When tourists venture to the Fort Worth Stockyards, they expect people like Audrey Boles and her horse, Sam, to be there waiting for them.
“Cause we’re Western,” she explains.
Plenty of people are walking by Boles’ carriage and her horse Sam, despite the heat of the afternoon sun. A little boy walking by turns to his mom and exclaims, “I want to ride that!” It’s a scene Boles has seen many times over her nearly seven years at the Stockyards. But when the pandemic struck more than a year ago, it all stopped.
“It was a dead halt for a while,” she said. “People lost their jobs because there weren’t enough customers.”
Fort Worth officials are hoping to help people like Boles by speeding up revenue recovery through a heavy investment of federal funds into the tourism industry. The money comes from the American Rescue Plan Act, a trillion-dollar federal spending bill that will bring over half a billion dollars into Tarrant County alone.
“I think it’ll get back, but I don’t know when,” Boles said.
Now, business is picking up. Boles has seen more and more people returning to the Stockyards. However, she doesn’t know if the recent increase in business will be enough to make up for the revenue she lost when travel stopped.
“I don’t know if you can make that up,” Boles said.
The last few months, she’s given rides to people from all over the country. But without international travelers, the Stockyards she loves isn’t the same.
Assistant City Manager Jay Chapa said projections showed that, without a significant investment, the tourism industry might return to pre-pandemic levels in 2024.
“We think utilizing these funds … that could happen as soon as the end of 2022, maybe early 2023,” Chapa said.
City officials don’t know exactly how much of the $174 million available to the city of Fort Worth will go toward the tourism industry. But they do have a shortlist of projects and investments they think will help the industry bounce back.
Tourism is important to the overall financial health of Fort Worth in part because of the hotel occupancy tax. In 2019, the city collected over $30 million in revenue from the tax. In 2020, that dropped down to just over $19 million.
Visit Fort Worth’s only source of funding is through the hotel occupancy tax. The organization’s CEO and President Bob Jameson said when the city gave them money through the CARES Act last fall, it allowed them to keep attracting tourism to the city.
“We were able to share with people our state of readiness for them to come visit as people started to travel,” Jamerson said.
District 2 Councilman Carlos Flores’ district includes the Stockyards, and multiple majority-minority neighborhoods which will also have priority use of American Rescue Plan Act funds.
Other tax revenue related to travel, like sales tax, was also lost to the decrease in travelers in 2020. Councilman Flores points out that if the city doesn’t recover that revenue quickly, it will further delay capital projects like increasing streetlights in older Fort Worth neighborhoods, which are typically majority-minority neighborhoods.
“The city relies on that tax revenue to help fund capital projects,” Flores said. “Well, these funds from this act will help us address some of those shortfalls… in majority-minority areas.”
The city has far from a perfect record of equitable distribution of resources. Since 2016, less than 3% of city contracts went to minority-owned businesses. In 2018, the race and culture task force found, among other disparities, that racial segregation in housing has increased in the city since 2018.
Along with tourism, the city plans directly address those disparities through investments in minority business enterprises which have to be 51% owned by a member of a minority group.
‘So sudden and so severe’
Reed Ludwig started working in the Stockyards just two months ago. He said he didn’t see the extent of the damage COVID did to business. But scenes described by coworkers are bleak.
“There would be maybe one person walking down the sidewalk,” he said. “Everyone would just kind of stand around and feed the animals.”
The Stockyards aren’t the only entertainment district in Fort Worth hard hit by the pandemic. From the Historic Southside to Texas Motor Speedway, hotels were forced to furlough or eliminate 90% of their employees.
The result was over $203 million in losses in hotel room revenue alone in Fort Worth, according to Jameson.
“I would say it’s telling that within this ARPA legislation supporting tourism, in some form or fashion, was specifically called out,” Jameson said. “Recognizing, if you will, the depths of the impact that’s been experienced and the value of what that industry represents across the country.”
Before the pandemic derailed travel, the city had plans to expand its tourism infrastructure. “We knew that we had demand exceeding our capacity,” Jameson said.
“How do we make sure that we are back on track to take advantage of the fact that more meetings, conferences, conventions, sporting events, and such that want to be here can be accommodated?” Jameson asked.
That is the question city leaders are wrestling with. Fort Worth and Tarrant County are flush with federal cash, and there are lots of industries in need of support. The city and business community have identified broad goals of things like “building capacity” and “spurring pandemic recovery” but these are not narrowly defined goals.
Broadly, it means funding the kind of projects that make it easier for people to get around town: Streetlights, sidewalks, and street improvements all fall under that category. Those kinds of projects will take place exclusively in minority-majority areas.
But it also means fast-tracking capital projects like the convention center expansion and Commerce Street realignment. Both were put on hold in 2020 when funding dried up.
The city’s wish list:
- Enterprise capacity building program: Capacity building means making investments into minority-owned businesses to help them grow and win contracts with the city
- Phase 1 of sports tourism soccer complex
- Evans and Rosedale affordable housing development
- Storm and wastewater projects: Including widespread drainage improvement projects and sewer overflow initiatives
- Cybersecurity and broadband investments
- Will Rogers Mural Interpretive Plaques: A one-time investment in plaques giving information about a mural in Will Rogers Memorial Center that depicts cotton picking to explain their significance to Fort Worth’s history
- Minority-Majority neighborhood improvements: Street light improvements, pavement management and markings, etc.
- Investments in permanent supportive housing
“Anything we can do to bring people back to hotels sooner rather than later helps our hotel leaders so they can get back to a more normal state and it helps the employees who work in that industry to get their jobs back,” Chapa said.
Normally, the tourism industry employs 26,000 people across the city. Audrey Boles, and her beloved horse Sam, continued work throughout the pandemic but not without difficulty. She’s hoping for a better year ahead – and she said she’s optimistic people will return to Fort Worth for one simple reason.
“The people here are so friendly. How could you not fall in love?”
Editors Note: This story was updated July 6 to correct the financial impact of COVID-19 on the tourism industry.
Rachel Behrndt is a reporting fellow for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.