Hickman was a Cowtown icon

The Fort Worth Stockyards — the iconic, much-beloved area of the city nestled on 125 acres north of downtown — has been an economic engine and a tourist magnet for years.

But several decades ago, its success and even its continued existence were far from assured.

That was until Holt Hickman, businessman, philanthropist and hometown hero, stepped in and helped save the city’s historic district from probable ruin. More than that, he preserved a significant part of Fort Worth’s rich history and an untold amount of local pride.

Hickman passed away Saturday at age 82.

The North Texas native, whose fortune was made in manufacturing air conditioners for automobiles back before they were standard, first took interest in the Stockyards in 1988, when he and two other investors resuscitated Billy Bob’s Texas, the self-proclaimed world’s largest honky-tonk, which had fallen upon hard financial times.

The famous bar had been a crucial attraction for the floundering area of the city. Turning it around was Hickman’s first venture into the district, and it was the spark that engaged his continued involvement there. He led a revival that would never have happened without his financial assistance and contagious enthusiasm.

In the ensuing years, Hickman would become an owner, partner or cheerleader for a variety of other venues designed to revitalize the Stockyards.

His family built a 102-room Western-style hotel in the heart of the district. He helped restore and convert crumbling hog and sheep pens into a shopping and dining plaza called Stockyards Station. And in 2000, Hickman and his wife, Jo, brought the Texas Cowboy Hall of Fame to Fort Worth from Hico, housing it in restored horse and mule barns on Exchange Avenue.

What began as a financial venture quickly became a labor of love for the colorful, hard-driving dealmaker, who was always looking for ways to do right by the city he adored.

More than a quarter-century later, the Stockyards — which Hickman bragged is the only authentic stockyards left in the country — attracts more than 3 million visitors a year. And thanks to continued efforts of Hickman and his family, the district is about to embark on a $175 million redevelopment.

Holt Hickman’s vision and generosity made it all possible, and then made it happen.