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Fort Worth, Main Street America Zero In On Improving Historic Latino Communities

Commercial districts in two predominantly Latino neighborhoods in Fort Worth are on the cusp of revitalization following years of disinvestment.

Main Street America, a nonprofit with a long history of uplifting older, commercial areas, has partnered with the city of Fort Worth to breathe new life into Polytechnic Heights and Historic Northside, two under-resourced areas.

Over the course of three years, residents and business owners will have access to data, education and business consultancy services, as well as up to $270K worth of city-provided grant funding, to reinvest in their neighborhoods.

The shuttered Poly Theatre is among a slew of blighted businesses in Polytechnic Heights, one of the areas slated for revitalization.

“This approach is really predicated on the involvement of the community and for all of the necessary stakeholders to be walking alongside with the lead agency,” Main Street America Vice President of Urban Development Dionne Baux said.

The partnership with Fort Worth is the first of its kind on this scale in Texas, but Main Street America has had success implementing the same grassroots economic development approach in other cities. The organization, founded in 1980 and originally focused on revitalizing historic downtowns in smaller cities, has expanded its scope to include commercial districts in larger municipalities.

Among those projects is a partnership with Washington, D.C., focused on 28 commercial districts. In Boston, Main Street America is in the midst of revitalizing 20 corridors, Baux said.

“We did a fantastic job working in smaller towns, but there has been intense focus over the last six years to ensure our presence is included in these bigger cities,” Baux said. “This is really signaling that we are trying to work with different types of community-based organizations that we had not worked with in the past.”

The Historic Northside effort will be led by the Fort Worth Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. The neighborhood is sandwiched between the city’s popular downtown and Stockyards areas, which make it the perfect candidate for revitalization, Chamber President and CEO Anette Landeros said.

“We made the case that — as a connector between these two highly visited areas — it was time for Northside to shine,” she said. “The Historic Northside is rich in history, with very proud residents, but the area has, sadly, been rather stagnant.”

The same is true in Polytechnic Heights, Southeast Fort Worth Inc., CEO and President Stacy E. Marshall said. Decades ago, a mass exodus of White residents created a domino effect of blighted properties that still exists today.

“When they moved out, a lot of businesses were closed down,” he said. “It left a working-class group of people who lived there but would go shop elsewhere.”

Boarded-up buildings are also common along Main Street in Historic Northside, Landeros said. Many of the defunct properties are owned by local families, she said, but they’ve lacked the capital to do anything with them. Resources provided through the program could help owners capitalize on those properties.

“One of the things we plan to take on is how to educate these folks so we can take them from property owner, to developer, to [creating] a second form of income,” Landeros said.

Historic Northside is known for its many Mexican restaurants.

The program should also jump-start the development of amenities in Polytechnic Heights. The neighborhood is centered around Texas Wesleyan University, and Marshall said the area needs more restaurants, bars and coffee shops.

“We have a major university over there, and the kids only have Subway,” he said. “You have kids on the campus who can’t go anywhere or do anything, and they are going over to other parts of the city to spend their money.”

A portion of the $270K will be used to hire a dedicated staff member to oversee each effort. Lead agencies in both areas also plan to form stakeholder organizations to carry the effort beyond the three years, Landeros said.

“We’ll be able to utilize our Chamber’s already established resources, knowledge and relationships to give birth to an organization that will focus full time on commercial revitalization,” she said. “Hopefully, in three years, it will have the wings to fly on its own.”

The money provided by the city, while appreciated, falls short of supporting the aspirations Marshall and Landeros have for Historic Northside and Polytechnic Heights. Both plan to seek out additional funding, especially from companies that stand to benefit from revitalization. 

“Anybody who wants to develop in these areas needs to give back to that area,” Marshall said. “We will leave no stone unturned.” 

There is no denying that with revitalization comes increased property values, which can put pressure on existing residents, Baux said. But Main Street America’s approach attempts to protect legacy home and business owners from displacement by allowing them to dictate the changes they’d like to see in their communities.

“Gentrification is not bad when it is intentional, when you are making sure the community is at the table, when you are making sure businesses have the option to remain in place if they so choose to,” she said.

Baux’s organization has worked closely with the city of Fort Worth on how to either implement its own policies or advocate for legislative changes that would protect property owners from displacement.

“We acknowledge very early on, as these initiatives are taking place, that these are things you need to keep an eye on,” Baux said. “These are the ways we can make certain that we are keeping the culture and authenticity of these neighborhoods in place.”

Many of the businesses in Polytechnic Heights serve students at Texas Wesleyan University.

Landeros said the program should not only improve the financial position of local property owners but also create job opportunities so residents are better equipped to stay in their homes. Having a homegrown organization at the forefront of the effort should also create goodwill, she said.

“We are hoping that with us being the Hispanic Chamber, in a Hispanic neighborhood, that it will yield some sort of confidence that we are doing this with you, not for you,” Landero said. “Our hope is that nobody feels like they were left without an option. We want them to grow with the community.”

Both Marshall and Landeros have high hopes that the program will improve the livelihoods of the people in Historic Northside and Polytechnic Heights. If the approach is a success, they said, it can be applied to other under-resourced areas of Fort Worth.

“If we can do this right, which is our aspiration, maybe this can be a model for other corridors in our city,” Landeros said. “That’s what we are hoping to do.”