A suburb of Dallas? Fort Worth is bigger, better than a lot of people think

Fort Worth and Dallas are friendly rivals. But these were fighting words.

A consultant’s 2017 report on Fort Worth’s economic future warned that the city’s gap between booming residential growth and lagging job growth suggests “Fort Worth appears to be on its way to becoming a suburb of Dallas County.”

Ugh. Note to consultants everywhere: Never, ever, suggest someone might play second fiddle to a rival.

Still, we needed to hear it, and it’s done some good. It was a healthy milestone moment for Fort Worth leaders — a challenge not so much to ramp up economic development efforts as to focus them. While any size employer is welcome, the report helped accentuate the need to attract good-paying corporate-headquarters, Fortune 500-style companies.

The Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce’s goal is landing two new corporate headquarters in three years, to go with the city’s only current one, American Airlines. And the city council has just put its seal of approval on tax incentives designed to accomplish it. The plan includes tax breaks rising to 85 percent for the biggest projects, with requirements of $10 million in investment by existing companies and $25 million by new ones.

Fort Worth would seem ripe for corporate headquarters and other huge developments.

“The city has a vast reserve of land (vacant properties & redevelopment sites) that can drive economic growth,” the 2017 report concluded. Fort Worth’s vacant developable 70,000 acres “exceeds every other city in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area. Fort Worth has more than twice the area of vacant land of Dallas (less than 30,000 acres) and has more developable acreage than the four largest cities in Collin County combined (Frisco, McKinney, Plano, and Allen).”

That’s not a bedroom community. That’s a frontier.

It’s instructive, though, that the report lists education as both a strength and a weakness — the area’s network of higher education facilities being a strength, and a weakness being “lower income levels and educational attainment levels in Fort Worth compared to benchmark communities.” It adds: “under-performing K-12 schools compared to suburban school districts in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area.”

Meanwhile, the gap between residential and job growth puts undue property tax pressure on homeowners and existing businesses. And property taxes are arguably the leading issue in this year’s Texas legislative session.

The 2017 report came after repeated citing of the growth gap by the city manager. But the “Dallas suburb” verbiage was a stark challenge for Fort Worth to capture its share of North Texas corporate development. That share would be significant: Dallas-Fort Worth “leads the country in employment and population growth,” according to the consultants.

“We need to be punching at our own weight,” says Downtown Fort Worth Inc. President Andy Taft.

With the chamber, the city, the Convention and Visitors Bureau and others working on economic development, Taft says, “It’s not just in the offing — it’s happening now.”

One of Fort Worth’s unique challenges is to be more prominent in both corporate strategies and public imaginations: A trivia website in 2016 challenged visitors to rank the nation’s top 100 cities by population. Though Fort Worth was 16th in population, participants mistakenly put it at 45th.

Fort Worth is in no danger of being anyone’s suburb, though if it feels homey what’s wrong with that?

People elsewhere just need to know it’s bigger and better than they might think.