InMarket: Why are we here?

Robert Francis

Fort Worth is currently playing the role of the prettiest girl in high school that everyone hopes to invite to the senior prom. When I started working at the Business Press 10 years ago, Fort Worth was – to those on the outside at least – still a bit of an afterthought to our gaudy, snooty big sister to the east, Dallas, in all her cheap-bauble glory. Now? We’re the 16th largest city in the U.S., or at least we were when I checked this morning. We’re growing – north, south, east, west. Places like Seventh Street and Magnolia Avenue – sketchy locations to avoid 15 years ago – are now the “it” places to be in the city.

Why are people and businesses coming here? Is it because we’re business friendly, like our governor says? Partly, I’m sure. But I’ve been here all my life and as far as I can tell we’ve been business friendly the whole time – kowtowing to anyone who glances our direction with coin in their pockets. If you look at our history, we’ve always courted business. The railroads, the meatpacking industry, the airport, General Motors, the Texas Rangers, the Dallas Cowboys, Texas Motor Speedway. The list goes on and on. Nothing wrong with that. So why are they coming now? I’d say it’s because of our culture. They want what we have – whatever alchemy Fort Worth has brewed together that sets us apart. And what is our culture? Is culture the Kimbell Art Museum? Yes it is.

Is it the Amon G. Carter Museum? Yes. Is it Joe T. Garcia’s? Yes, I’d say it is. Delbert McClinton? You bet. His father worked with my father at the Rock Island rail yard here. His music embodies both the blues and Western Swing styles nurtured in our sometimes raucous history. Is it the way we talk? Yes, and I’m fixin’ to tell you why. My dentist mentioned a saying I hadn’t heard in years, not since hanging around my grandparents’ trailer shop on Hemphill Street in the 1960s. He and a client were talking and the compliments began flowing a bit freely and grew more and more over the top. The client finally said, “We’d better roll up our trouser legs, it’s too late for the shoes.” When I talk about Fort Worth culture, I include the Museum of Modern Art; Bass Hall; Casa Manana; Joe T. Garcia’s; the late, lamented Massey’s; the late, lamented New Bluebird Night Club; the Stock Show; the Stockyards; Mrs Baird’s bread; Texas Christian University; and Colonial Country Club.

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We locals have known and enjoyed this about Fort Worth for years. But now outside businesses are coming because they’ve suddenly discovered this great culture we’ve built gradually over the decades. Yet, ironically, just a few weeks ago, what issues faced the City Council? They were deciding on the future of our culture. A major development plan in the Stockyards was running head-on into a plan to develop that area, and the arguments – many among longtime friends – got pretty fierce. Thank goodness no one was packing like they did in the “good ol’ days” they’re trying to preserve. On the east side, the debate was fierce, too. Glen Garden Country Club – the breeding ground for golf legends Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan – got the go-ahead to become a whiskey distillery and conference center. But not without some heated words. And, what can I say about Massey’s? It was closed and but a shadow of its former cream-gravy greatness when it fell to the wrecking ball. But believe me, it was part of our culture that we exported to the rest of the world. The question is: Will Fort Worth grow so large, so fast and with such blinders on that in another 10 years we won’t recognize it? Where will it have gone? Will we drive down the street one day and wonder what city we’re in? What does make us Fort Worth?

It’s a tough question to answer. Can we learn to say – at least occasionally – the word “No” when businesses come courting? Can we at least say, “Let me think about it.” Or “Bring us a better plan.” I think the question really hits us to our core: Why are we here? Here as in Fort Worth, not the more existential question of ‘Why are we here?’ I can’t even begin to answer the latter and I can barely scratch the surface on the former. Like I said, I don’t have the answer, but we’ll never have an answer if we don’t think about – and discuss – these questions. If you want to think about fixin’ to consider these questions, let’s meet sometime for some drinks and some food for a chinwag at one of Fort Worth’s many fine and homegrown restaurants – while we still can.