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Love's eatery has given new life to river vision

If the Woodshed Smokehouse is any indication of what's ahead for the Trinity River Vision, maybe they could start digging that bypass channel a few years early. How will Fort Worth ever wait?

The Woodshed is so good, so soon, that it gives the river project a jolt of new energy and even gives government a good name.

It's also consistent with the best things about the TRV: thinking big and thinking different.

The TRV aims to move a river, reclaim acres of waterfront land near downtown and attract the development to pay for it. Celebrity chef Tim Love sees the Woodshed as an iconic venue unlike any in North Texas, and a place that stirs a love affair with the river.

Activity and interest in the TRV have picked up recently. Developers from Austin and Dallas are again kicking dirt and talking about what might work on the banks of the Trinity. A drive-in theater is coming to Trinity Uptown this summer, along with a solar-powered concert and more river tubing events.

The TRV's big building may still be a decade away, after the levees come down, but the big sell is on again. And for would-be producers and developers, the tour starts with a trip to the Woodshed, just to see what's possible.

The Woodshed has become the de facto model home for the TRV, as unique as the water project itself. This has the makings of a big financial success ( Texas Monthly called it a megahit). But it could have been justified as a loss leader -- the impression is that strong, the sense of place so spot-on.

The combination restaurant, beer garden, trailhead and gourmet barbecue joint is located near the zoo and TCU area, at 3201 Riverfront Drive. If you go, make reservations first.

Three-hour waits aren't unusual on weekend nights, and up to 400 people eat there in a single evening. The Woodshed opened in February, racked up $315,000 in first-month sales and quickly became one of the top buyers of wholesale brew in Tarrant County.

The Tarrant Regional Water District, which opted to go large and all-in, spent almost $1 million to build the pavilion-style structure (designed by Bennett Benner Pettit of Fort Worth).

The district initially expected to recoup its investment in five to seven years. Now Love, who brought the private to the public-private partnership, said that could happen in Year 2 -- that's how good business has been.

Imagine the traffic during the Colonial golf tourney and TCU football games.

Eventually, the water district will net several hundred thousand dollars a year, to be funneled into trail improvements and other river uses. That's great, but this was never about maximizing restaurant dollars, which is why some early critics had it so wrong.

They complained that J.D. Granger, executive director for the TRV Authority, hadn't asked for bids before signing a 10-year lease with Love. Texas law doesn't require competitive bidding for the water district, and that's fortunate, because Granger wasn't buying gravel for a riverbed.

He was trying to prove that river development could be a big-time winner in Fort Worth -- that a prime location on the water might be worth three times more than land a few blocks away. Do that and stoke some pent-up demand, and a decade from now, the tax base would soar and the TRV economics would work.

That's the long game. And in Love, Granger has an ideal partner, a contemporary Fort Worth river-lover who hiked the Appalachian Trail as a kid. Famous for his inventive menus, Love has a strong local following and a national profile. Those are valuable fringe benefits when you have to eventually sell miles of riverfront property.

The Woodshed has already won some glowing reviews, and writers from national publications are on the way. On Friday, Love said he's scheduled to do an interview with Good Morning America.

Granger didn't have the option of selling the Woodshed's tiny parcel to Love. It had to remain in government hands for potential flood control. Rather than a simple lease, Granger and Love worked out a risk-sharing deal, with 4 to 6 percent of gross revenue going to the water district, depending on sales volume.

That balances the downside of a Texas heat wave in a casual outdoor venue. Granger wouldn't OK air conditioning in the restaurant, because he wanted a gritty, authentic feel and a natural connection with the river. But there are misters and giant fans, and Love is looking for a way to pipe in cool air if necessary.

"I don't want people to have any reason to stay away," Love said.

The revenue arrangement gives everybody more skin in the game, but that's almost secondary to the reputations riding on this. Granger's every move is scrutinized and often criticized by TRV opponents. And Love is upset that rivals see this as a sweetheart deal. He insists that the lease costs him more than any other.

And it's not as if he's just endorsing the place. On a recent night, Love was a constant presence, running in and out of the kitchen, and working the room and patio.

He's often asked to describe his unusual style of food and atmosphere at the Woodshed, and said he's waiting for a food critic to coin the right term. But it sounds like he's figured it out.

"I call it my perfect summer day," Love said.

The Trinity River Vision folks couldn't have scripted it better.

Mitchell Schnurman's column appears Sundays and Thursdays, 817-390-7821Twitter: @mitchschnurman

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