Editorial: Would Bob Bolen’s Fort Worth have lost D.R. Horton?

It seems unfathomable now, with businesses from around the country flocking to Fort Worth, but it wasn’t so long ago that the city was desperate for economic development, begging new businesses to set up shop and old ones to stay instead of heading off in search of greener pastures.

As recently as 2001, Cowtown’s city government ponied up a $96 million tax abatement package to entice a then-thriving RadioShack Corp. to build a $200 million corporate campus along the banks of the Trinity River. Despite its long and storied history in Fort Worth, RadioShack was threatening to relocate unless the city handed over the keys to the vault.

The deal had more than a few critics back then and in retrospect RadioShack’s subsequent descent into chaos and bankruptcy made the city look clueless and irresponsible. But the deal was emblematic of the anything-goes approach to attracting and keeping businesses that took hold in the late 1980s when Bob Bolen served as the most business-friendly mayor in the city’s history. Subsequent mayors and city councils have been faithful to Bolen’s legacy, sometimes to the point of absurdity. Is there anything or anyone they will ever say no to? skeptics have wondered.

So how did it come to pass that Fort Worth couldn’t find a way to hold onto D.R. Horton, the world’s largest homebuilder and a company that has called Cowtown home since taking over eight floors of the City Center 2 complex and naming it the D.R. Horton Tower in 2004? Bob Bolen, who passed away in January of last year, must be turning over in his grave.

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By all accounts, Mayor Betsy Price and others in the city’s economic development community sprung into action when they found out Horton’s founder and chairman, Donald Horton, was contemplating a move to Arlington, where his company had operated before coming to downtown Fort Worth. Horton, in fact, had purchased land in Arlington and wanted to build a big-time corporate campus there. Fort Worth’s efforts to change his mind were to no avail and we now know that the project will cost more than $20 million and consume 150,000 square feet on a six-acre tract near the intersection of Interstate 30 and North Collins Street. The city of Arlington will kick in $5.5 million to upgrade infrastructure at the site.

Horton himself isn’t talking but some folks familiar with the negotiations say the builder simply wanted to move to Arlington and there was nothing anyone could do about it. That’s certainly possible, of course, and without knowing exactly what Fort Worth did, or tried to do, to keep Horton in Cowtown we’re in no position to say otherwise.

But somehow, we just can’t imagine that Bob Bolen and the Fort Worth he led would have let D.R. Horton get away.