Setting the Stage: Bolen-era deals laid the groundwork for Fort Worth’s modern day growth

Scott Nishimura Special Projects Reporter

The memories are a little fuzzy, but the essence of the story is clear: Mayor Bob Bolen, short in the cash portion of Fort Worth’s bid for the federal government’s new currency plant, convened a meeting of some of the city’s most important businessmen. Bolen recalls that the city lacked $3.5 million of the $17 million it needed to nail down its bid (a businessman had already agreed to put up property for the plant in far North Fort Worth). The men – participants included Ed and Lee Bass of Fort Worth’s prominent and powerful Bass family; Tandy Corp. CEO John Roach; and American Airlines chief Robert Crandall – divvied up the commitment during what Roach remembers as a 20-minute meeting in a conference room at the then-Hotel Texas just a few days before the bid deadline. “We bailed him out on his currency plant,” Roach recalls with a trace of nostalgia. Fort Worth’s victory in the nationwide competition for the currency plant boosted the city’s nascent pursuit of business at the same time the state was reeling from the real estate and savings and loan collapse, and it highlights a significant part of Bolen’s legacy as mayor.

Bolen served from 1982 until 1991, leading the city through the turbulent economic times of the up-and-down ‘80s, and presiding creatively and energetically over the formative stages of a new Fort Worth that would aggressively pursue economic development while embarking upon a sustained period of relentless growth. Business and community leaders widely laud Bolen for his firm guidance of the public sector through many of the decisions that laid the groundwork for Alliance Airport, the resurgence of downtown and a highly competitive business climate that drove development throughout the city. “That’s probably the most critical time in our history,” City Councilman Jungus Jordan says. Bolen, now 87, helped push through Fort Worth’s downtown public improvement district, under which property owners agreed to pay extra property tax so long as the money remained in the district. That money has gone to pay for maintenance, landscaping and extra police, among other things, helping the central business district establish a golden reputation for security. Bolen also led the negotiations on the city’s controversial partnership with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Perot family that launched Alliance Airport and paved the way for surrounding development generating thousands of jobs. The FAA had triggered the talks when it announced that North Fort Worth needed another airport.

Ross Perot Jr., whose father was a long-established business presence in Dallas and would later gain fame as a presidential candidate, had already been buying land in the area with an eye toward the same kind of potential growth North Dallas was experiencing. Bob Jameson, head of Fort Worth’s Convention and Visitors Bureau and former general manager of the Renaissance Worthington Hotel, recalls the former mayor’s contribution in terms that Bolen, a successful retailer in private life, would surely consider high praise. “Bob Bolen was a salesman at a time when Fort Worth needed a salesman,” Jameson says. “He’s honest to the core, and everybody knew he would only do what was best for Fort Worth,” says Ross Perot Jr. Bolen relishes his role in Fort Worth’s growth. “We proved we could compete against Denver, against Houston, against anybody,” he says, looking back at Fort Worth’s victory over Denver in the bid for the currency plant, which opened in 1991.

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But the ever-modest “servant leader,” as Perot describes Bolen, would rather heap praise on others – Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, the Perots, the Basses – for what Fort Worth has become in the last two-plus decades. “We wouldn’t be anywhere near where we are economically without Dallas/Fort Worth Airport,” he says. Of the Perots, he says, “some of these people see things you don’t see, and I don’t see.” And, “in about every case, it’s one or two guys who make things work.” Bolen took flak for giving up too much in the Alliance deal. Hillwood contributed 423 acres for the airport; the city agreed to annex the airport site and Perot property and contribute $25.9 million for initial infrastructure; and the Federal Aviation Administration put in $55 million to build the airport. Hillwood operates the airport for the city, which owns it.

Today, Alliance has turned into a major inland port and logistics center, offering extensive air, rail and truck facilities to tenants ranging from FedEx to AT&T and generating thousands of jobs. “You’ve got the largest concentration of those three put together at one time,” Bolen says. “Now we can take almost anything in the world that flies.” More broadly, Bill Thornton, the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce president, wonders what would have happened had Fort Worth not annexed the land. “Could anybody else (besides Fort Worth) have pulled it off?” he said. Alliance came along at the right time for Fort Worth, Perot says. The state’s economy was struggling. And with the end of the Cold War, the community was beginning to realize it was too heavily dependent on the defense industry. “This was the No. 1 project that the city council could focus on,” Perot says. “It took a lot of vision and a lot of courage for Mayor Bolen to go out and do that.”

Fort Worth’s public improvement district was Texas’ first, established after Bolen and business leaders pushed for the legislation to help clean up the downtown core. The Bass family was willing to pay extra on top of its property tax, but “the state wouldn’t let us do it,” Bolen recalls. “So we went down to Austin, passed the deal there.” The legislation required approval of 50 percent of the property owners in a public improvement district. In Fort Worth’s case, there were only two: the Basses and Tandy Corp. “And they were the ones that wanted to do it in the first place,” Bolen said. As the Basses began to redevelop their property, Bolen recalls a visit he had from Ed Bass. “He said they were going to open a downtown theater,” Bolen said. “I said, what?” The meeting on the currency plant occurred in a different era of Fort Worth dealmaking. Fort Worth CEOs were much closer socially and homegrown companies like Tandy – now RadioShack – had more resources and were able to be more active in the community, Roach says. And Fort Worth was just beginning to set its sights higher.

Roach recalls that Bolen convened the meeting on short notice – “for something like this, a day or two or three’s notice would be what you’d normally get” – and told the participants the city would lose the printing plant without their support. “Bob felt like we were down to the final two and, if we could perform, we’d get it,” Roach said. Bolen wasn’t overly confident of the leaders’ response, Roach recalls. “I think he thought he had a chance,” but Bolen didn’t have any commitments in hand heading into the meeting, Roach recalls. “I think you don’t ever go into a meeting like that (overly confident) if you don’t have a commitment.” What turned the meeting for Bolen: “It was jobs, it was growth that was special,” Roach says. “It was just kind of at a time when we were beginning to focus more on economic development.”

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“Right now, it doesn’t feel that far north,” says Thornton, who joined the chamber as director of local business development in 1989 with Bolen’s help. “But back in the day when we were moving infrastructure and water and sewer that far north, it was a big deal.” Bolen says one of Fort Worth’s key challenges in the future will be convincing the children of its major business and philanthropic benefactors to stay in the city and keep their wealth here. “How do we keep the same culture that we’ve had?” he said.