Humidity hung heavy in the air after some early morning rain one day last week as dozens of visitors to the city’s Historic Stockyards lined the east end of Exchange Avenue to watch the morning drive of the Fort Worth Herd.
That’s why they came to the Stockyards, to see the massive longhorns, the cowboys and horses, and the more than 100-year-old buildings that have been preserved from a time long ago. Time has stopped in the Stockyards, yet the area just north of downtown provides Fort Worth with a signature tourist attraction that can’t be claimed by any other U.S. city.
Development has also stopped in the Stockyards.
Groups have eyed the area as ripe for commercial growth and residential expansion, but the last decade has seen little done. Until now.
Majestic Realty Co. of California, family-owned and one of the largest privately-held real estate companies in the country, has stepped forward to team with Fort Worth’s Hickman family, the largest landowner in the Stockyards, to spend some big dollars to build hotels, restaurants and shops, residential units and other tourist attractions over the next decade.
Some Stockyards stakeholders oppose the project and say the City Council this past week moved too fast in granting economic incentives for the project. The developers haven’t provided enough detail about what’s on the drawing board, they say, and they fear it may harm the Stockyards’ charm.
Yet, others say the expansion could be good for business and the city.
“These tourists walk in and go, ‘This is what I’ve been looking for since I got to Texas, real cowboys and real cattle,’ ” said Gayle Hill, owner of the General Store and Maverick Fine Western Wear shops, on opposite corners at Exchange Avenue and Main Street. She has been a Stockyards merchant since 1983.
“We’ve got a great thing going on,” Hill said. “There are a lot of successful businesses out here. I’m not against having more of them, but we need to preserve the lifestyle and history. We can’t let this fall to rack and ruin.”
Holt Hickman, which for decades has owned a major portion of the Stockyards District and led the Stockyards revival from a crumbling historic area into what it is today — recognized worldwide — has formed a joint venture with Majestic Realty to spend $175 million on an expansion. The City Council approved $26 million in economic incentives for the project.
But with that approval came admonishments from council members who promise to keep a keen eye on what gets built. Zoning changes will be made to the area, and a committee will be formed to have oversight. No warehouses and no big box stores, they warn.
“We get one shot at doing this right,” said Mayor Betsy Price.
The Fort Worth Convention & Visitors Bureau estimates 3 million people visit the Stockyards annually.
Mark Dunlap, general manager at M.L. Leddy’s custom bootmaker at 2455 N. Main St., which has been in the Stockyards more than 70 years, said the development could be an economic boost, particularly if it adds hotel rooms. But he’s concerned about the increased traffic and whether the streets can handle it.
“We’re excited about what the potential could be from a business standpoint,” Dunlap said, but added, “We’re like everyone else, we’re concerned about the final product.”
Good for business
The project will involve property on the north and south sides of Exchange Avenue between Northeast 23rd and Northeast 28th streets, and the former Swift-Armour packing plant area east of Packers Avenue.
Nine years ago the 101-room AmeriSuites hotel opened at 132 E. Exchange Ave. It’s a project of the Hickman’s, and its architecture and interior motif were gladly received by city and tourism officials, who were clamoring at the time for more hotel rooms in the Stockyards. The hotel flag has since changed to Hyatt Place.
Nathan Gallagher, a store manager at Knife World at 114-A E. Exchange Ave., said he sees little difference from what’s being proposed and how the now-Hyatt Place was added.
“It fits in,” Gallagher said. “It can be done if it complements what’s here. It could bring in more tourism. If that helps, I’m for it.”
Chad Mayfield, general manager at Risky’s Steakhouse, 120 E. Exchange Ave., in the Stockyards since 1927 and one of Tarrant County’s oldest restaurants, said he’s not opposed to new hotels, but he doesn’t want to see chain restaurants.
“We want to keep it authentic,” Mayfield said. “Business is great. It’s been picking up tremendously.”
Back in local hands
The Hickmans own about 80 acres in the 125-acre historical district and more in partnerships. Hickman was joined by Lyda Hunt Hill, a granddaughter of Dallas oil giant H.L. Hunt, and the two built a new Stockyards Visitors Center and bought and restored the Livestock Exchange Building. In its heyday, 5 million head of cattle were traded there. The new group wants to revive livestock auctions.
Hickman and Hunt also converted the crumbling hog and sheep pens into a shopping and dining plaza called Stockyards Station.
About 68 acres of the Hickman holdings are involved in the planned development with Majestic, including a large portion at the far east end of the Stockyards known as the Swift-Armor District, where company buildings still stand in whole or in ruin among the brush that hasn’t been touched for years.
Hickman bought the Stockyards land in the 1980s and 1990s, a large portion of it from Canal Capital Corp. in New York, which had owned the property since the 1970s. Local leaders heralded Hickman’s acquisitions from Canal for putting the property back in local hands.
Brad Hickman tells a story that after his father bought the Stockyards property, he walked Hickman Cos.’ chief financial officer down Exchange Avenue and told him, “We may never make a penny on this, but it’s good for Fort Worth.”
Jarrell McDonald, owner of Cross-Eyed Moose, Adobe Western Art Gallery and Bum Steer shops at 2340 N. Main St., just south of the Stockyards district, since 1995, agrees investment is good for the Stockyards. Many of his customers drive here from Dallas, he said.
“It can do nothing but good if they do it right,” McDonald said. “Anytime they spend money down here and do it right, it’s great, like the Basses did downtown,” he said, referring to the 35-block Sundance Square commercial, office and entertainment district. “We need some attractions here.”
Brad Hickman said that as soon as the zoning changes are in place, the Majestic-Hickman group will begin talking to north side leaders and business owners to gather information to begin putting together a plan of where it would like to see apartments, shops, offices and attractions during the next decade. To receive the full incentive, the group must spend $175 million by the end of 2024.
“It’s not a small project,” Hickman said. “We are extremely excited with the commitment from the city of Fort Worth partnering with us in revitalizing the Stockyards. If we don’t do anything, it will continue to erode and deteriorate. What we are doing is preserving, restoring and enhancing the Western lifestyle Fort Worth is famous for.”
One day last week, Martha and Doyle Loftis arrived from Sarepta, a northwest Louisiana town of 941 people. They were headed to Seattle to visit their grandchildren and made an overnight stop in Fort Worth just to see the Stockyards.
Doyle Loftis once lived in Graham and spent time during high school with the FFA at the Stockyards. He wanted his wife to see the area. “I still call it Cowtown, not Fort Worth,” he said.
Martha Loftis was impressed, saying, “It’s a neat little place.”