Feature: Wednesday, October 26, 2005
Bass: ‘We love the old Will Rogers Coliseum ... but it has truly become inadequate and outdated.’
Watt: ‘With the new arena, we think ... we can get an event [that’s bigger] than any show we have.’
Smyth-Schuster: ‘I’m right here in the middle of it.’
Circelli: ‘It’s a little like a shopping mall in Western equestrian.’
(2 Above) After waiting two years for a land swap, Fort Worth City Credit Union stayed put. (Above) Bulldozers moved in on Double Seal Ring Co. in Mid-October.
Horse-Drawn Plans for Montgomery

A Bass-led group is amassing property to make teh street a center for Western culture.

By Michael Whiteley

In eight years, Debbie Dale has watched her eclectic flower shop grow a fertile customer base stretching from Texas Christian University to the horse stalls at Will Rogers Memorial Center. And as her shop, Artistic — The Flower Market, blossomed, she’s watched Montgomery Street vanish around her.

All the while, Debbie and her husband, Keith Dale, have repeatedly been assured by their landlord, retired roofing executive Bob Gunn, that he won’t sell the property to whatever group was gobbling huge chunks of land along the east side of Montgomery and paving them over.

She’s never known the names of the people behind the process that has leveled many of the buildings around her shop, though she’s heard rumors. But she’s been waiting for them to come and get her.

“I don’t like just looking at parking lots,” said the veteran florist, who moved her business from Houston Street to avoid the bustle of progress downtown. She said the demolition crews “took away the only hardware store on this side of town.” And, she added, Montgomery Street is right where she needs to be, in part because of all the business she gets from horse show and cutting horse enthusiasts who decorate their stalls with elaborate floral arrangements.

Nonetheless, W.R. “Bob” Watt Jr., president and general manager of the Southwestern Exposition and Livestock Show, said the flower shop and its neighbor, Montgomery Emporium, eventually will need to go.

Despite the statement, Watt has no eminent domain powers to force Gunn to sell his property. But powerwise, Watt may be the next best thing — he’s a part of the group of movers and shakers who are planning to recast the east side of Montgomery Street as a center of the equine universe, anchored by a new $120 million multi-purpose arena that will take over many of the events now held — with difficulty — at Will Rogers and perhaps bring other events to Fort Worth as well.

The identities of other members of the group won’t surprise Dale or many other folks in Fort Worth. Billionaire investor Ed Bass and two attorneys who are close associates, Dee J. Kelly and William P. Hallman Jr., of Kelly, Hart & Hallman, are the driving forces paving the way for the new arena. Acting as the nonprofit Event Facilities Fort Worth Inc., the trio, in three sets of purchases between December 2001 and November 2003, has amassed land and buildings valued by the Tarrant Appraisal District at more than $3.2 million. Another set of vacant lots and properties worth about $632,000 — including the former Double Seal Ring Co. building that’s now being demolished — are owned by the Charles W. Rogers Trust, according to appraisal district records.

Interviews, tax records, and other documents describe the push by Bass, Kelly, Hallman, and a larger group that includes board members of both the stock show and the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History to remake the east side of Montgomery into a “western heritage center” by paving the way — literally — for the new arena and what amounts to a re-invention of the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. The new arena would host rodeos and equine events, plus hockey, ice skating, and other activities now held at the Fort Worth Convention Center. The plan calls for the Cattle Raisers Museum, now located on West Seventh Street, to move its exhibits to the science and history museum — and, possibly, for the museum’s current building to be razed and replaced with a new facility, presumably on the same site.

The plans have the full support of city hall and the Fort Worth stock show, whose leaders say the 69-year-old Will Rogers Memorial Center arena increasingly does not meet their needs.

But not everyone is on board. The Fort Worth City Credit Union, smack in the middle of the planned horse-lovers’ haven, delayed expansion plans for two years so city officials could organize a property swap to move them elsewhere. When no deal was forthcoming, they went ahead with their expansion — and now they’re not interested in moving. The Dales created special rooms at the rear of their building to accommodate horse event contestants who wanted to craft their own floral decorations. Another set of deep-pockets players in Fort Worth, Elton M. Hyder III and his family, own a prime hotel site at Montgomery and Interstate 30 that insiders said the Bass group would love to have. He’s holding onto the two tracts, which now house the Montgomery Street Antique Mall and a Lockheed facility. And there are others who worry about the changes to the 51-year-old science and history museum, which has gone through hard times and uncertain leadership in the past, but whose museum school is a summer tradition near and dear to the hearts of generations of Fort Worth families.

