Glencrest Civic League will continue to fight distillery

09/01/2014 9:30 PM

09/02/2014 8:24 AM

The Glencrest Civic League is still smarting from a July City Council decision to allow the historic Glen Garden Country Club to be turned into a whiskey distillery.

Members of the Glencrest Civic League believe that they were essentially disregarded by the council because Glencrest is a predominantly black community.

Going forward, the board also worries that the history of the course will be lost, despite assurances of preservation from the distillery owners at the July 15 council meeting, when the council voted 7-2 to approve the distillery project by rezoning the historic country club, which was opened in 1912 by H.H. Cobb of the OK Cattle Co..

“I’m mad as hell,” said the Rev. Carl Pointer, who lives in the Rolling Hills neighborhood in southeast Fort Worth. “I feel like our community was totally disrespected, that they treated us as if we were from some Third World nation and had no business even being in the council chambers.”

Mayor Betsy Price, however, said she “couldn’t disagree with that more.”

“I think everyone who comes before the council is treated equally and with respect,” Price said. “Council has the right to vote for the best of the community. And I see nothing that would indicate that them being a minority community, that that ever came into play in this vote.”

The owners of the distillery, Leonard Firestone and Troy Robertson, did not return several calls for comment from the Star-Telegram but explained their proposal to expand their current operation, at 901 W. Vickery Blvd., at the council meeting.

The owners want to transform the 106 acres in southeast Fort Worth, where golf legends Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson got their start as caddies, into a tourist destination.

Howard Ratliff, who lives across the street from Glen Garden and spoke for the civic league during the contentious council meeting, said he and other community members have filed protests with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission in an effort try to stop the required licensing at the new site.

“We are still mightily challenging the zoning case itself, as a long shot as that may be,” Ratliff said. “We are still praying that we have enough resistance and that we have put forward enough resistance that Firestone and Robertson will say: ‘Hey, this is not worth it. Let’s go look elsewhere.’ ”

Councilwoman Kelly Allen Gray, who represents the neighborhood, voted against the distillery but said the issue was not about race. Councilwoman Gyna Bivens, the only other African- American on the council, cast the other “no” vote.

Gray said the council also had to look at the potential of “losing a Fort Worth brand, potentially to another city, as well as the tax base that goes along with it.”

“I can only speak for myself, but there are a lot of times we are not a united front on issues and this happened to be one of those times we differed,” Gray said of the council.

A history lost?

One concern from council members and other speakers at the meeting was that the history of Fort Worth’s second-oldest golf course — and the course that birthed two of golf’s greatest legends — would be lost.

Robertson said at the meeting that they will preserve the history of the course, creating “essentially a museum,” since they also have the option to buy the golf memorabilia. But letters sent to the co-owners of the distillery by Ben Hogan’s heirs and Byron Nelson’s trust forbid the distillery from using the golf legends’ likeness or name in connection with the distillery.

Jon Bradley, trustee of Nelson’s estate, worked with Nelson since 1978 and said Nelson’s widow prompted the letter.

“As a devout Christian, he chose not to have his name associated with alcoholic beverages,” Bradley said.

Bradley said Nelson, as a businessman, would probably understand the golf course owners’ desire to sell the course.

Councilman Jungus Jordan, who questioned Robertson about their plans to preserve that history, said “it would have been nice to have that testimony before,” but he doubted that it would have changed the outcome.

Disrespected at meeting?

Area residents, who showed up en masse at the meeting, expressed worries about traffic, a lack of traffic studies, noise from the distilling process, smells, drinking and driving incidents, a potential fungus from producing whiskey and the offense of having a distillery near churches and schools.

A supermajority of votes — 7 of 9 — was also needed for approval of the zoning change, because more than 25 percent of property owners within 200 feet of the property line registered opposition to the change.

Pointer said those concerns and the unusually intense community involvement against the distillery was “dismissed” by council members.

The president of the Fort Worth Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Nehemiah Davis, said he has “never seen an act like that take place before.”

“It was one of the low moments for this City Council,” Davis said, adding that the NAACP will continue to support Glencrest in their efforts.

Davis said the council would not have dismissed the concerns of a majority white community, like they did Glencrest.

Davis and Ratliff also believe that Price should have recused herself from the vote because she has held fundraisers at the current location of the distillery. Price and City Attorney Sarah Fullenwider, however, said it was not a conflict because Price paid to use the facility.

Another concern of residents was the amount of time they were given to make their case. Residents are limited to three minutes of presentations at the council, unless they are representing to a group of 10 or more. For the three-minute presentations, a timer is supposed to sound at two minutes and 30 seconds, indicating that 30 seconds are remaining to speak. A second timer is supposed to ring at three minutes, indicating that time is up.

For those against the zoning change, the first bell rang at 2:31 on average for each speaker and the second bell rang at three minutes and three seconds.

For the speakers in favor of the distillery, however, the first timer sounded on average at 3:03 and the second bell rang at 4:44, on average.

“I cannot speak as to why the bell rang several times for some speakers, and I’m not going to second-guess the staff as they have their hands full at the dais, and the bell is not automated or exact,” Jason Lamers, chief of staff for the mayor and council, wrote in an email.

Price agreed that the amount of time each side got was “totally fair.”

Robertson, in favor of the distillery, spoke for 13:55 minutes. Ratliff, against the distillery, spoke for 16:21. With both of the group speakers for each side included, those opposing the distillery received more time on average, at 5:39 minutes compared with 4:59 minutes for those in favor of the distillery.

Throughout the proceedings that Tuesday night, city marshals were patrolling the often-vocal crowd, asking for quiet. One man was escorted out of the council chambers after standing up to protest as the pastor of a church near the golf course spoke in favor of the distillery.

Economic development

Robertson said at the meeting that the distillery owners plan to reinvest about $15 million into the existing grounds and said they will keep much of the land open, similar to what is seen along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail or at popular California vineyards.

The owners have seen more than 10,000 people tour the facility at its current location, and their whiskey was named Best American Craft Whiskey in 2013.

Price said the City Council’s decision was not only for the good of that area, which needs economic development, but also for the entire city.

“I feel like it will bring a lot of attention to the city. It will bring a lot of tourists in, a lot of people who want to see the venue, and it will help showcase that area out there,” Price said. “They wanted economic development. It is great economic development.”

Monnie Gilliam, a resident of southeast Fort Worth and a longtime community volunteer who has served on the recent Homelessness Task Force, spoke in favor of the distillery at the meeting.

“The area is deteriorating. Glen Garden County Club was not adding anything to the economic development or the growth of that area,” Gilliam said. “I just don’t see any of the negatives people are trying to create.”

Also African-American, Gilliam said the suggestion that the opposition was discriminated against because of race was “ludicrous.”

“I’m sick and tired of the race card and that is what that is. It has nothing to do with it,” Gilliam said.

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