By Bill Thornton
President and Chief Executive
Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce
In most U.S. cities, economic development is handled by a government agency or its designated public sector partner. From recruitment to incentive negotiations to final site selection, these organizations are working to bring new business opportunities to their communities. However, Fort Worth has adopted a different way of doing things. We learned long ago that augmenting government initiatives with public-private partnerships is effective for economic vitality.
Public-private partnerships at the grassroots level are at the heart of Fort Worth’s success. One of the earliest examples involves the expansion of the Texas & Pacific Railway (T&P) in 1873. Fort Worth’s survival depended on the completion of a T&P Railway extension that would bring the line into the city, but the project seemed to have stalled. A group of Fort Worth community leaders including John Peter Smith decided to take up the cause by organizing the Tarrant County Construction Co. to provide capital investment, labor, materials and supplies. Major K.M. Van Zandt further supported the cause by leading a group of business leaders to donate 320 acres of land to the railroad for the line extension.
The investment paid off handsomely. When the rail line was completed in 1876, Fort Worth became a major market center along the historic Chisholm Trail, and the Fort Worth Stockyards was the premier center for cattle trade. More than a century later, the Fort Worth Stockyards continues to serve as a significant source of economic revenue for the city, drawing millions of visitors annually.
Fast forward several decades, and private investment once again played a key role in Fort Worth’s long-term economic growth. This time, it spurred the evolution of Sundance Square, a mixed-use development that is one of the most successful downtown revitalization projects in the nation.
By the 1970s, decades of urban decay had taken its toll on downtown Fort Worth. Sid and Perry Bass decided to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to buy land and renovate historic buildings in downtown Fort Worth to attract office users, restaurants and retailers. Today, Sundance Square is a premier destination for companies that want to be in the heart of downtown. It also attracts major events that place a national spotlight on Fort Worth, such as serving as the production center for ESPN during NFL Super Bowl Week in 2011 and the NCAA Final Four in 2014.
With the Bass family heavily involved in downtown revitalization, another prominent local investor focused his attention on north Fort Worth. Through Hillwood Properties, Ross Perot, Jr. and his development team created AllianceTexas, an 18,000-acre, master-planned community that is home to more than 425 companies. The community also includes over 1.2 million square feet of retail, restaurant, medical and entertainment components integrated with a variety of single-family and luxury apartment home options.
Since its inception in 1989, it is estimated that AllianceTexas has generated approximately $60 billion in economic impact for the North Texas region. The development is anchored by the Alliance Global Logistics Hub, which offers strategic intermodal transportation access through Fort Worth Alliance Airport, the BNSF Intermodal Facility, BNSF and Union Pacific rail lines and the FedEx Southwest Regional Sorting Hub.
AllianceTexas continues to expand and increase its economic influence. Most recently, Facebook selected the development as the site for its fifth, and largest, data processing center.
The economic development efforts of Fort Worth’s private investors are supported by close partnerships with community organizations and public-sector entities, especially when it comes to creating a highly skilled workforce. For instance, Tarrant County College (TCC) works directly with business leaders to create customized certification programs and classes to train current and future employees with specific skill sets. As well, the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, Workforce Solutions of Tarrant County and the Fort Worth Independent School District all work together to identify workforce trends and ensure that residents of all ages are being prepared for the jobs of today and tomorrow.
A recent partnership established between Texas Christian University and the University of North Texas Health Science Center to offer an M.D. program is another great example of a public-private partnership that benefits the local economy. The program is funded by a group of private donors who understand that enhancing the city’s medical workforce is vital to the growth of Fort Worth’s life sciences sector. By getting private donations instead of public funds, the program will be available to students sooner than it would if going through the normal processes because it did not require the approval of the Texas State Legislature.
Without a doubt, the pioneering spirit that got a major railroad extended to Fort Worth, and changed the city’s course of history, has evolved into the entrepreneurial spirit that is constantly feeding Fort Worth’s robust economy with even more opportunities. With the ongoing involvement and support of today’s local business leaders, we have every reason to believe that public-private partnerships will continue to be the key to Fort Worth’s long-term economic vitality.