The Montgomery Street revamp has been more than six years in the making. Until now, actual work has consisted only of knocking down commercial and industrial buildings along the street as Event Facilities acquired them and turning the spaces into parking lots. The holdup, until now, has been the city’s Harley Service Center, which had to be relocated to accommodate the arena.

In the next few weeks, however, the process of moving the vehicle maintenance yard will begin. By January, according to Watt and others, the yard will have been shifted to a site near the Federal Supply Depot and Records Center in south Fort Worth. So the next phase — the drive to actually build the 12,000-seat equestrian arena and a 90-day push to finalize plans for reshaping the Museum of Science and History — begin now.

Fort Worth leaders realized as early as 1990, Watt said, that something needed to be done about the Will Rogers arena, — and that simply revamping the 5,800-seat facility wouldn’t do it. Adequate bathrooms, more parking spaces, modern box seating, and better sight lines just couldn’t be accommodated in the historic old building and its surrounding property. The arena and its surrounding buildings, including the much newer Justin and Watt arenas, are home to a plethora of national equestrian events — but organizers were getting restless.

The need for a new venue became a pivotal bargaining point when the National Cutting Horse Association renegotiated its contract with the city earlier this year. Throughout the process, said NCHA Executive Director Jeff Hooper, the Fort Worth-based group was evaluating Will Rogers against other major arenas under construction from Las Vegas and Oklahoma City.

“I think we are the horse-show capital of the world,” Hooper said. “I think what you also see is a lot of competition for these events that Fort Worth hosts. I think it’s appropriate for Fort Worth to be looking at expanding what we have.”

Hooper said the 58 days of cutting horse events last year produced an estimated $40.9 million boost to the Fort Worth economy, based on sales tax figures.

But the NCHA now has a 38-year waiting list for box seats for its futurity finals. It also needs to run amateur events simultaneously in separate arenas. The Will Rogers complex, even with the Justin and Watt arenas, isn’t enough. “We utilize hundreds of temporary stalls that we set up in the cattle barn, and we’re growing to the extent that we really need to use multiple arenas at the same time,” Hooper said. “These are significant events for the economy and tourism.”

The American Paint Horse Association, also based in Fort Worth, similarly has to scramble for stalls each year when it holds its World Show and World Games here. APHA builds 200 makeshift stalls in the Will Rogers underground parking garage, said public relations director Jerry Circelli. The paint horse show has been held here annually since 1989; the number of horses entered is up by more than 50 percent from a decade ago. Many of the 4,800-plus entrants sleep in custom-made trailers, but others go looking for hotel rooms — and they want them closer to Will Rogers than what they can find now.

Entrants and fans, Circelli said, flock to the association’s trade shows, hit the museums, and go looking for other activities. “It’s a little like a shopping mall in Western equestrian,” he said. “They come to this area looking for something to do.”

And the stakes go beyond keeping existing events. “With the new arena, we think there’s a real good chance we can get a big Arabian show that will bring more horses than any show we have,” Watt said. The Arabian show group is talking about moving from Lexington, Ky., to Fort Worth to take advantage of the city’s western heritage and entertainment venues, he said. But they’re worried about inadequate numbers of stalls — for horses, and for humans looking to answer the call of nature.

Spokeswoman Terrell Lamb said Bass was traveling and unavailable for comment for this story. But in written statements released to Fort Worth Weekly, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and other news organizations in the past several years, he has talked about the need for a new arena. “We love the old Will Rogers Coliseum for its history and tradition, but it has truly become inadequate and outdated,” Bass said in a written statement, which was printed in part in the Star-Telegram in January. The old arena, he said is “now woefully inadequate” in many respects. “At this point,” he added, “we’d have to go flat out to open in 2010 or 2011.”

An earlier price tag of $120 million for the new arena is outdated, Watt said, but didn’t offer another estimate. He said no architectural renderings of the proposed facility have been done, but that it would occupy a 150-foot by 250-foot area similar to the existing Will Rogers Coliseum while offering more than twice as many seats. The plan is to build it on the current site of the maintenance yard and part of the former Ross Heights subdivision property now paved for parking near the corner of Montgomery and Harley.

