Baker, Ahles & Kaskovich

Fort Worth entrepreneurs create a lodge out of shipping containers


Malcolm Fleet and Dick Varnell didn’t set out to build a Ritz Carlton.

But when the Fort Worth entrepreneurs stacked 32 shipping containers together on the edge of Big Lake last year and called it a hotel, they thought they had come up with a pretty good idea for housing transient workers who descend on small towns in the Texas oil patch.

And they still believe in Big Lake and the project, despite the recent oil bust.

“I wouldn’t put these things in some places — like the cities — but the remote areas like this, it makes sense,” Varnell said. “It was something that made sense economically.”

Affordable housing is a big issue in small towns hit by a wave of drilling. In Big Lake, which is about 300 miles southwest of Fort Worth, officials said that when the oil boom first hit in the Permian Basin five years ago, workers were sleeping in their cars. Pretty soon so-called man camps — impromptu collections of small cabins and RV parks — sprang up.

“Housing has been an issue across the basin,” said Tim Dove, president and chief operating officer of Irving-based Pioneer Natural Resources, a big player in the Permian Basin.

Varnell and Fleet thought there had to be a better answer than building traditional apartments. Varnell, a veteran of the oil industry, said he chatted about it with Fleet, who had a background in the apartment business, at Ridglea Country Club. One thing led to another.

For about $4,000 each, they bought steel containers that are 8 feet wide, 40 feet long and 9.5 feet tall. Built in China, they were used only one time to ship goods. Then, before hauling them to Big Lake, they cut in windows, installed bathrooms, sprayed in foam insulation and hung drywall.

Meanwhile, in Big Lake, they poured concrete pads with piers and metal plates to anchor down the containers once they arrived. Water and electricity was brought in. After the containers arrived, they were decorated with beds, tables, hot plates and big-screen TVs. Spartan, but liveable.

“Once you’re inside, you can’t tell it’s a container. It’s like a house,” Fleet said.

They called it “The Lodge at Big Lake.”

At first, Varnell and Fleet had 16 containers stacked around a central court when it opened in March 2015. They added 16, bringing it up to 32 rooms. They get $79.99 a night for a double and $69.99 for a single. Seven to 10 of the rooms are now occupied, Varnell said.

Before the recent oil bust, the pair had planned to put in seven pods, for a total of 112 rooms, Varnell said. If and when the boom returns to Big Lake and the Permian, they have room to expand.

But if that doesn’t happen, they can always move them. After all, they are shipping containers. They’ve already talked about building more “hotels” in Pecos and New Mexico.

“You can hook it up and put it on a trailer and haul them around,” Varnell said. “We’ll have to wait and see how we do with this. … We had a big learning curve on these things.” Max B. Baker

Like old times at DFW Airport board

It was like the 1970s all over again at the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport board meeting last week, as some old-fashioned Dallas vs. Fort Worth competition broke out.

Dallas Councilman Lee Kleinman, sitting in for Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, decided to question the airport staff about $350,000 being spent on an international airports conference coming to Fort Worth.

Why was it being held in Cowtown? What was the money needed for? And while these international airport executives are in town, shouldn’t there be an event at Dallas Love Field to show off that newly renovated regional airport? Kleinman contended.

John Ackerman, DFW Airport’s executive vice president of global strategy and development, politely responded that DFW was paying a $150,000 hosting fee for the Airports Council International North America 2017 Annual Conference and the remaining $200,000 would be used to help put on events associated with the conference and for VIP transportation.

And Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price kept her cool as she commented that the Fort Worth Convention & Visitors Bureau had led the bidding for the conference, which was awarded to the city in 2012.

As Kleinman pressed on about how Love Field needs to be included, Price brought up Meacham, Alliance and Fort Worth Spinks airports as other examples that airport executives will get to experience during the conference.

Sean Donohue, CEO of DFW Airport, also mentioned that the airport is supporting the World Travel and Tourism Council global summit that will be held in Dallas in April. Kleinman wanted to know if it was at the same dollar amount as the AIC conference in Fort Worth and Donohue assured him it was in the same range even though he didn’t have an exact figure.

“Historically, if you go back 10 or 15 years, DFW has hosted a lot of these conferences. … It showcases the entire region,” Donohue said as he managed to keep the peace during the meeting.

Andrea Ahles: 817-390-7631, @Sky_Talk

Sandra Baker: 817-390-7727, @SandraBakerFWST

Steve Kaskovich: 817-390-7773, @stevekasko