Fort Worth’s booming population is good news as long as the city can grow jobs that keep all those new residents employed within the city’s limits, experts say.
“You might have population growth, and that makes for a nice headline,” Kyle Walker, Texas Christian University’s director for the Center of Urban Studies, said. “But is this reflecting the growing prominence of the city as an economic center, or is it reflecting sort of the growing bedroom community city that is sending workers elsewhere?”
Recent U.S. Census Bureau estimates show Fort Worth is the second-fastest growing city in the nation. Its population grew to 927,720 in 2020, an annual growth rate of 2.1%, moving it from the 13th- to the 12th-largest city in the nation. By 2025, Fort Worth is projected to grow to over 1 million people.
The city’s comprehensive plan attempts to “position Fort Worth to compete successfully on the national and international stage for creative, high-growth businesses.”
“We’ve grown tremendously, and we’ve stepped out of the shadow of Dallas,” Mayor Mattie Parker said. “People didn’t know who we were, and now we have been really proactive when it comes to economic development opportunities.”
Fort Worth created an economic development strategic plan in 2017, meant to address the city’s economic status over the next five years and beyond. The city’s 2021 comprehensive plan cites issues found in the strategic plan, such as the city’s job-housing ratio eroding, residents becoming increasingly dependent on work in other cities and residential land use exceeding commercial use.
Attracting high-paying, job-creating companies
Fort Worth’s bread and butter has been blue-collar jobs, Economic Development Director Robert Sturns said, but the city must now invest in creating jobs in finance, banking, IT and tech. These talks around attracting such companies should have started 20 years earlier, he added.
“You’ve got those kinds of white-collar opportunities that have been historically on the east side (of the Metroplex) looking at where there are workers that can fill these positions,” Sturns said. “Fort Worth has this great base, but we want to ensure we’re getting opportunities in more of those high-tech, high-paid positions.”
Companies are “agnostic” when it comes to finding an area to relocate to in the Metroplex, Sturns said. But a rapidly growing population can help Fort Worth distinguish itself from the surrounding area.
“People outside the Metroplex tend to think we’re a lot smaller than we are,” Sturns said. “We said it several times in the strategic plan: It’s about stepping out of Dallas’ shadow. Being able to point to census numbers and say here’s where the growth is happening, I think that’s just us being able to leverage (that population growth) and pitch that to companies.”
It takes time to build a base of big, high-paying companies, so the city needs small wins for bigger opportunities to occur, Sturns said. The city recently announced an incoming California tech company, which Sturns said is not a huge project, but could provide 100 new jobs.
“(Smaller opportunities) show the city’s capability to fill those positions and have those types of opportunities,” Sturns said. “Then we have to continue to try to attract some of the big hitters.”
Retaining the city’s young professionals
Along with attracting more white-collar jobs to the city, Fort Worth wants to retain young, talented professionals.
“Something I hear from my students who will graduate from TCU quite a bit (is) ‘I’d love to stay in Fort Worth, but all the jobs in my industry are over in Dallas, Las Colinas, Plano, Austin,’ and they end up moving there,” Walker of TCU said.
The city bringing in more companies would give graduates more opportunities to stay, but the issue is cyclical, Sturns said.
“If your college graduates are leaving because they can’t find positions and companies are looking to relocate their operations, well, the graduates aren’t here so we don’t have the workforce here,” Sturns said.
One effort to combat this problem is the city’s partnership with Workforce Solutions in Tarrant County to create pathways from Fort Worth ISD to local universities. The partnership addresses whether the district offers classes that align with those at TCU, Tarrant County College and the University of Texas Arlington and how the city can create coordinating job positions for graduates.
“That’s more of a long-term plan,” Sturns said. “It’s dealing with the future of the community and how we ensure we’re able to take advantage of jobs as they’re created, particularly in the high tech field.”
Moving away from bedroom community status
Though the population is growing, many residents are not working within the city. Accommodating a growing population and keeping residents from commuting outside the city can be more difficult in the suburbs, Walker said.
“There are a lot of new jobs being created” in the suburbs, Walker said. “But they’re not in anything sort of resembling a downtown. So people are going to be commuting. It’s going to be a very low-density, car-oriented (area).”
Fort Worth has more residents than other cities of its size who commute to other cities for work. That’s a concern, Sturns said, because residents commuting for work build the workforce and economic prominence of that city they travel to instead of where they live. Becoming a bedroom community would undermine Fort Worth’s ability to show large companies it has the workers required to fill available positions.
Fort Worth “is a city and suburbs, one in the same,” Walker said. “The city has sort of been growing in all directions. But ultimately the kinds of decisions made in that capacity will have significant impacts for the economic significance of the city moving forward.”
Unlike Dallas, Fort Worth has huge tracts of undeveloped land, Sturns said. This allows the city more flexibility in zoning to ensure the city can develop more commercial property and keep residents working in the city, he said.
“I think one of the good things about the (strategic) plan is putting that danger out there that if we continue this way we’re going to be a bedroom community,” Sturns said. “So we took notice of that so we could really start thinking through what we’re bringing to the table.”
Brooke Colombo is a reporting fellow for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by grants from the Amon G. Carter and Sid W. Richardson foundations. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.