Tarrant County Commissioner Gary Fickes has been involved in the growth of Northeast Tarrant County and, more specifically, Southlake, since the mid-1980s. He was chairman of the Southlake Chamber of Commerce in 1987 and 1988 and then was mayor of Southlake from 1989 to 1996. He has been Tarrant County Precinct 3 Commissioner since 2006.
We asked him about the growth of the area in the last 30 years.
What is the history of some of Northeast Tarrant County’s cities?
Some of these cities go back to the 1800s, and they all experienced growth spurts at different times for different reasons. History reports that settlers arrived in Watauga and Grapevine in 1843-44, that Hurst was first settled in the early 1840s, that Bedford was settled in the late 1840s and that Euless traces its roots back to 1879.
Hurst was initially the largest of the last three cities and showed the earliest growth. Things changed in the dynamic 1960s as Hurst doubled in size while both Euless and Bedford quadrupled. The growth continued for another decade in the three cities, but their growth slowed because they were becoming fairly built out. That opened the door for other communities to the north.
Northeast Tarrant County has achieved exponential growth over the past 30 years. What were some of the major contributing factors?
Population traditionally follows three factors: infrastructure, education and jobs. You can tell from each of the cities that their explosive growth occurred due to sewer availability for residential and commercial development.
Northeast Tarrant County consists of 15 cities and has six school districts that combine to form one of the finest academic clusters in the entire state of Texas. Higher-income jobs and development led to plentiful financial resources for the schools. The accessibility of Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, as well as Airport Freeway [State Highway 183] and State Highway 114, opened career opportunities in both Fort Worth and Dallas.
When I first arrived, 90 percent of the morning traffic on 114 from Grapevine was headed to Dallas because that’s where the jobs were. Now a large share of that morning traffic is heading west toward jobs that pay well in Southlake, Westlake and Alliance.
Q: What role did you play in Southlake’s dynamic growth?
A: Southlake was a rural community from its start in 1956 through the mid-1980s. The population was 1,023 in 1960 and doubled to 2,031 over the next 10 years.
The impressive jumps were in the 1990s with growth of 259 percent in that decade, followed by 303 percent growth in the next decade. The 2017 population was 28,880, meaning the city has grown more than tenfold over the last 30 years.
In 1995, Peter Cooper and Brian Stebbins of Cooper & Stebbins Developers approached the Southlake city leaders with the concept of a large mixed-use development. We had already determined that a triangle of property bound by Southlake Boulevard on the south, State Highway 114 on the north and Carroll Avenue on the west could become an intensely developed retail-office mixed-use zone. We actually placed a one-year moratorium on all commercial permits for the entire city in order to dedicate all time and focus on creating zoning regulations.
We recognized the project’s potential and knew that it could play a monumental role in redefining Southlake. Cooper & Stebbins’s concept committed 130 acres to create an entirely new concept. To say the least, we were very fortunate to have such forward-thinking developers helping plan our city’s future.
Q: What was Southlake’s vision for development?
A: The Southlake City Council was committed to ensuring all our developments would be distinctive and would not reflect the typical box-retailer look common to other communities.
We adopted architectural guidelines and ordinances that required specific physical attributes relating to architectural articulation, building design, setbacks, curb cuts, road accessibility and landscaping. We wanted to ensure we created long-term value for the building owners, the City of Southlake and our residents, evidenced by the fact that structural demands guaranteeing quality building construction were among the requirements put in place.
Southlake Town Square redefined the city, and the development will celebrate its 20th anniversary next year. Southlake’s past and present leadership, businesses and residents have fostered an exceptional quality of life that offers excellence in residential living, business environment, parks, shopping and entertainment.
Q: Are there any specific individuals who played major roles in developing Southlake?
A: I have already mentioned the visionary Peter Cooper and Brian Stebbins. Their ability to clearly articulate a vision for what this development could become was nothing short of amazing.
Southlake’s mayors during this period, including Rick Stacy, Andy Wambsganss, John Terrell and current Mayor Laura Hall, along with each of the city councils, have all worked to establish and keep Town Square as the crown jewel of the community. Southlake also had two great city managers – Curtis Hall and Shana Yelverton, who is the current city manager.
Q: What else has led to this impressive growth in Southlake?
A: The development of the Solana Business Park that sits partially in both Westlake and Southlake, as well as the high level of positive publicity delivered by top-performing schools, both in academics and athletics, has certainly helped.
Maguire-Thomas Partners joined with IBM Corp. to develop Solana in the mid-1980s on Highway 114. This decision placed Southlake on the map for upscale development that matched the community’s higher income.
Combining elite-level academics with state championships in multiple sports and academic competitions helped create a dynamic sense of community built around Carroll Independent School District schools. The school’s reputation for achievement drove parent involvement and created demand for excellence in all scholastic endeavors. Throughout Northeast Tarrant County, we saw other high schools excel in academics with the International Baccalaureate program and technology education.
And never forget that Tarrant County College’s Northeast Campus in Hurst is one of the crown jewels of our community.
By the way, nobody ever told me they moved to Southlake because they thought I was a good mayor. They moved because Southlake offered an outstanding school system.
Q: You spoke of Alliance. What impact has that had on Northeast Tarrant County?
A: So much of the growth in Northeast Tarrant County has been in what is called North Fort Worth. The population of this area alone has grown from just 21,925 in 1990 to 141,656 in 2016 due to the almost 50,000 jobs that the team at Hillwood Properties created.
Hillwood’s massive industrial airport [Fort Worth Alliance Airport] has led to an expansive industrial/business complex. Hillwood is an accomplished developer for both commercial and residential properties. They attracted Fidelity, FedEx, Deloitte, Facebook, Charles Schwab, and so many more marquee companies.
Hillwood also developed the Alliance Town Center.
As I mentioned earlier, the three driving forces for exponential growth are infrastructure, education and jobs. Hillwood developed much of the infrastructure, then high-performing schools followed, and professional careers that pay well completed the puzzle to make this area one of the most desirable areas in the United States.
Every community in Northeast Tarrant County has benefited from the development at Alliance.
Q: Was Southlake always your goal for your home community?
A: Southlake found me through what I call an act of God. We were looking for a place in Coppell, but the real estate agent was too busy to meet with us. We ended up driving down Highway 114 and found a Century 21 office in Grapevine, and they located us a beautiful lot in the area. We built our home on that lot, and it was one of the greatest breaks in my life.