Harley Avenue, in turn, would be rerouted to form a new southern gateway for the equestrian complex. The road would make a sharp southwest turn in the complex and follow a railroad bed to meet Montgomery along the existing Bryce Avenue or a closed street to the south. Officials could open or close the current stretch of Harley south of the museums as traffic dictates.

It’s not only more space for people and horses that is lacking now. Watt said parking is currently a problem. Even with the spaces borrowed on weekends from the University of North Texas Health Science Center, the existing coliseum can muster only about 4,000 parking spaces.

The Bass group’s holdings would offer another 5,000 spaces, said Lamb. “Event Facilities Fort Worth Inc. was set up to facilitate in whatever way it can for future development of a new state-of-the-art arena in the Will Rogers Memorial Center district,” she said. “At some point in the process, the city will probably acquire the land for public purposes.”

Watt said he’s not sure when — or if — Event Facilities will transfer the property, since the Bass entity is serving as a support organization for the stock show. “When things are really going out here, it’s difficult to get enough parking for everybody,” Watt said. “We do know [with the new plans] we’ll be able to offer adequate facilities to house horses and livestock.”

During the nearly seven years Watt and others held private talks about a new area, rumors of a sweeping land grab abounded. Some owners resisted, while others tried to gauge the best time to sell for the maximum price.

Frank Bailey, whose family moved Bailey Grain Co. from its Northside headquarters to its current home on Montgomery in 1974, said he doesn’t want to move. When his neighbor, Fort Worth City Credit Union, bought the land behind him for a $2 million drive-through facility several years ago, he warned credit union president William Gordon that he might want to reconsider new construction in the face of the buyouts.

Gordon, whose credit union had occupied its spot on Montgomery for 40 years, called the city and Bass representatives and shelved his expansion plans. Then, as city officials searched for a place to move the credit union, Event Facilities began to make the purchases that would eventually enclose the credit union and Bailey Grain in a horseshoe-shaped accumulation of property totaling more than nine acres and stretching back to the Botanic Garden.

“We spent two years working with the city,” Gordon said. “We had several alternative locations and an agreement with the city on one site, which they sold to somebody else. Finally, I notified Mr. Bass and the mayor that we planned to go ahead.”

To the north of Bailey Grain, Mark and Belinda Williams held on at Alexander Lumber Co. until a pending state tax lien forced them to sell, neighbors said. Event Facilities bought the lumber yard and hardware store in November 2003, leveled it, and paved the site for parking. The former owners couldn’t be reached for comment, but county records show the lumber company also was facing judgments sought by concrete and lumber suppliers.

Further south, at I-30, the Hyders and their land company, Mid-West Development, are holding tight to 8.28 acres — the last two high-dollar parcels between Event Facilities’ property and the freeway.

Like others along that stretch of Montgomery, Elton Hyder had heard rumors that the plan called for a four-star hotel on his property — and that might not be a bad idea in the future, he said. For now, Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Corp. holds a two-and-one-half-year lease from him for part of the property, a building where the defense contractor produces technical manuals. And Hyder said he recently signed another 30-month lease with the antique mall.

Hyder said he had earlier worked with Fort Worth osteopath Vernon Hayes to negotiate with hotel chains to build an equestrian-themed hotel across Montgomery from the antiques mall. But Hayes, who could not be reached for comment, has since sold the property to Christ Chapel Bible Church, which is building a huge new sanctuary there.

Hyder said he thinks Event Facilities’ plan to acquire land all the way to I-30 halted when the city credit union balked. That decision, he said, may have changed the future of that stretch of Montgomery. “I think they were trying to figure out how far south to go,” Hyder said. “But they had to get the credit union.”

While some have held out, others simply haven’t been asked. Shelley Smyth-Schuster and her partner, Megan Roark-Reese, run Soul Fitness, a two-story yoga studio immediately south of the new arena site. They’ve spent nearly four years building a clientele from the health-conscious stretches of Camp Bowie Boulevard and West Seventh Street. Like Dale, Smyth-Schuster has been waiting but said her landlord, Ben Herman, has never been approached by the Bass group. She once asked about buying the building but couldn’t afford the $1.3 million asking price. “I’m right here in the middle of it, and there’s nothing around me,” Smyth-Schuster said. “I’ve heard lots of things over the years. But I don’t let them bother me.”

