Sundance Square (Photo: Jeremy Enlow)

Fort Worth

Is Fort Worth As Doomed As This 500-Page Report Makes It Seem?

The city, long defined by the doctrines of its past oligarchs, finds itself at a crossroads.

The nearly 500-page economic development plan commissioned by Fort Worth officials and released a few weeks ago was so honest that even Dallasites were concerned about its findings.

The Dallas Morning News urged Fort Worth to not give up its Cowtown image, calling it a folksy and quiet place that cherishes its cowboy history. A tongue-in-cheek op-ed in The News suggested Fort Worth just resign itself to its little sibling status. Many Fort Worthians were not amused.

Readers pushed back in the comments section of a Fort Worth Star-Telegram editorial, agreeing with the report’s hard facts and findings.

Among those findings: the city does not have a diverse tax base. Fort Worth is reliant on residential and not commercial growth. Most people living here work outside the city proper, and many commute to Dallas. The city has increasingly become a bedroom community for the rest of North Texas, which explains why Fort Worth is also an afterthought to many executives seeking to expand operations or even relocate here.

For a city priding itself on its homegrown identity, it really seems unfriendly to a lot of folks too, particularly young people and people of color. In perhaps the most damning component, there are not enough economic development initiatives to drive entrepreneurial and creative forces in the city. Even as some districts are thriving, such as Sundance Square and the Near Southside, the city lags behind its peers in promoting economic development. The city lacks a will, as well as the resources, to be innovative.

To sum it up, Fort Worth has a lot of potential. It would take a lot of work to get there.

A lot.

“I moved to Fort Worth because it’s not Dallas,” was the common refrain among commenters. A Fort Worth-raised reporter now living in Washington, D.C. tweeted she was offended by the op-ed writer’s findings.

The massive study by Austin-based TIP Strategies, however, does not spell doom for Fort Worth. In fact, it outlines its strengths as a city. If a report is going to look ahead, the analysis must highlight its weaknesses, especially if it wants to recognize the city’s potential. Fort Worth’s colleges and universities are on the cusp of greatness, and can become major players in making Cowtown into a research hub for healthcare, the life sciences, engineering, and energy. Keep in mind: In its list of best-performing cities, the Milken Institute think tank touted Raleigh-Durham’s strong research universities in naming it the country’s second best. Fort Worth is also an untapped tourist hub, sporting, of course, an unrivaled museum scene.

But if the city stays on its current path, however, it is indeed destined to become a Dallas suburb—and an economically devastated one at that. (Think Dayton, Ohio or Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the 1990s.) If that conclusion does not spook city leaders into action, then consider these even scarier facts.

According to a report analyzing poverty and mobility by Harvard economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren, growing up in Fort Worth, and Tarrant County as a whole, sucks.

When it comes to helping poor kids get up the economic ladder, Tarrant County  is below average, ranking 956th out of 2,478 counties. That’s better than only 39 percent of counties nationwide. The report defines Fort Worth, the largest city in Tarrant County, as the “Fort Worth area.”

“If you’re poor and live in the Fort Worth area, it’s better to be in Montague County than in Tarrant County,” according to a summary of the findings, referring to a growing county about an hour and a half northwest of Fort Worth. “Not only that, the younger you are when you move to Montague, the better you will do on average. Children who move at earlier ages are less likely to become single parents, more likely to go to college and more likely to earn more.”

The economists discovered cities with high levels of upward mobility are less segregated, have a larger middle class, stronger families, greater social capital, and higher quality public schools.

In 2015, the Urban Institute released a report looking at income inequality by neighborhood. The Dallas-Fort Worth region ranked the worst. We highlighted this on Frontburner, noting “inequality tends to be more pronounced in places where policy amplified segregation — and those policies were in no way isolated to the south, but have also caused disparity in Northeastern cities.”

Fort Worthians tend to have a kneejerk reaction whenever Dallas –– or anywhere really –– does something special. The reactions to the editorials reveal a dangerous civic pride. Look at history and it makes sense. Some of the best chronicles of modern Fort Worth have appeared in the pages of this publication, first in 1985, “Who Really Runs Fort Worth?” and then in 1995, in the similarly-named “Who Runs Fort Worth?

Both authors are longtime journalists living in Fort Worth. As they point out, a handful of families have stubbornly retained control of the city, preserving the entrusted and safe laid-back “cowboy and culture” image.

An especially important scion was the late Amon Carter, an oil oligarch and publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He may have been a titan who used his money to boost Fort Worth until his death in the 1950s. But don’t confuse him for a visionary.

“While Dallas was refining its vision and moving toward a new decade of power, Fort Worth was still thinking of itself as the heart of West Texas,” wrote Jan Jarvis in her 1985 piece.

Katie Sherrod, who wrote the follow up article in 1995, notes a handful of wealthy families maintained Carter’s power structure; a group carefully cultivating this identity for the past 30 years. Carter may have been dead for more than 60 years, and Jarvis’ article may have been written in 1985, but the issues facing the city still stand. From subpar education standards from kindergarten through college to deep wealth inequality, hopefully this report will force city leaders to confront those issues.

Star-Telegram columnist Bud Kennedy wrote earlier this week a column outlining seven ways the city can move forward while still preserving its heritage. Along with boosting our transportation infrastructure, creating higher equality education opportunities, and banking on our history and assets, Kennedy suggest getting over Dallas.

He’s right.

Fort Worth could be great. But if history is its guide, we may become only marginally better. If Cowtown’s leaders take the route that its leaders historically have, then the west will really begin 35 miles east.

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