Hordes of international visitors are once again clogging the streets of Austin for SXSW, the city's world-famous festival.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, those who venture into a cavernous exhibit hall at the eastern edge of downtown will find themselves immersed in sights and sounds from another city 200 miles to the north.
Fort Worth has chosen SXSW— or South by Southwest — as its launching point for an ambitious image rebuild after two sobering studies showed that the North Texas city is falling behind its competitors. A two-day Fort Worth exhibit at SXSW is designed to tout the nation’s 16th most populous city as a big-time player and show off its potential to a global audience.
“We had a very eye-opening economic development strategy done that gave us the good, the bad and the ugly and one of them was that people don’t really know Fort Worth,” said Mayor Betsy Price. “We’ve got a great quality of life but they don’t know it necessarily as a strong business community in addition to a great place to live. So South by Southwest is the first real big jump out there to promote it.”
SXSW 2018, which opened Friday, is expected to draw between 300,000 to 400,000 visitors to downtown Austin before it concludes on March 18.
Branded as “Fort Worth Now,” the exhibit will offer displays and programs designed to promote Fort Worth’s attributes in business, innovation, arts, music, film and other disciplines. Fair Market Austin, an exhibit hall with nearly 32,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor display space, will serve as the venue.
Price, an avid cyclist, will kick off the Fort Worth-fest early Tuesday morning after leading up to 175 other cyclists on a 12-mile ride from Mellow Johnny’s Bike Shop to the exhibit hall just east of Interstate 35, which cuts through the center of Austin.
Fort Worth's program will feature a diverse line-up from whiskey makers and entertainers to aerospace giants and business executives. Participating companies include the Firestone & Robertson Distilling Co., Lockheed Martin, Bell, Facebook and Hillwood Properties, developers of the Alliance corridor in far north Fort Worth.
Visitors will have the opportunity to check out a Fort Worth makers market, listen to Fort Worth musicians and take a trip into the future aboard an interactive prototype of an air taxi that Bell hopes to have in production by the mid-2020s. Lockheed Martin is supplying a flight simulator of the Fort Worth-made F-35, one of the world’s most advanced aircraft.
The “activation,” as sponsors describe it, will also include a series of panel discussions on topics ranging from film-making to transportation. Overall, say organizers, the goal is to re-introduce the public to Fort Worth’s familiar brand as the city of “cowboys and culture” but also to tell the story of a booming metropolitan area rich in quality of life and loaded with immense economic opportunities for the future.
'Capitalizing on our strengths'
“We’re really capitalizing on our strengths,” said Brandom Gengelbach, executive vice president of economic development at the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce. “We wanted to be able to create an awareness and excitement about what’s going in Fort Worth” to bring a new wave of talent and visitors into the city, he said.
SXSW, which started in 1987, has grown into a multi-faceted mega-event accenting music, film and innovation and has been a major factor in Austin’s development as an entertainment and high-tech destination. A cities summit has been added to this year’s program.
Fort Worth Now evolved from a collaboration between the city government, the chamber and the Fort Worth Convention & Visitor’s Bureau, which last month renamed itself Visit Fort Worth. Price said the budget for the two-day program is about $500,000 dollars, drawn from the organizing entities as well from private-sector funds.
Fair Market Austin, originally a 1950s warehouse that has been re-purposed into a popular events center, has hosted past SXSW events and is within a few blocks from the skyscrapers of downtown Austin.
“This will be the third year we’ve gone to South by Southwest but this is the first year we’ve been an official event … and on the official schedule, so this is a big statement for Fort Worth,” said Mitch Whitten, vice president of marketing for Visit Fort Worth.
The event is aimed at least partially offsetting critical findings from two studies — one by the city and another by the chamber — which warned that Fort Worth is lagging behind neighboring Dallas and other cities of similar-size in luring new businesses and stimulating economic growth.
“Without a focused business development effort, Fort Worth has fallen behind its competition,’’ said the 492-page economic development plan presented to the city in late December.
The study warned of “very real” threats such as inadequate wage growth, “an out-of-balance tax base,” and “persistent difficulties in attracting skilled and educated young people.”
It added: “These challenges put Fort Worth in an increasingly weak position towards the City of Dallas and aggressive suburbs throughout the metro area.”
The chamber study concluded that Fort Worth lags in job growth and talent recruitment and is “one of the least identifiable big cities in the U.S.”
In a survey of around 500,000 people, fewer participants could identify Fort Worth than any of the other eight cities selected as benchmarks, according to the chamber study. Dallas, the ninth largest city in the country, was thought to be the fourth most populated city. Fort Worth, the 16th largest city, was ranked 45.
The Amazon effect
Both studies presented a strategy to reverse the shortcomings. The chamber’s plan, called “Fortify,” targeted a series of goals over the next four years, including creating thousands of new jobs, luring at least four Fortune 1000 corporate headquarters, increasing business start-ups by 10 percent and improving “the quality of place” by increasing affordable housing and decreasing poverty.
Perceived disparities between Dallas and Fort Worth were underscored in January when the larger city was announced as one of 20 finalists for Amazon’s second headquarters even though the two North Texas cities submitted a joint regional bid for the 50,000-job project.
Amazon officials toured sites in Dallas in February, according to the Dallas Morning News, but Price said she believes Amazon officials are still considering the proposal as a regional bid that includes Arlington and Fort Worth as well as Dallas.
“As far as I know, they are still looking at it as a regional bid,” said Price. Two or three potential sites are in Fort Worth, Price said, although specific locations haven’t been disclosed.
Gengelbach said he is continuing to work closely with the Dallas chamber on the Amazon proposal and described it as a “Dallas-Fort Worth bid.”
“The whole region has been involved in the project. The whole region will continue to be involved,” he said.
Fort Worth leaders say the presentation at South by Southwest is just the first step in an-going marketing push that will also include conferences, conventions and other venues, both in the United States and internationally. Another sales opportunity will present itself in October when Fort Worth musicians travel to London for a five-day event called the Texas Music Takeover.
“This is the first of many to come,” Gengelbach said of the South by Southwest venue.
Said Price: “People love Fort Worth. Part of what they love about it is the small town feel … The disadvantage to it is that business, when they’re looking to re-locate, they just don’t get it, and that’s part of what we’re trying to challenge and change.”