The Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce is putting a new face on its economic development efforts.
Following the lead of the state’s other largest cities – Austin, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio – the Fort Worth chamber is setting up a nonprofit, the Fort Worth Economic Development Partnership, to focus on economic development. The changes could dramatically impact how the chamber and the city – which work together on economic development deals – approach and carry out future business growth.
The organizational shift is among the changes being made at the Fort Worth chamber following the February departure of its previous president, Brandom Gengelbach. Fort Worth officials and chamber heads are hopeful that dividing into two separate organizations will enhance the city’s ability to support and attract business in the city.
Many community leaders fear Fort Worth has fallen behind in recruiting corporate headquarters and building its jobs base. Rosa Navejar, chairwoman of the Fort Worth chamber, calls the new plan a “game changer.”
“This economic development partnership is going to put us in a different light,” she said.
In the past, civic leaders such as Amon G. Carter, Charles Tandy, Bob Bolen and others helped lead Fort Worth’s economic development, whether formally or informally, said former Mayor Kenneth Barr. Thirty years ago, the city was filled with home-grown Fortune 500 companies such as RadioShack and Pier 1 and attracted aviation-related businesses such as Lockheed, Bell and American Airlines.
But some business leaders think that over time Fort Worth became too complacent with economic development.
‘We have a lot going for us now’
David Berzina, a partner with Chisholm Flats and a vice president with JLL, led economic development for the Fort Worth chamber from 2004 to 2016. During that time, Fort Worth brought in major projects such as the GE locomotive plant, Smith & Nephew and Facebook.
“We have a lot going for us now,” Berzina said. “We have lots of land, to the south and to the west that really weren’t in play when I was there (doing economic development). So this strategy is worth trying.”
Navejar said discussion on how to move forward with economic development at the chamber had been under discussion for some time.
“It’s been a conversation that’s happened on and off, I think, for a few years, and it just came to fruition this year,” she said.
A recent study from the Fort Worth chamber says the area has attracted 72 economic development projects over the past five years, creating more than 11,400 jobs. Despite those successes, city and development officials have worried for several years that the city’s economic development efforts have fallen short.
“I think we’re always asking if we could be doing something more,” Navejar said.
In 2017, the city of Fort Worth published its first Economic Development Strategic Plan. The report detailed the city’s shortcomings in marketing, development, workforce training and business attraction.
Mike Berry, interim president of the chamber and president of Hillwood, said the shift to a focused organization is key to unlocking more opportunity for the city.
“We’ve had our successes, but there is still tremendous opportunity for us to bring growing, vibrant businesses and a diverse range of high-paying jobs to the Fort Worth area,” he said in a statement.
The new economic development entity will be funded by the business community, consisting of both current and new Fort Worth chamber investors. It will be governed by a separate board of directors drawn from business and community leaders.
The new plans have raised hopes for some longtime observers.
“I’m excited about what’s going on,” said Barr, the former mayor and a principal of Barr Consulting Group. “I believe we’re making the right moves.”
Barr, like many officials involved in economic development, said the city has plenty of attributes: available land, reasonable housing options, strong higher education institutions and a favorable business climate, but doesn’t seem to quite close the big deals.
Chamber will have a new function
The chamber’s executive board announced in March it would split off the economic development functions into a new nonprofit partnership and hire a state economic development leader with strong ties to Austin. The chamber will provide back office support for the new 501(c)(6) nonprofit organization.
Other cities have separated those components, which allows the “economic development partnership organization, whatever you want to call it, can really focus on business relocation into the community that they’re servicing,” Navejar said.
Meanwhile, the chamber can focus on business retention, workforce development, education, government advocacy, infrastructure and transportation efforts, she said.
Carlton Schwab, president and CEO of the Texas Economic Development Council, an association of economic development professionals, said Fort Worth had a strong chamber and has been successful in economic development.
“But every so often, it needs a refresh and the local business community is behind it, so they made a change, and I think they’re going to be very successful,” Schwab said.
Schwab said the business community supports the change and the chamber has hired a leader with a solid track record in Robert Allen.
Schwab said Fort Worth’s changes reminded him of when San Antonio put together a similar organization several decades ago.
“With a strong economic development leader and a young mayor then, Henry Cisneros, who went on to bigger things, they created a very, very successful economic development organization,” he said. “That’s kind of what Fort Worth’s changes reminded me of.”
The chamber will soon name a search firm to look for a new leader.
Besides losing its president, the previous vice president for economic development at the chamber, Chris Strayer, left to become executive director at the Parker County Economic Development Council.
The chamber’s economic development functions had previously been part of the chamber’s functions. In general, the chamber would develop leads and pass on the most promising leads to the city to pursue with possible economic development incentives.
Berzina said he supports the new two-pronged approach.
“As someone who spent a significant portion of my time raising money for our economic development group that was housed within the chamber, I think it’s definitely worth a shot to separate the two,” he said.
New economic development director thinks big
The chamber didn’t just change the structure of its economic development efforts, it also added a leader for the new effort with a depth of experience and connections.
Allen, previously president and CEO of the Austin-based Texas Economic Development Corporation, was hired March 14 as CEO of the chamber’s new Fort Worth Economic Development Partnership.
The Texas corporation is a statewide version of the local development organization the Fort Worth chamber has set up and is responsible for marketing and promoting Texas as a business location. Allen’s background includes work as chief of staff for Gov. Greg Abbott.
“Asking someone with Robert Allen’s experience and professional acumen to come to Fort Worth is incredibly important for us moving forward,” said Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker.
Many different models exist for setting up economic development, but Allen said the one Fort Worth is setting up is the most effective, he said.
“This model allows us to be very nimble and responsive and quick, so that when we are out selling and when we are looking at business opportunities to come into Fort Worth and the greater Fort Worth region, we can respond very quickly to those requests,” he said.
Allen said his experience working in Austin means he has been involved in most of the major economic development projects in the state for the past six years. During that time, Texas was often cited as one of the nation’s top-performing states for business expansions and relocations.
Allen is a big believer in making sure small details are done and done correctly.
“Because I think and operate in a world in which if those details are done correctly, then you can move on to bigger challenges,” he said.
Allen learned working in the governor’s office that it is important to have open and clear lines of communications to the many different agencies and organizations involved.
“And, if you make sure that that baton is being handed off to a firm and know where that baton is going to go, you have a better chance of success, in my opinion,” he said.
While much economic development is focused on attracting new businesses to the area, Allen said, he was equally focused on the expansion of existing business.
“They’re going to be something that’s going to be really important to us as we move forward in terms of existing businesses that have chosen to expand in a particular region,” he said. “It can be very, very impactful in a community.”
The previous chamber leadership started a regional economic development partner program to work with other area chambers and economic development agencies.
Working with regional partners will be a key focus for Allen, he said.
“We are going to work very closely together to ensure that Fort Worth and the region is successful,” Allen said. “And I’m very excited to do that.”
Allen said he is excited by the opportunity here and with the economic development plans the chamber has set up.
“This is a model that I believe in,” he said. “I think it’s a model for tremendous success, part of the reason why I’m here.”
Disclosure: Hillwood is a financial supporter of the Fort Worth Report.
Bob Francis is business editor for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at email@example.com.
Seth Bodine is a business and economic development reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter at @sbodine120. 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.