In The Race For Corporate Relos, Fort Worth Mayor Angles For A Bigger Piece Of The Pie
Fort Worth has been noticeably absent from the corporate relocation headlines over the past few years as companies flee high-tax environments in favor of Texas. But that could change under the leadership of Mayor Mattie Parker, who is determined to make Fort Worth a bigger part of the conversation.
“We’re needing to break outside of our shell in Fort Worth,” Parker said. “What I mean by that … is when you’re a city that really hovered around 500,000 for decades, it’s natural for people to not realize we are almost 1 million people now, and we are a large city that can offer a lot.”
Of the 62 corporate relocations to Texas announced last year, Fort Worth snagged four. A dearth of available speculative office space and limited funding for incentives have hamstrung Cowtown’s ability to attract business, but Parker, who was elected in June 2021, said several efforts are underway to improve both fronts.
The city’s relatively large population has rendered it ineligible to use sales tax revenue for economic development, which means any incentives provided in the past have been based on new tax revenue generated by a project. In other words, no upfront reductions in cost could be offered to a company looking to locate in Fort Worth, according to city documents.
To strengthen its competitiveness, the city created an Economic Development Initiatives Fund in 2020 through the $4.9M sale of land held by its Local Development Corp. Then, in February, Fort Worth's city council voted to use half of the proceeds from expiring tax-increment finance districts for economic development initiatives. The move is expected to raise the city’s economic development fund, which now sits at about $8M, to somewhere between $15M and $18M over the next five years, according to city documents.
“It won’t compete totally with a Plano or Frisco,” Parker said. “But it does give you the ability to take money that is not property tax revenue off the table … and it’s one-time cash you can put toward a deal to help seal it.”
Another area where Fort Worth has struggled is in telling its own story, Parker said. The city, along with its chamber of commerce and Visit Fort Worth, has partnered with external advertising and public relations firms to build a marketing strategy that will spread the word of what the city has to offer in regional markets and beyond.
“It’s not just wishing, you have to actually target the markets you want to be in across the country,” Parker said, noting that this effort will be funded in part through general fund money as well as through the Economic Development Initiatives Fund.
There are certain industries the city is targeting, including aerospace and defense, energy, culture, innovation and technology, infrastructure and mobility, and life sciences. Rather than casting a wide net, Parker said she prefers to be intentional about recruitment, and many of those decisions are based in large part on the available workforce, Parker said.
“We want to be really specific on the ones that fit the fabric of Fort Worth and that have the talent workforce pipeline ready for them day one,” she said.
Texas A&M University’s expansion into Fort Worth should help bolster business recruitment efforts, Parker said. In May, the school’s board of regents approved $170M to spend on a new law building and downtown research and innovation campus aimed at spurring business and job growth in the city, according to NBC DFW. Both buildings are expected to open in 2024.
“That may seem small, but we didn’t have an accelerator in Fort Worth,” she said. “That was setting us back in a lot of ways from neighboring cities, like Austin.”
Despite a wealth of available land and 2.8M SF of available Class-A office space, one of the biggest hindrances to Fort Worth’s success has been the lack of spec space for companies to move into. At this time, Parker’s office is unaware of any meaningful spec office space being built in the city.
“It is holding us back,” she said. “A lot of times when a corporate relocation is happening, they don’t want or have time to wait two to three years for a building to be ready. We have to be prepared for that.”
Large-scale developers that have purchased property in the past year have shown interest in building Class-A spec office space, and Parker said her office is actively strategizing ways for them to pull the trigger now, even amid economic uncertainty. When it comes to offloading city-owned property, she said, council may favor developers who plan to build speculative office over other types of product.
“We’re not just a downtown Central Business District anymore,” she said. “There’s a variety of places that a corporation would want to go, from Clearfork to Near Southside. All of those areas of our city are ripe for that opportunity.”
While Fort Worth has significantly less incentive funding to work with than other cities, one of the advantages it has over its competitors is the ease of process and access to leadership that comes with being smaller than Dallas, Austin or Houston.
“The reality is that we’re not usually going to be the one that offers the most money,” she said. “What we can offer is a different opportunity … the way we roll out the welcome mat, the way we integrate [developers and business owners] into our city immediately and making sure they feel the Fort Worth difference of doing business.”
Parker plans to aggressively pursue corporate relocations during her tenure as mayor, but she said she can’t do it alone. Company leaders of all sizes, from startups to large corporations, need to spread the word as well.
“They can sell the Fort Worth story better than any elected official can because they’re doing business here already,” she said. “We haven’t done a great job of asking them to be part of that sale in the past.”
Looking forward, Parker feels confident that Fort Worth will be able to leverage the tools at its disposal to bring more business to the city. With the emergence of developments coming online, such as Panther Island and Butler Place, Fort Worth has the opportunity to double the size of its CBD in the coming years. There is also extensive growth opportunity on the west side of the city, where Walsh Cos. is building the 7,200-acre, mixed-use Walsh Ranch development.
“I think we’ll get long-term success, but it won’t happen with complacency,” she said. “We have to be a lot more strategic and focused, [and have] proactive engagement on what it looks like to attract the next corporate relocation or expansion in our city.”