Fort Worth rolled out the welcome mat to hundreds of spectators at South by Southwest on Tuesday as part of a two-day “Fort Worth Now” exposition designed to promote the North Texas city as a land of growth, opportunity and innovation.
According to organizers, up to 800 participants trooped through a two-block-long exhibition hall to sample an eclectic range of offerings from Cowtown. There were free haircuts by Fort Worth Barber Shop, rides aboard an interactive Bell air taxi prototype and sorties in a Lockheed Martin F-35 jet fighter simulator. Also, a half-dozen Fort Worth bands and musicians performed throughout the day on an outdoor stage. And those who return Wednesday can sample whiskey from Fort Worth’s Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co.
The event offered businesses both big and small an opportunity to introduce themselves to international visitors in Austin for the 2018 edition of South by Southwest, Austin’s globally-known film, music and high-tech extravaganza that typically draws more than 300,000 visitors annually.
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price and other boosters proclaimed the opening day as a successful start in the city’s emerging efforts to rebrand itself and broaden its appeal to a global audience. Two unflattering studies recently found that the nation’s 16th-largest city, with a population of more than 854,000, is falling behind its competitors in luring major businesses and is not as well known as it should be for a city its size.
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The goal, said Price, was to portray Fort Worth as “a very creative,” “very high-energy city” with “very good vibes.”
“The idea is to promote the city,” she said at the outset of Fort Worth Now. “I think it’s going to be pretty easy to do.”
The biggest draw by far appeared to be the Jetsons-style flying taxi, a collaborative effort between Bell, Uber and Ross Perot Jr.’s Hillwood Properties, which plans to develop heliports where passengers can catch a ride on the futuristic aircraft. Michael Thacker, Bell’s executive vice president for technology and innovation, said the Fort Worth company considers the concept an emerging part of its business and hopes to have the tilt-rotor-style aircraft operational by the mid-2020s.
“People dreamed about it for decades,” he said, and it's now close to becoming a reality.
Visitors lined up throughout the day to board the four-seat prototype, don special headgear and take a virtual reality flight among skyscrapers and above city traffic to be whisked off to a golf course, a gala or (perhaps the least favorite) a business meeting. Bell communications manager Lindsey Hughes said 375 people took a ride on the first day of operation.
Another aerospace giant — Lockheed Martin — had continuous lines for its simulator of the F-35, one of the world’s most sophisticated warplanes that is produced at the company’s mile-long plant in west Fort Worth.
Many visitors also apparently found it impossible to pass up the free haircuts and beard trims being offered by Fort Worth Barber Shop, which back home would normally charge $30 for a haircut and $20 for the trim.
“We want to do anything we can to elevate the city of Fort Worth,” said Jonathan Morris, who has owned the barber shop for more than three years.
Price, known as the city’s bicycling mayor, mingled throughout the exhibit hall for much of the morning still wearing red, white and blue cycling garb after leading an early-morning ride to the exhibit hall from a bicycle shop. Austin Mayor Steve Adler was at the shop to welcome the Fort Worth visitors. More than 40 cyclists, including several from out of state, participated in the 15K ride.
Bonnie Bishop and the Texas Gentlemen kicked off the music as early-morning visitors sipped mimosas and dined on breakfast tacos, contributing to a casual partylike atmosphere that continued through the day. Red, white and blue “Fort Worth Now” placards in varying sizes were plastered throughout the building, even on mirrors in the bathrooms.
Price has estimated the cost of the undertaking at $500,000, paid for by sponsors and private support. A major source of funding is the Fort Worth Promotion and Development Fund, which was created in 1994 by then Mayor Kay Granger and has since become a nonprofit fund supporting a variety of promotional activities for the city. A typical grant ranges from $5,000 to $25,000, said fund manager Linda Fulmer.
Underscoring the importance that city leaders have attached to the South by Southwest event is the fact that the fund’s $100,000 grant for Fort Worth Now is by far the largest single allocation since its $300,000-plus for the 2011 Super Bowl in Arlington.
Robert Sturns, Fort Worth’s economic director, said the city, widely known for its defense industry, is hoping to broaden its image beyond manufacturing to widen its appeal to young professionals in the high-tech industry and other emerging sectors of the 21st-century economy.
“We’re still a very manufacturing-heavy community,” he said. “We don’t want to lose our base. We just want to diversify.”