Glen Garden distillery plan takes emotional turn as race issues arise

Scott Nishimura

The potential redevelopment of Fort Worth’s historic Glen Garden County Club remained hung up in emotional debate heading into Tuesday’s City Council vote on the case, with one community leader telling Mayor Betsy Price on Saturday that the plan is “racist” because civic leaders would never consider such a path for its other private golf clubs.

“I don’t believe you would do this to a white community,” the Rev. Carl Pointer, a leader in the heavily minority Southeast Fort Worth home to Glen Garden, told Price during a community coffee at the Sycamore Community Center. “It’s racist, it’s bigoted, it’s shameful, it’s amoral.”

Price responded redevelopment would never occur to the other golf clubs mentioned – Rivercrest, Colonial, Ridglea and Mira Vista – because property values in those neighborhoods are too high.

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“This is not about race; this council is color-blind,” she said. “It’s about economic development. We did not sell Glen Garden Country Club. The owners of Glen Garden Country Club are selling.”

The owners of the fast-growing Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co. in Fort Worth earlier this took the 102-year-old Glen Garden – where golf legends Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, and Sandra Palmer learned to play – under option to buy, with plans to convert the hilly, leafy course into a whiskey distillery, meeting center and visitor attraction in the shape of Kentucky’s distillery farms and California’s wine estates. The company would produce whiskey from its distillery on Fort Worth’s Near Southside and Glen Garden.

The council will vote Tuesday on whether to rezone the property to allow a distillery and uses such as lodging.

The city’s zoning commission tied 4-4 on the case, sending it to the council with an effective recommendation of denial after homeowners jammed the hearing, raising concerns about traffic, mold, noise, appropriate land use, drinking and driving with the distillery serving alcohol during tastings and private events, preservation of history, the morality of locating a distillery in an area with numerous churches and negative impact on property values. Under state law, the distillery’s retail sales would be limited to two bottles per person per month.

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City Council member Kelly Allen Gray, who represents the district and said after the zoning vote she would oppose the case at the City Council, said Tuesday she’ll move to deny the rezoning.

“That is my plan,” she said after Price’s coffee, attended by more than 50 people. “I’m standing with the community in opposition to the distillery.”

Neighborhood leaders like Pointer and Marie Love, president of the Glencrest Civic League neighborhood association adjacent to Glen Garden, have been jousting with Gray over economic development since her election in 2012.

Love said before Saturday’s coffee she was skeptical that Gray would move to block the distillery.

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“We don’t believe it, at all,” said Love, who is trying to organize residents to show up at Tuesday’s meeting.

Price said after the coffee she didn’t know yet where the vote is heading. The council, on such cases, typically defers to the wishes of the district representative.

“I think that the council’s still looking at it, reading all the comments that are coming in, and I think most of them still don’t know what they’re going to do,” Price said. “It’s a very emotional issue, with a lot of information and misinformation.”

Several speakers raised questions at the coffee, renewing arguments that they believe the city has rushed the process.

Homeowners have been advancing concerns about the potential for mold and fungus, noting homeowners and businesses in Kentucky are suing distilleries over a spreading whiskey fungus.

Price told the audience that it had assigned city staff to research the issue. Experts told the city such a fungus would not grow in Fort Worth, because it’s warmer and far drier here than in Kentucky. And in Kentucky’s case, the fungus has built up over decades, she said.

“Experts say it’s just not going to grow in Texas,” Price said.

Price noted Glen Garden is already licensed to serve alcohol. Leonard Firestone and Troy Robertson – the distillery’s owners – have committed to closing the neighborhood entrance to the club and routing all traffic from Mitchell Boulevard, to allay residents’ concerns about traffic.

Firestone and Robertson have also released detailed drawings showing, for example, how the distillery and a planned visitors center would face a scenic lake on the property. The two could not be reached to comment Saturday.

Residents have minimized the potential economic impact from the distillery and said the tradeoffs would be too big.

Price said she believes the economic impact would be substantial, drawing on the strength of the nearby Walmart-anchored Renaissance Square mixed-used development and helping to continue to redevelop the interior city.

Fort Worth has experienced rapid growth in the numbers of microbreweries and distilleries elsewhere, and they’ve brought spinoff development and tax dollars, Price noted.

“If you take the emotions out of the plan, just on the surface, the plan itself looks great,” Price said. “Great historic preservation, beautiful buildings they’re putting in, not much more traffic than already there. The alcohol piece is moot because Glen Garden already serves alcohol. But you have to listen to the concerns of the neighbors. It’s a tough, tough decision that’s going to come Tuesday.”

At least one speaker at the coffee said the two owners of Glen Garden now regret their decision to sell for a distillery.

But C.W. Dowdy, one of the owners, confirmed in an interview later Saturday that he and his business partner had sent a letter to the city on Thursday saying they believe the distillery plan is the best possible use for the site.

“We haven’t changed our position,” Dowdy said in the interview.

Dowdy and partner Malcolm Tallman bought Glen Garden nine years ago. Dowdy told The Business Press in May that they’d been seeking a buyer who would continue to operate it as a golf course, but were unsuccessful. The golf course industry, under intense competition, has been consolidating, and the city closed its Z Boaz course two years ago, Price noted Saturday.

Rounds have been up at the Glen Garden, Dowdy said in May. Asked then if the club is profitable, he said, “from an investment (viewpoint), I would probably say not really. We’re not losing money, though.”

Asked by The Business Press to clarify Saturday, Dowdy confirmed he and Tallman have only “minor debt” on the property.

Asked if the club would run in the black assuming normal leverage, he said, “it depends on how many members. That’s tough for all these golf courses, really.”​