In Market: We were there as Fort Worth pursued the future

Fort Worth rolled into the future at Austin's SXSW. (Photo by Linda Kessler)

If you’re a reader of our twice daily newsletters – and if you’re not, why not? – you’ve noticed we devoted a good chunk of last week to reports from South by Southwest in Austin.

Some of you may ask: why? A bunch of hippies get together and talk about who’s better, Noel or Lyle Gallagher, and when will marijuana be legalized in Texas? After all, the Fort Worth Business Press is a business newspaper that covers the business of Fort Worth. You know, what company purchased what other company this week and who is leasing space for a new restaurant. (You guys love new restaurants.)

We cover areas outside of straight business news on a regular basis, of course. For example, one of our most-read stories in recent weeks was the Associated Press coverage of the Nashville mayor – or should I say former mayor – who was caught in a love triangle with a member of her security detail. How that relates to Fort Worth business beyond both cities’ love of Merle Haggard, twangin’ guitars and Bar-B-Q, I can’t begin to explain.

So this sudden venture into SXSW in Austin, a music, art and technology festival and conference with program titles such as “Designing Urban Ocean Conservation” and “Blockchain and the Crisis in Health Care,” and bands with names such as Giant Kitty and Planet Booty, might seem a bit daft for a publication focused on new power-tied vice presidents at the corner bank. Maybe it is. But daftness is not necessarily a pejorative term; Shakespeare’s fools were daft, after all.

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Take into consideration the recent Economic Development Plan unveiled by the city of Fort Worth. The report pointed to a rather alarming – even embarrassing – stat. Fort Worth, while now the 16th largest city in the country based on 2010 Census populations of the top 100 cities, is perceived as the 45th largest city. That’s quite a gap. There’s a city to the east that – gallingly – is the ninth largest city in the country, but is perceived as the fourth! A tip of the Stetson to J.R. Ewing for that perception, no doubt.

Those perception stats left a bitter taste in the mouths of many in Fort Worth, a taste that no amount of Lone Star beer or Benito’s enchiladas could assuage. So, typical of Fort Worth, plans began to take shape to set in motion a little matchmaking between Mr. Reality and Miss Perception. One plan was for the town of the cow to make a splash among the 70,000+ hipster elite from over 90 countries at SXSW.

The fact is, the city is not your father’s, mother’s, grandfather’s, grandmother’s or crazy ex-brother-in-law’s Fort Worth anymore. We’re younger, more diverse and – dare I say it – more hip than we used to be. (If you say you’re hip, that usually means your not.) We still have one dung-covered, oil-soaked boot in our glorious past but the other, Tommy Hilfiger-designed boot is planted firmly in the future. We ain’t one thing anymore, if we ever were. Our economic center downtown is strong, maybe stronger that ever before, but it is enhanced and supplemented by other power centers ranging across the four corners of our city. In other words, it’s a different world and Fort Worth decided to make SXSW its coming-out party to celebrate and show the world we’re wearing some new shoes.

To accomplish that objective, the city put together a groundbreaking exhibit in collaboration with Visit Fort Worth, the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, Bell Helicopter, Lockheed Martin, Hillwood Properties, Niles City Sound, Firestone & Robertson Whiskey, Hear Fort Worth and the Fort Worth Film Commission. Branded “Fort Worth Now” and produced by High Beam Productions, the exhibit aimed to showcase how the city is progressing in business, innovation and the arts.

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Yep, you read that right: business. This isn’t just some hippy-dippy, let’s talk about the meaning of Morrissey’s lyrics and marijuana economy. This is like Coke – it’s the real thing.

So when our two fresh-faced reporters, Linda Kessler and Nealie Sanchez, proposed covering SXSW they might have been surprised when I gave them that managerial “hmm, sounds interesting” attitude. That Economic Development study, along with the fact that some of the city’s big – and up and coming – players were committed was in the back of my mind.

Along with allowing the Fort Worth Business Press to cover some of the top business leaders in the city taking their A game on the road, the SXSW outing would allow two reporters with the ink barely dry on their diplomas the opportunity to cover a big conference. I’ve covered more than a few and it’s never as easy as it looks on paper. It took me years to get Comdex, the big (100,000+ attendees) technology convention, right.

So there we were, on the scene at Fort Worth’s coming-out party as the city grapples with the realities of that Economic Development Report. That’s right where we should be. Right in the middle of Fort Worth’s business. Maybe we’ll all grow up a little bit.

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Robert Francis is editor of the Fort Worth Business Press.