One week, the Fort Worth City Council focused on losing out on lucrative corporate relocations. The next week, a historic winter storm knocked out power and then their water to residents, mostly within the Loop 820.

At a City Council meeting, Robert Sturns, director of the city’s economic development department, showed a bar chart depicting relocations since 2000. Austin’s bar was the highest with 54. No surprise there. But Dallas had 34 to Fort Worth’s eight. Even Arlington and Plano had more. What gives?

“I think this is a pressure point for some,” Sturns said.

After the storm, Fort Worth Housing Solutions’ Selarstean Mitchell focused on relocating those still without water because of the storm.

“They have to be out by March 28,” Mitchell said of about 70 residents of the Reserve at Bellevue, an apartment complex in East Fort Worth. “I’m hearing it was because of the infrastructure and that the apartments were OK because we have a lot of voucher holders there and they pass inspections all the time.”

Fort Worth’s next mayor has this two-pronged challenge: Enhance economic development without neglecting those who already call Fort Worth home. As the city’s population booms, will the economic growth benefit all, or deepen the pockets of poverty?

This dichotomy – which some say is not a dichotomy at all – is at the core of an election more consequential to the city than the one held last November for president. 

Fort Worth, the 13th-most populous city in the nation, is getting a new mayor for the first time in 10 years regardless of who wins May 1. This new mayor’s actions will have a more immediate effect on their constituents’ lives than those of a president, and while it was a common refrain during recent presidential elections that there were no good choices, the opposite is true for Fort Worth mayor.  Most of the 10 mayoral candidates are well-qualified. 

A runoff of the top two finishers is widely anticipated because no single candidate will be able to get more than 50% of the vote in the crowded field. Local political experts predict three candidates to battle for the top two spots: Dr. Brian Byrd, Mattie Parker and Deborah Peoples.

Two have portrayed themselves as the best to take on Fort Worth’s desire to grow well. Dr. Brian Byrd has served on City Council since 2017 and runs a successful small business. 

Mattie Parker, who worked under outgoing Mayor Betsy Price, has the backing of the business community, including members of one of the uber-rich families that built Fort Worth. 

The third, Deborah Peoples, looks more like the Fort Worth of today, a city that has a minority-majority population. She argues that her business experience is just a little different than others.

Getting down to business 

One reason corporate relocations were top of mind for City Council during that meeting before the devastating February storm is because there’s an imbalance in the city’s tax base. Property tax revenues account for 55% of the city’s nearly $719 million general fund. The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to only make it worse.

One of the reasons Sturns thinks Fort Worth has lost corporate relocations to other cities is because in many instances all the city can offer is a tax abatement. Other cities have economic development corporations with hundreds of millions of dollars to give these corporations upfront.

Tarrant County Central Labor Council supports Peoples in part because organizers think she won’t be so quick to the draw on tax abatements though. They think if she does support a tax abatement, she’ll ensure any company that gets one from Fort Worth pays its workers a liveable wage.

“This kowtowing and this catering to money and business for the last 40 years has got to have a turn because the income disparity has just been off the charts,” Labor Council President Brian Golden said.

At one point in her 34½ years with  AT&T, Peoples helped the company decide where to deploy U-verse, its high-speed internet. AT&T was more concerned about deploying high-speed internet to areas where it would be most useful than with its bottom line, Peoples said, adding  she can convince other corporations to do the same. She said she’d do this by remembering tax abatements aren’t a mayor’s only tool. She said she’d also remind corporations that it is worthwhile to invest in the diverse Fort Worth students of today. They could be their workforce of tomorrow.

“I lived fiscal year to fiscal year, and every year, I had to produce results,” Peoples said of her time at AT&T, “but I also couldn’t just focus on that year because I knew the next year I had to produce results and the year after that I had to produce results. If all you do is try to manage the short-term goals, you’re going to fall short in the long term.”

Byrd had success providing upfront incentives to his employees at Texas Hospice. Then, he supplied employees with cars to take to appointments and an office to decompress.

