enhance it,” Hickman said of the Stockyards’ flavor.

Casino gaming, which is not legal in Texas but is a subject of continued lobbying, also is a concern of some Stockyards stakeholders. Holt Hickman was a proponent of Stockyards casinos when he started redeveloping his holdings.

“Still is,” Brad Hickman joked. “But we are so far away from that, there’s no use to even project that. That may never happen.”

The council, in its vote, directed the staff to implement form-based codes – a type of zoning regulation that focuses on buildings’ relationship to the area around them, including design and form, mass and scale.

Those regulations will be addressed in negotiations with the property owners.

“I think this form-based code has a chance, depending on how you put it together,” Murrin told the council. “I hope it has a little backbone.”

Cavileer said form-based codes implemented for the historic district east of North Main Street are strong measures. He noted the city hasn’t had design standards for the Stockyards.

“I think what they put forth is a strong commitment for the city,” he said. “Rather than focus (only) on our project, to address all the properties down there and ensure that they and us are working towards a cohesive plan.”

Jerre Tracy, executive director of the nonprofit Historic Fort Worth, asked the council to put off the incentive vote and implement a historic overlay that would force new construction and exterior changes proposed for historic buildings to go before the city’s Historic and Cultural Landmarks Commission. “Historic designations can work in tandem with form-based codes, but you’ve got to have the historic designation first,” Tracy said.

She noted that many of the buildings in the Stockyards carry less than the highest level of historic protection.

The eastern half of the Mule Barns, for example, carries a “demolition delay” designation, which would allow demolition after a 180-day petition process.

The Hickmans and Majestic have said they envision restaurants and retail or corporate offices in the Mule Barns and plan no significant exterior changes.

Much of the vacant or unimproved property in the Hickman-Majestic partnership carries no historic designation, Tracy and Historic Fort Worth Chairman John Roberts said.

“They can go in and pretty much build what they want,” Roberts said.

Mayor Betsy Price, who had organized several meetings to try and resolve the disagreement before the council vote, said the form-based codes will give the city the tools it needs to protect the Stockyards.

“I’m never going to let anything happen to the Stockyards on my watch,” she said. “I know the draw it brings to Fort Worth.”

Price said the 65-year-old Majestic company, now headed by the son of founder Ed Roski Sr., is a “great fit” for the Stockyards partnership.

She conceded that Majestic, which specializes in business parks, doesn’t have a historic preservation background.

But “they’ve got the resources, they’ve got the capital, they’ve got the commitment,” she said.