Herman’s son, Chad, said he and his father have heard of the arena plans and might consider selling the building. “It really depends on what price they are offering.”

Smyth-Schuster said she’d like to stay — no matter how much Montgomery Street changes to emphasize the equine.

But, she said wryly, “I can’t imagine they’ll let me stay here right in the middle of all these Texas meat eaters.”

The financial crisis that followed the terrorist attacks in September 2001 changed a lot of plans in the Cultural District, just as they did elsewhere. That crisis stalled plans by Dee Kelly’s son Craig to build a $25 million luxury hotel near the intersection of Camp Bowie and University Drive. Anne Marion, another museum mover and shaker, who is often represented on legal matters by Hallman, halted a $25 million project to build a traffic circle with a fountain at the Camp Bowie/University Drive intersection — although it didn’t sidetrack Marion’s new Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

The 9/11 attacks also hit home financially at the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History — and the museum is still recovering. Of course, change of some kind has been brewing there for years.

In mid-2003, museum supporters had raised $10 million of the $34 million needed for a planned expansion. But with finances still problematic when long-time director and president Don Otto resigned in October 2003, the museum’s building committee halted the expansion plans.

Bob Lansford, chairman of the museum’s board, first raised the possibility of razing the building in a staff meeting that November. Following the meeting, building committee chairman Bill Meadows said, “We’re wide open to ideas. I think we’re not set absolutely on any one course of action.”

A few months later, there was a new sheriff in town. Van A. Romans, who founded Disney Imagineering, had first been “loaned” to Fort Worth in 1997 — with the help of the Bass family — to plan and help launch the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame. That work completed, he went back to California and Disney. But in February 2004, he returned to take over the science museum.

Under Romans, the science museum got closer to financial health — in part due to momentum provided by its showing of “September 11: Bearing Witness to History,” in the exhibit’s first stop on a tour from the Smithsonian. Museum officials said contributions from benefactors are still needed, however, to support ticket sales and keep them in the black.

On Oct. 13, the museum board’s executive committee received the results of a six-month strategic study by Lord Resources Planning and Management of Toronto and scheduled meetings with the full museum board and various museum benefactors. Romans said it will be 90 days before he’s ready to release the study results.

But the science museum’s future hinges in part on the decision concerning another museum — the Cattle Raisers, which at one time had planned to build a new home nearby, adjacent to the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame.

Instead, the plan is now for Cattle Raisers to leave the headquarters of its parent group, the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, on West Seventh Street and move into whatever new building the science and history museum decides on.

Watt and Cattle Raisers Director Pat Riley said the move would give a more appropriate Western emphasis to the science and history museum and make that facility more attractive to the hundreds of thousands of visitors who come to Will Rogers for equestrian events.

“When you think of all the great things that are Western in that area, for us to be a part of that really makes more sense,” Riley said.

The timetable for razing and rebuilding the science museum remains in question.

“One thing I can tell you,” a museum trustee said in October. “This [site] is where we are, and it’s where we are staying.”

Romans said many decisions about the museum’s future have yet to be made. “I think we’re in the midst of examining a lot of different things. I’m not sure we can tell you what will change and what might not change,” he said. Whatever happens, Romans and others said, it will not affect the Omni IMAX Theater, which was launched as one of the first IMAX movie houses in the country 22 years ago.

According to people involved with the museum, Romans made the same assurances in a memo to senior staff last summer. The memo reportedly added that the museum would be leveled, with the exhibits and staff scattered to other public locations while a replacement was built. It also called for temporarily moving the museum’s school — a nationally known facility that hosts 3,000 to 4,000 kids each summer and serves as a training facility for art teachers. Romans acknowledged that the museum school, which has its own alumni association, is a traditional summer activity for many Fort Worth residents and a citywide institution.

Kit Goolsby, a 27-year veteran educator who now serves as museum vice president and director of the school, said the school’s supporters aren’t worried about the future.

She cited the case of one grandfather and school alumnus who brought his daughter for summer sessions and now brings his granddaughter to weekly pre-school sessions. The school has been running for 55 years, she said (it launched before the current museum) and counts among its graduates enough influence to make sure it will survive, whatever happens to the museum itself — or along Montgomery Street.

Michael Whiteley can be reached at mikewhiteley@sbcglobal.net.

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