A proposed distillery at the historic Glen Garden Country Club landed in the bunker Wednesday when the Fort Worth Zoning Commission declined to endorse the project in the face of contentious opposition from the neighborhood.
Now, the owners of Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co. of Fort Worth, who are under contract to buy the course, must scramble to garner council support before next month’s meeting if they want to trade golf balls for barrels of whiskey.
But that could prove difficult, with Councilwoman Kelly Allen Gray, who represents that area, saying she intends to stand with the neighborhood and oppose the case at council.
“My position has been, in the past two and a half years since I have been on council, to stand with the community when they have concerns about projects,” Gray said.
She did say, however, that it would be “really great” if the two sides could come together and compromise on a win-win situation for everybody, because she is worried that future developments could also be counter to what the community wants.
“I think my largest concern is — what happens with the country club should this project fall through? And since it didn’t pass zoning, there is a great potential for that to happen,” she said.
The commission, which voted 4-4, struggled with the fact that the proposed development is smack in the middle of the Rolling Hills neighborhood and the need for quality development on that tract of land.
Because the motion to approve the zoning change — which garnered cries of ‘No, no!’ from the crowd — did not get support from the majority of the commission, the case will go to the Fort Worth City Council on July 15 showing that zoning commission members recommend denial.
The owners of the distillery, Leonard Firestone and Troy Robertson, say they will press forward at the council meeting.
“We were obviously disappointed that we ended up with the 4-4 vote and the recommendation to deny, but we think that there is enough value and importance to this to take it to the council in July,” Firestone said.
About 100 people came to the commission meeting to oppose transitioning the country club, which was opened in 1912 by H.H. Cobb of the OK Cattle Co., to a whiskey-producing distillery.
“We are saying as a community we don’t want a whiskey brewery in our neighborhood,” said Helen Collins Epps, an elder at the The Fort Worth HOPE Center.
“We welcome economic development. We are not against economic development. And we know that there are different groups that could come in and buy the country club. We will take our chances,” she said as the large crowd clapped, nodded and said ‘amen.’
The owners say they need to expand operations from their current location at 901 W. Vickery Blvd. and are proposing transforming the 106-acres in southeast Fort Worth, where golf legends Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson once learned the game, into the distillery and a meeting center.
Robertson said the plans are to preserve the history of the course and reinvest about $15 million into the existing grounds. He said they will keep much of the land open, similar to what is seen along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail or at popular California vineyards.
“Many will tell you the rich golf history of Glen Garden is in jeopardy of being forgotten or lost altogether, and we believe they are right,” Robertson said.
“We believe we are the only potential candidate to not only preserve the golf history of Glen Garden, but also expand upon the awareness of its history through our tourism and event hospitality.”
The owners have seen more than 10,000 people tour the facility at its current location, and have hosted numerous private parties, including fundraisers for Mayor Betsy Price and state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth. Firestone & Robertson’s TX Whiskey was named “Best American Craft Whiskey” in 2013.
The business has also grown to 15 employees and would eventually hire another 20 employees if they purchase Glen Garden. They expect to have hourly tours with operating hours for visitors from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“An insult to our dignity”
Still, a staff report says the requested zoning change is not consistent with the existing land use or the comprehensive plan for that area of the city, saying it is a “significant deviation” from planned development.
Wednesday’s vocal crowd expressed worries about traffic, noise, smells, drinking and driving incidents, potential mold from producing whiskey and the offense of having a distillery near churches and schools.
The Rev. Carl Pointer, who lives in the neighborhood, said he doesn’t want “10,000 people who have been sharing, tasting, drinking, partying and reveling driving through my neighborhood.”
“Some folks are a little bit more conservative. Some folk have a little more Christian values. Some people’s lives are kind of Bible based. … It is repulsive to put a brewery across the street from St. Timothy’s church. That is an insult to our faith. That is an insult to our dignity,” he said.
In contrast, the Rev. B.R. Daniels Jr., who pastors the First Greater New Hope Baptist Church located just down the street from the golf course, spoke in favor the zoning change, saying it is better than other potential developments in the same spot.
“When we hear the word liquor, everybody gets in an uproar, but with the way liquor sells, somebody is drinking this stuff, present company included,” Daniels said. “We must understand here today that this is not going to be a honky-tonk. This is not a Billy Bob’s. It is not a bar, it is not a strip club. It is not a juke joint. It is a Class-A business operation whose clientele includes our very own mayor.”
Doug Henderson, president of the East Fort Worth Business Association, and a few nearby residents also came in support of the distillery.
Robertson said the distillery will only be available to adults 21 and over, the business will be located in the center of the golf course to be provide a buffer for the neighborhoods and said by law they can sell a maximum of two bottles per person per month. There is also a possibility the owners could continue to operate nine holes of the golf course, he said.
“We put the words, ‘Made in Fort Worth’ on every bottle and we are extremely proud of where we are from. We have demonstrated with our current facility that we can increase the value of a forgotten historic building through preservation and reuse,” Robertson said.