Fort Worth

Can Fort Worth avoid becoming a Dallas suburb? City hopes tax breaks help

“People think we’re a suburb of Dallas, and we’re not.” Here’s Mayor Betsy Price on the city’s PR challenge

Mayor Betsy Price talks about how Fort Worth is statistically becoming a “bedroom city.” At the presentation of the city’s economic development plan Dec. 12 at the Fort Worth Botanic Gardens
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Mayor Betsy Price talks about how Fort Worth is statistically becoming a “bedroom city.” At the presentation of the city’s economic development plan Dec. 12 at the Fort Worth Botanic Gardens

On most mornings Robert Houston is on the road to Dallas by 1 a.m.

At that time traffic from his northwest Fort Worth home is pretty easy, so he doesn’t mind the drive. Plus he makes about $17,000 more at his telecommunications job on the east side of the Metroplex than he would in Cowtown.

“I’ve had the opportunity to come back to Fort Worth,” said Houston, who has worked 19 years in construction and engineering for the telecom company, three of those years in Dallas. “My wife and I sat down and talked it over. It just comes down to the money. “

That scenario — talented workers commuting to Dallas County for a better paying job — is one Fort Worth officials say needs to be tackled.

It’s the sort of thing that can lead Fort Worth to becoming a suburb of Dallas rather than a principal city, as a late 2017 report warned. The lack of business growth also puts a heavier burden on residential property owners and makes the city less competitive.

Nearly 192,000 Fort Worth residents leave the city for work, according to 2014 Census data used in the city’s strategic plan last year. That’s less than the more than 227,000 who commute into Fort Worth, but the number of people leaving the city has grown sharply. From 2005 to 2014 the percentage of commuters leaving Fort Worth has jumped from 53 percent to 62 percent. In that same time, the number of people living and working in the city grew by about 5,600.

A tax-incentive plan to attract new business may put the city on track to solve that. It features wage requirements near $44,000, a focus on attracting Fortune 500-type companies and a push for diversifying Fort Worth companies.

The Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce would like to add two corporate headquarters in the next three years, said Chris Strayer, senior vice president for business attraction, retention and expansion. American Airlines is the only Fortune 500 company based in Fort Worth.

The incentives should help put Fort Worth on the map when companies are looking to relocate, said Robert Sturns, Fort Worth’s director of economic development.

“We’ve found it difficult with all the activity in the Metroplex for Fort Worth to be a part of the conversation,” Sturns said. “When we get people here to see the city, Fort Worth is an easy sell, so part of it is getting our message out there.”

A plan council members approved unanimously on Tuesday includes an 85 percent break for large “mega projects,” tech companies and other target industries, down to 25 percent for more general investments. Companies preforming research and development can receive reimbursement up to 50 percent of their taxes. The policy also includes incentives for development around commuter rail lines.

Among requirements are a minimum investment of $10 million for existing companies and $25 million for new companies, stipulations on wages and rules about contracting with minority- and women-owned businesses. Rather than focus on the central business district, the investment zones are based on low-income areas.

“We need to get our name out there,” said Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price. “We’re not known nationally and it’s our responsibility to change that.”

So what kind of companies does Fort Worth want?

Fortune 500-like companies, corporate headquarters and businesses that can leverage Fort Worth’s transportation, manufacturing and aerospace strengths are the primary target, but Sturns said high wages are prioritized.

Last year the city provided about $16 million worth of incentives, he said, but about $3.7 billion of private investment was made in Fort Worth, Sturns said.

The city found it needed to be positioned better to attract large corporations when Amazon passed over DFW for the New York and Washington, D.C., areas for HQ2.

Tech is still on the radar, Sturns said.

Austin may be considered Texas’ Silicon Valley, but Fort Worth is positioned to attract small to mid-sized tech companies. Those companies can easily get priced out of a city when large tech firms drive up property values and compete for workers and land.

The Facebook data center, which opened in May 2017, has brought smaller contractors and supplies to the city, which provides a foundation to attract other companies.

“We’re trying to strike a balance between large-scale corporate headquarters, and what I see as a growing opportunity from entrepreneurship and innovations,” Sturns said.

Along with the technology sector, the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce hopes to expand the aerospace industry, and attract food and biology or life-science-related companies. In the future, financial technology firms will be on the radar, Strayer said.

“In order to continue Fort Worth’s strength as a twin city, we must look beyond population numbers and look at boosting our commercial tax base,” Strayer said in an email. “Business support is what affords a community to have its own amenities like a world-class symphony, opera, zoo, museums and other assets that will continue to attract talent, not only to live here, but to work here.”

Not all projects will deserve incentives, Sturns said, and the city will be judicious about which companies receive a boost.

On Tuesday the council heard plans to attract the Stanley Black & Decker factory in Farmers Branch to Fort Worth, bringing about 200 jobs with an average wage of $45,000.

“It doesn’t really help an area like southeast Fort Worth to seed a project that pays $10 or $12 an hour,” he said. “You need jobs that can sustain a good quality of life.”

It’s not just incentives that help attract jobs, said Sally Bane, executive director of economic development for Plano. Fortune 500 companies J.C. Penney, Alliance Data, Yuma China Holdings, owners of KFC and Pizza Hut, and Keurig Dr. Pepper have headquarters in Plano.

Though Plano has set aside funds for incentives since 2006, the backbone of what makes the city attractive is a well-educated workforce, Bane said. About 55 percent of Plano workers have at least a bachelor’s degree, she said.

“Access to that kind of talent is fundamental and key to attracting business,” she said. “We become attractive almost right at the first level for any project.”

Building an educated workforce from the ground up has become a major tenet of Price’s time as Fort Worth mayor.

“You have to have a strong, educated workforce and you have to prove you’re improving education,” she said.

It’s also about quality of life, which Price said rivals other cities in terms of cost of living and amenities.

That’s what has kept Houston, the telecoms worker, in Fort Worth.

He would give up the pre-dawn Dallas shift “in a heartbeat” if he could work in Fort Worth at the same wage. He and his wife grew up around Fort Worth and chose this side of the Metroplex for the lower cost of living.

“That’s really not my kind of living,” he said of Dallas. “This is home to us.”

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Luke Ranker covers the intersection of people and government focused on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. He came to Texas from the plains of Kansas, where he wrote about a lot, including government, crime and courts in Topeka. He survived a single winter in Pennsylvania as a breaking news reporter. He can be reached at 817-390-7747 or lranker@star-telegram.com.

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