“One of the biggest challenges in hospice care was recruiting and retaining talent. That helped us as we were competing to get the best people,” he said.

Byrd expressed an interest in developing and supporting the entrepreneurs already in Fort Worth. He was part of the city council that ultimately set aside 34.6% of its CARES Act funding for small businesses – a total of $54.9 million – in 2020. And he was at the council meeting before the February storm where Sturns, the director of the city’s economic development department, cited a University of North Texas study that found small businesses in Tarrant County create an average of 25,000 jobs each year.

“Wouldn’t it be great if our next mayor was an entrepreneur and could say to the entrepreneurial community ‘We need you. Keep going. Keep taking risks. It’s OK to fail. We’ll help you get back up and do it again’?” Byrd said in an interview with Fort Worth Report. 

Historically, in Fort Worth, energy companies have received five times more start up capital than companies in other industries, according to a report from Sparkyard, a Fort Worth-based business networking organization. 

“One of the biggest things the new mayor and city council can do is just say, ‘Hey, Fort Worth is going to be about startups. Fort Worth is going to be about innovation. Fort Worth is going to be about entrepreneurship and solving hard problems and growing companies that are high tech or solving these kinds of problems,’” Sparkyard’s Cameron Cushman said.

Parker worked for Price on problems similar to those Fort Worth faces now. She helped quell the fears of private investment in the redevelopment of the Stockyards (there was a “Save My Stockyards” Facebook page with 220,000 likes). She said now the historic area that some once feared would crumble in on itself and only drew tourists to spend half a day is a place bustling with tourists and locals every night of the week. 

Parker thinks Panther Island will require that approach. It is a federal flood control project along the Trinity River that proponents have long dreamt of as an economic development opportunity to make Fort Worth go from the 13th most populous city in the nation to the 12th. She favors going to the private sector for help completing the project and opposes using city money or even extending the lifespan of its tax increment financing zone.

“Plan A has always been the same, and with respect, understandably so. I think for a long time we thought that was going to work,” Parker said of waiting on federal funding, “but now that we’re going to finish these bridges (on dry land), I think we need to acknowledge that our residents deserve transparency and to know what our plan B might be.”

“Why I have the support of the business community is really just as simple as they’ve worked with me,” she continued.

Getting government back to the people

A few months after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd, Coletta Strickland was among those who went to Fort Worth City Council concerned about the Crime Control and Prevention District’s spending. The district had just been renewed in a low turnout election, and the funds appeared to go more toward buying police equipment than to the community programs. 

“I was there in those meetings, and it was as though they just didn’t listen. They’d give them the opportunity to speak, but then go ahead and vote against everything they had said,” Strickland said.

Pamela Young, lead criminal justice organizer for United Fort Worth, supports Peoples because the candidate wants to put community members back on the Crime Control and Prevention District board. The district was created in the 90s, but the board has consisted of only council members and the mayor since at least 2010, she said.

“It’s a huge conflict of interest for the City Council and mayor who receive campaign contributions from the Fort Worth Police Officers’ Association to also determine where this fund goes,” Young said. “That $83 million a year that goes into that fund is used to over-police and brutalize black and brown people in this city. Point blank. And that’s on top of the over $200 million dollar budget that the police have each year anyway.”

The Crime Control and Prevention District debate comes on top of whether the next mayor should also implement more of the recommendations made by a race and culture task force. Price formed the task force after Fort Worth Police arrested Jacqueline Craig, a Black woman who reported her white neighbor for assaulting her son for littering in 2016. 

Bob Ray Sanders, a spokesman for the Fort Worth Metropolitan Black Chamber of Commerce,  was one of four co-chairs on the task force and gave the city credit for acting years before Floyd’s death ignited protests throughout the country.

“Fort Worth is lucky it has not had the disturbances other cities have had, but we’re really only one incident away from a major confrontation in this city, and the next mayor needs to be cognizant of that,” he said.

