Defined by its Old West image of boot-wearing cowboys, Fort Worth has been left in the dust of the new economy.
However, the Texas A&M University Aggies are poised to brand Cowtown as the next Austin for research and innovation. University, city and Tarrant County officials are announcing at 10 a.m. Nov. 10 an estimated $350 million project they say will propel Fort Worth forward for the next century.
“This is a game-changer for the city,” businessman John Goff told the Fort Worth Report. “It’s a cornerstone of Fort Worth’s economic future.”
Fort Worth had seen a string of economic disappointments as Radio Shack and Pier 1 closed their corporate headquarters during the past 20 years. With that in mind, Goff thought about what would most dramatically change Fort Worth’s fortunes when he was named in May 2020 co-chair of Fort Worth Now, a privately funded effort to revitalize the city’s economy.
A lunch with the Texas A&M Law School dean prompted Goff to ask what land the university owned in the area. He was shocked to learn Texas A&M had enough to create an urban campus in a blighted part of downtown. Such a development would be bigger than any relocation of a corporate headquarters, he said.
“Universities don’t leave,” Goff said.
Texas A&M and Fort Worth are the perfect match for each other, Goff and Texas A&M System Chancellor John Sharp said.
After more than a year of closed door meetings, Texas A&M has found its Austin, and Fort Worth has its University of Texas. Officials anticipate construction starting next year on the research campus.
The new campus is planned to be built around the law school, 1515 Commerce St. Two buildings, the Texas A&M System Research and Innovation Center and the new Education Alliance Building, will flank the existing school. The law school, housed in a former Southwestern Bell call switching facility, will be razed and replaced with a new building serving as an entryway to the campus.
The new campus, described by Sharp as Aggieland North, would be much more than the law school. It could house programs in emergency response communication, medical technology, advanced manufacturing, nutrition, biotechnology, medical laboratory science and nursing.
Several state agencies part of the Texas A&M System, such as the Texas Division of Emergency Management and the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, will play a role in the expansion, too.
Texas A&M plans to partner with major corporations, such as Alcon, AT&T and Lockheed Martin, as well as Tarleton State University, a member of the System. Tarleton has a Fort Worth campus for nursing and other medical fields. Additionally, professional, technical and university courses offered at the new facility would come from the law school, Tarleton, Texas A&M, Texas A&M Health Science Center and other members.
The combination of higher education firepower promises to give Fort Worth the Tier One university equivalent of the University of Texas at Austin.
“I can’t think of anything that beats this,” Goff said.
For Texas A&M, the move gains a bigger presence in North Texas and access to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to bring in top talent to its classes and research. The campus also is walking distance to the Fort Worth Central Station, which Sharp predicts will offer high-speed rail to Dallas, Houston and College Station.
The proposed redevelopment ties into the planned $500 million renovation of the Fort Worth Convention Center. Once the convention center revamp is underway, the city plans to straighten Commerce Street, freeing up land that could be used for the Texas A&M project.
“I would be very surprised if, in five years, all we’re looking at is three buildings,” Goff said. “It’s going to be far bigger.”
This project could help Fort Worth seal the deal on luring companies, such as electric vehicle-manufacturer Rivian, here. Goff already has told many corporate leaders about the Texas A&M development. He said they light up and their tone changes.
The roots of this deal can be traced back to 2013, when Texas A&M acquired the law school from Texas Wesleyan University. The pieces were in place, but the foresight to build a broader campus was not quite there until recently, Sharp said.
The chancellor sees the new campus as growing Fort Worth’s future workforce. Texas A&M can provide companies with tailored training to improve their employees. The university also can provide certificates to give residents a shot at higher-paying jobs. Sharp expects Texas A&M to partner with Tarrant County College to build a workforce training program.
Mayor Mattie Parker, who got her law degree from Texas Wesleyan, expects Texas A&M’s new campus and the city’s convention center project to help Fort Worth reach its full potential.
“Our city is ready to be the home of these opportunities for life-changing workforce development and world-changing research,” she said in a statement.
Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley and Commissioner Roy Charles Brooks noted this development is going in the urban core of Fort Worth and the county. In recent years, Tarrant County’s growth has shifted from urban areas to the suburbs.
Fort Worth’s future appears to now hinge on an area of downtown that, in the late 1800s, was known as Hell’s Half Acre. The section was filled with seedy activities and acted as the city’s red light district.
More than a century later, Texas A&M and local leaders see this area next to the train tracks and north of Lancaster Avenue as the green light for Fort Worth’s future. Goff certainly sees it that way.
“This is the catalyst, the shot in the arm that Fort Worth needs,” he said.
Disclosure: John Goff is a financial supporter of the Fort Worth Report. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.