Keeping downtown Fort Worth clean and safe has been Todd Holzaepfel’s job for the past three decades.
But others who know Holzaepfel say his work went far beyond that. They credit him with being a behind-the-scenes force who shaped downtown into what it is today — a vibrant central city that has been cited as one of the best in the nation.
Holzaepfel is retiring at the end of the month after 30 years with Downtown Fort Worth Inc., an advocacy organization launched in the early 1980s to improve downtown.
Before he joined the group, Holzaepfel was a planner with the city of Fort Worth, where he worked on the downtown sector planning process. He was hired by the fledgling organization to oversee the creation of the special taxing district that has since spent millions of dollars on landscaping and maintenance projects. He stayed on to administer the district and serve as a liaison to property owners.
There isn’t a day that goes by that Holzaepfel doesn’t remember what downtown was like when he started in the early 1980s.
“Everyone’s perception of the same thing can be different,” Holzaepfel said. “I thought it was pretty clean, although a drab downtown. But there was a tremendous growth spurt going on, tremendous development going on. There was over $50 million of public sector monies going in … plus a half-billion dollars worth of private development.”
Those were exciting times, Holzaepfel recalled. Office space was more than doubling, shops were wanting to move in, and hotels were expanding. Downtown was growing by leaps and bounds.
But when business leaders stopped looking at the skyline and began looking at the sidewalks, all they saw was trash, weeds and homeless people living on the street.
“That didn’t play well, and they thought something needed to be done,” he said. “I was just a worker bee. My job was to pick up the trash and keep the place looking pretty. I’ve had the best job in Fort Worth. Coming from the public sector, I’ve always believed in public service, that my job was to say ‘yes’ as often as I could, to as many people as I could. I never knew when I took this on it would be that long of a ride.”
Holzaepfel, who became a vice president with Downtown Fort Worth Inc., convinced downtown property owners to agree to the public improvement district, funded by a special tax. It was the first of its kind in Texas.
Ken Devero, Downtown Fort Worth Inc.’s first president, who hired Holzaepfel, said they plowed new ground with the PID.
“It was quite a challenge,” Devero said. “He took the owners’ concerns very serious. He’d help them in any way he could.”
Since it was founded, the district’s budget has grown to $2.5 million from about $775,000, all spent on downtown.
Initially, the district was approved for three years, followed by four consecutive five-year terms. In 2009, Holzaepfel was able to get property owners to agree to a 20-year term for the district.
Andy Taft, president of Downtown Fort Worth Inc., said obtaining the longer term “is a tremendous testimony to [Holzaepfel’s] management of the program. Todd’s efforts with the PID have been instrumental in turning around the perception of downtown.”
Holzaepfel has never backed down advocating for downtown, Taft said.
“Downtown is a personal and professional passion of his,” Taft said. “In this line of work, where the payoff is so delayed … projects take so long … it has to be more than a job. It has to be a passion. He never sought the spotlight and always put the volunteers in front. That’s the way he handled things.”
Holzaepfel came to Fort Worth after having been city administrator in Pinehurst, in Southeast Texas, for two years. He has earned three master’s degrees, completed the requirements for a fourth, and earned a doctorate in Transatlantic History from the University of Texas at Arlington. He also teaches history at Tarrant County College.
As manager of the downtown PID, Holzaepfel fostered events that led to the creation of the Main St. Arts Festival — where he has set up artists and food vendor booths — and he has walked the Downtown Parade of Lights every year since its inception in 1983.
It was his idea to put police officers on horseback downtown, remove the pesky grackles each year, and he oversaw renovations of Burnett Park and General Worth Square. He has been involved in implementing three Strategic Action Plans that guide downtown development.
Johnny Campbell, president and CEO of Sundance Square, who has worked with Holzaepfel as chairman of the PID’s advisory board, learned of Holzaepfel’s work on the PID while in Houston several years ago.
The idea of a public improvement district, Campbell said, was brilliant. Little did Campbell know that years later they would meet. Campbell said he was impressed with Holzaepfel’s ability to bring the private and public sectors together and move Fort Worth forward.
“You’re seeing the fruits of 30 some odd years,” Campbell said of downtown today. “Todd is such an understated person. He takes a very personal interest, and what I would call an ownership style, in our district. I catch him walking the streets as often as I do. I just appreciate his sincerity.”
It wasn’t always easy, Holzaepfel said. Changing the perception that downtown had a high crime rate was a particularly tough task. But his research showed that downtown was two to six times safer than other city neighborhoods, Holzaepfel said.
“What we needed was a sense that someone was in control,” Holzaepfel said. “Instead of hiring a bunch more officers, we convinced the police chief to put two of his officers on horseback. It increased the perception of security.”
That, and planting rows of pansies in streetside planter boxes, he said.
“When you’re walking down Main Street and you’re looking at those plants in line and there’s no trash on the sidewalks and there’s no weeds growing up, it tells the lady that’s here on a convention that she’s safe,” Holzaepfel said. “She doesn’t have to see a cop. She just has to see that someone’s in charge.”
Sandra Baker, 817-390-7727