After the task force made its recommendations in December 2018, it dissolved, and some criticized the work for falling to include the perspectives of the average citizens. 

So far, the city has acted on at least two of the task force’s recommendations, hiring a chief equity officer, Christina Brooks, in October 2019 and then a police monitor, Kim Neal,  in February. But Strickland, the first vice president of the Fort Worth Association of Federated Women’s Clubs, said the next mayor should encourage the city council to increase both of their budgets.

“And for the police monitor, they could actually put some teeth into that and have what everybody has been calling for, which is a citizens review board. That is getting no traction,” Strickland said.

While Peoples’ earned United Fort Worth’s endorsement for supporting a citizen review board with subpoena power, Parker earned the Fort Worth Police Officers’ Association’s endorsement. Parker will say that’s because she’s not for a board just for the sake of having one. She wants to give Neal and Fort Worth’s new police chief, Neil Noakes, time to figure out the best way to rebuild trust with the community.

“Convening another panel of people is not going to be what rebuilds trust,” Parker said. “It’s going to take grassroots, on-the-ground partnership in the community and doing the work, and to Chief Noakes’ credit and Chief (Ed) Kraus before him they have created some of those programs. They have created teams of people out in the community that are quiet and you may not even hear about them because they don’t want you to. Some of it’s gang intervention work so it’s intentionally that way.”

Parker said she wants to implement more of the task force’s recommendations related to the city’s health disparities by partnering with the county as well as nonprofits, churches and health systems in the area. 

“I just find it to be heartbreaking that women that live within five miles of me have the highest mortality rate among mothers in the country, one of the highest in the country, and with infant mortality alongside that, and that’s just access to prenatal care. That’s access to understanding what pre-existing conditions make for a more traumatic and life threatening birth process and the same thing for infants. Those are areas that will be close priorities for me,” she said.

According to the task force, 9.6 Black infant deaths per 1,000 live births were recorded in Tarrant County in 2015 versus 6.2 infant deaths per 1,000 live births overall.

When Byrd was asked about his efforts to address racial inequality and why he’d be the best candidate to continue to address it, he didn’t mention policing, and to be fair, the race and culture task force recommendations included more than that. Byrd instead talked about being part of starting the TCL Lead, a mid-level professional mentorship program for people of color.

“One of the things happening here in Fort Worth is our young African American and Latino kids go somewhere and get educated and they’re not coming back to Fort Worth and when you ask them why not, they say they don’t feel welcome or ‘no one looks like me in the business district,’ and that’s a tremendous resource drain,” Byrd said.

Tia Cole, the founder of the Cole Lab, said Brooks, the city’s chief equity officer, approached her last summer after hearing from Byrd and others that they had a desire to give back to the minority community but were unsure how to do that. 

Cole proposed to them a mentorship program and is running it. It started last month with three mentees paying $400 to participate in the six month program. The mentees were chosen in part because they knew either Byrd or someone else that was part of the group interested in giving back, but Cole said she hopes to market the program in the future to take away that barrier.

“Fort Worth is all about who you know and who knows you,” said Cole, who moved to Fort Worth in 2013 and also teaches English at Tarrant County Community College. Cole did not know Byrd planned to run for mayor when she came up with TCL Lead and is not endorsing him. 

But, of Byrd, she said, “I would say that anyone who is committed truly to helping people succeed, especially those who face the biggest barriers and lack of access that I think that’s great of them.”

Cole, like many others, is still deciding who to vote for. Early vote starts April 19.

“There’s a lot to consider,” she said.

Fort Worth Report journalist Neetish Basnet contributed to this report.

This story was updated on Friday, April 16 to clarify that property tax revenues account for a little more than half the city of Fort Worth’s general fund, which is a portion of its budget.

Jessica Priest is an investigative journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at jessica.priest@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter.

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Jessica Priest

Jessica Priest is Fort Worth Report's government and accountability reporter. She was previously on USA TODAY's regional investigative team. After Jessica reported that a Midland County prosecutor worked...

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