When Historic Fort Worth Inc. included the city’s historic preservation department on its 2022 list of Fort Worth’s most endangered properties, the group wasn’t worried about the city building itself.
The nonprofit organization was concerned about the lack of government staff dedicated to design and preservation of historic properties in Fort Worth, said Jerre Tracy, the group’s executive director.
“We knew they needed help,” Tracy said. “If we can’t get help to the people who do preservation on the city side, on the governmental side, then it hurts everybody trying to do preservation. We want our preservation office to be functional and not exhaust the people who are there.”
Now, four months after Historic Fort Worth Inc.’s announcement, the city’s historic preservation team plans to grow from one full-time officer and a part-time staff member to three full-time staff and one part-timer.
Funding for the staff increase is included in the 2023 budget for the development services department, which will add 40 new positions if the budget is approved by City Council members later this month.
Justin Newhart, Fort Worth’s historic preservation officer, has advocated for more staff since taking over the job more than a year ago.
His department is facing a crunch of applications for certificates of appropriateness, or permission for alterations, demolitions or new construction affecting historic properties or historic districts. People seeking a tax exemption to rehabilitate a historic property or hoping to designate a site as historic must also go through Newhart’s department.
“Our application review numbers are shooting through the roof, while our staff members remain the same,” Newhart said. “We’re being asked to do more with the same amount of resources.”
Newhart points to several events that led the city to expand historic preservation staff, including an informal report to City Council members last December showing how Fort Worth lags behind other major Texas cities in terms of dedicated staff.
Fort Worth is home to the second-largest historic preservation program in all of Texas in terms of designated historic properties, according to the December report. The city, which counted 7,282 recognized historic properties at the time, trails only San Antonio in terms of historic resources.
Despite its size, Fort Worth has the least amount of city staff dedicated to historic preservation when compared to San Antonio, Dallas, Houston and Austin. San Antonio, with more than 10,000 historic properties, reported a staff of 14. Austin, with only 644 designated properties, sports a staff of four.
In addition, the city is subject to a formal review of its historic preservation program every four years by the Texas Historical Commission. The most recent review, completed in February, showed Fort Worth wasn’t meeting all requirements to remain in good standing with the commission, Newhart said.
The Texas Historical Commission identified two major issues: a lack of community engagement programs to explain how preservation works and the need to proactively protect historical resources.
“Part of the plan to address those deficiencies was to bring on more staff so that we can not only handle the increased application load that we’re seeing on a daily basis, but also address those deficiencies identified by the Texas Historical Commission,” Newhart said.
Thanks to Fort Worth’s rapid growth, city staff are facing unprecedented pressure to keep up with demand for development and permit applications, said D.J. Harrell, director of the city’s development services department.
His vision for the 2023 budget included more human resources and customer service staff as well as more technological resources to make the process smoother for the department.
Expanding Fort Worth’s historic preservation department fits within those goals, Harrell said.
“Our employees have been working really hard to keep up in a rapidly changing environment,” he said. “The goal is to completely ensure that, just like every other area of the department, that this team has enough resources to be able to do an adequate and timely review of historic preservation projects as they come into the city.”
Beyond the larger factors affecting his team, Newhart draws a direct line between the release of Historic Fort Worth Inc.’s endangered places list and the decision to add more employees.
“That was the other piece that led to us requesting more staff, is that the community realizes that we need more help,” Newhart said.
The department is in the midst of completing an update to the city’s Historic Preservation Plan, which was adopted in 2003. Newhart held several community meetings earlier this year to compile suggestions from the public, with plans to deliver an updated plan to City Council members in late 2022 or early 2023.
In the long run, residents will see more community engagement as the city develops a comprehensive education program to inform the public about the economic incentives of preservation and how the department works, Newhart said.
For Tracy, who has served as executive director of Historic Fort Worth Inc. since 2001, the addition of two staff members is a step in the right direction. There’s still room for improvement, she said: Fort Worth has more than twice the number of designated properties as Dallas, which employs five historic preservation staff.
Historic Fort Worth Inc. is grateful for the attention that the endangered places list drew to the issue, Tracy said. She isn’t sure that decision makers in City Hall fully knew the burden that Newhart’s team was under until now.
“This ended up being a really positive vehicle to help people understand,” Tracy said. “But we would be more than happy for (the department) not to be on the list. We’ll highlight something else next year.”
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.