Shifting tastes: Glen Garden may become whiskey distillery, meeting center

Scott Nishimura

The 102-year-old Glen Garden Golf and Country Club in south east Fort Worth, where Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson learned the game, could soon have a new use.

Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co. , the two-year-old near south side whiskey distillery that produces the popular TX Blended Whiskey and packs the house for $15 Saturday tours and tastings, is already outgrowing its current space, proprietors Leonard Firestone and Troy Robertson say.

They have taken the 106-acre golf course under contract from the two men who own it and are seeking a zoning change to allow the construction of a distillery, related uses, food service and – down the line – lodging. Firestone and Robertson see the potential for a big visitor and event draw, in the bucolic mold of Kentucky’s distilleries and California’s wineries.

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“We’ve been fortunate the brand has taken off and demand is high,” Robertson said in an interview May 15. “It’s going to be a true attraction and a great spot for entertaining.”

Tentatively, the zoning case is scheduled to go before the city zoning commission June 11 and before the City Council July 9.

On May 17, Firestone and Robertson will brief a meeting of Glencrest Civic League neighborhood association that abuts the golf course off of East Berry Street.

The association president Marie Love, who Firestone and Robertson briefed in a private meeting along with other neighborhood leaders May 2, said she has concerns about losing the history and questions about safety and what kind of smell distilleries emit.

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Homeowners also want to ensure a rezoning wouldn’t leave the door open to undesirable uses if a distillery fails there. Firestone and Robertson say homeowners also have sought reassurances that truck access to a Chesapeake Energy pad site on the golf course continue to come off of the adjacent Mitchell Boulevard, and not through the neighborhood.

“We’re not going to lay this one down easily,” Love said, adding the neighborhood association hasn’t yet taken a stance.

Firestone and Robertson view their potential Glen Garden project as building on the success of the Walmart-anchored Renaissance Square mixed-use development nearby, but some residents view development with suspicion.

“The community has to have a level of comfort with what goes in there,” City Council member Kelly Allen Gray, who represents the district, said. “Leonard and Troy are doing thei best to create that level of comfort. I think it’s still, at this point, a learning process fo everyone.”

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Firestone and Robertson envision a visitors center and production facility around a scenic lake that touches the seventh, eighth, and 10th holes on the property. They also would build metal “barns” for aging their whiskey.

“It wouldn’t be where we have buildings all over the property,” Robertson said.

They see demand for special events, tastings and tours, and food service. State law will permit limited retail sales: two bottles per person per month from the site. Eventually, they said they see potential demand for lodging on the site.

The two would keep the existing clubhouse at the Glen Garden Drive main entrance for offices.

Firestone and Robertson said they plan on memorializing the golf course history in some way, But with the industry facing an oversupply, intense competition and falling numbers of rounds, Firestone said he and his partner don’t intend to operate the golf course if they buy the property.

“We hope we might be able to maintain a couple of holes,” most likely around the lake, “because we think the history is important to Fort Worth,” Firestone said.

The club was chartered in 1912. Members in the early days would come by horse and buggy or, in some cases, the Cleburne interurban line, according to a history on the Glen Garden web site.

Hogan and Nelson learned the game at Glen Garden while serving as caddies for $1 per round. The LPGA great Sandra Palmer lived by the course as a child, and the club allowed her to crawl beneath the fence in the evenings and play.

C.W. Dowdy, who bought Glen Garden with partner Malcolm Tallman nine years ago, said the two wanted to sell Glen Garden to someone who would continue to operate it as a golf course.

“But nobody wanted to operate it as a golf course,” he said.

Dowdy and his partner have invested in new greens and clubhouse and course maintenance. “The golf course is in really good shape,” he said.

Rounds are up at the club, Dowdy said. Asked if the club is profitable, he said, “From an investment [viewpoint], I’d would probably say not really. We’re not losing money, though.”

Firestone and Robertson declined to say what the contract price is, or what they intend to invest in improvements.

They said they’ve lined up the necessary financing and have consulted with an architect on plans, but are waiting for the outcome of the zoning case and other due diligence review before having anything drawn up.

“We don’t want to deploy a lot of capital until we know what we can do,” Robertson said.

Firestone and Robertson have gone from two employees at their 901 W. Vickery Blvd. production facility and tasting room to 15. They said they plan an initial 20 at the new site, and expect to produce at both sites.

They said increasing production has crowded special events – the two estimated they’ve done 50 in two years on the production floor, including weddings, corporate events, fundraisers, and political campaign kickoffs, including two for Mayor Betsy Price – and made the search for another site necessary.

The distillery currently produces two barrels a day that are aged for a few years. Its lone brand today is TX Blended Whiskey, and it expects to begin selling a bourbon brand in 2015.

Firestone & Robertson currently distributes statewide, and it recently launched distribution in Louisiana.

“With this new facility, it will allow us to sell all over the country, and, hopefully, some day, internationally,” Robertson said.

Regarding the neighbors’ environmental concerns, Firestone and Robertson said they’re reassured the homeowners all truck traffic into the Chesapeake site would continue to come off of Mitchell Boulevard.

The smell from the distilling process would be the same as what visitors to the Vickery facility experience and not offensive, they said.

“We’ve not received one complaint from any of our neighbors about anything we do,” Firestone said.

On fire safety, Robertson said, “we’re a federally regulated industry with strict fire safety requirements.”

The road to opening a distillery is a difficult one. The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, for example, won’t issue permits until a site is secured and equipment purchased and installed.

Asked when the two partners want to get the new facility open, Robertson said, “if we know we can get zoning, the gas pedal gets pushed dramatically.

“We know we’re going somewhere,” he added. “We know that.”