Story originally published in Fort Worth Report.
A large red brick building that sits just off Interstate 35 West and Rosedale Street is supposed to be the hub for business assistance and entrepreneurship development in Fort Worth.
There’s just one problem. People haven’t heard about it.
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The Business Assistance Center, located at what was once the James Guinn School, was designed to be a one-stop shop for small businesses to start or receive help — and was once heralded as a national model for business assistance.
The campus hosts 11 organizations with the mission of supporting small businesses such as Tech Fort Worth, SCORE, the Fort Worth Metropolitan Black Chamber of Commerce and the Tarrant Small Business Development Center. The pandemic, declines in funding and changes in locations and leaders over the years have left a mark on the center.
Now, the city is trying to figure out what the future of the center will look like as the economic development department eventually moves to the new City Hall at 100 Energy Way, leaving behind empty offices. It comes at a time when the city is trying to boost its job numbers by increasing the number of corporate relocations, attracting entrepreneurs and supporting local businesses in the city to secure a healthy economic future.
What’s at stake if the city doesn’t build robust systems of assistance? The fear is that small business owners will leave the city if they can’t find the support they need.
Nia Dillon, the CEO of startup marketing agency Innovative Campaigns, said the people she advises don’t know about the center. She received assistance from the Accelerate Fort Worth Foundation to start her business and rent office space. There’s been an absence of African American business owners at the center, she said.
“With some of the minority business owners that I’ve talked to since my tenure here at the (Business Assistance Center), most of them want to move (to Dallas) because they don’t feel that there’s any help here in Fort Worth for them,” Dillon said.
Born from necessity
The Business Assistance Center was once a bustling spot and viewed as a national model for supporting small businesses.
The center was created by then-Mayor Kay Granger during a time of great need in the community, said Tony Ford, the founding executive director of the Business Assistance Center.
Thousands of people were without jobs as a result of the Carswell Air Force Base’s closure and layoffs at General Dynamics caused by sharp cuts to U.S. defense funding as the Cold War ended.
Granger started interviewing people in the public sector about how to respond to the economic situation.
“Mayor Granger decided that the best way to stimulate the economy was to put as many people back to work in a small business, whether owning it or working for one,” Ford said.
Granger decided the best way to do that was to locate about 13 organizations meant to help support businesses in one location: the Water Gardens building in downtown Fort Worth. In the first year of the program, the center served roughly 12,500 people and added 4,000 new jobs, Ford said.
“It was like a train station,” he said. “People were lined up at our door … It was triage.”
Marketing was by word of mouth. Ford said he spent more time marketing the specific agencies at the center instead of the center itself and used the city’s allocated budget to rent the space.
“The tenant organizations are the balloons; the Business Assistance Center itself, we’re the basket,” Ford said. “If we can blow this thing with air, the (center) will blow up with it.”
The Business Assistance Center was later praised by Jere Glover, chief counsel for advocacy of the Small Business Administration under President Bill Clinton, calling it a model that needed to be replicated across the country, according to a 1996 Fort Worth Star-Telegram article accessed by the Fort Worth Public Library. In 1999, Granger was inducted into the Fort Worth Business Hall of Fame for her contributions to helping the city out of the economic downturn.
The center was successful for three reasons, Ford said: The center had a champion in Granger, it was born out of necessity and the government didn’t run it.
“Government in itself is always going to be inefficient because it’s a public trust. And they have to have all these rules to govern behaviors, allocation of funds,” Ford said. “I understand why it’s inefficient, but it’s inefficient. And so the hope for any business assistance center type organization is always going to lie in a public-private partnership where the public entity allows the private entity to serve the clients their way.”
Priorities changed when Kenneth Barr was elected as mayor, Ford said. Barr concentrated on the Fort Worth International Center, which functioned as a welcoming base for visiting businesses and officials from outside the U.S., and helped foreign businesses establish themselves in Fort Worth. Barr promised that it would bring jobs to the area, according to a 1997 Star-Telegram article accessed by the Fort Worth Public Library.
The center eventually moved to the James E. Guinn Entrepreneurial Campus located at 600 East Rosedale St., which hosts some partner organizations and the economic development office.
Ford believes that the Business Assistance Center needs a political champion again.
“There’s no reason why Fort Worth, Texas, shouldn’t be able to claim the mantle of ‘entrepreneurial capital of Texas,’” Ford said. “That was my goal when I took the gig. But you have to have a political champion to do that.”
‘Not broken … just adrift’
Kay West is studying how to strengthen small business and entrepreneur support in Fort Worth as a FUSE fellow. From research she’s done, she says people don’t know that the center exists.
“It’s like word of mouth, and some could argue that’s a marketing thing,” West said. “But I think it also goes back to the programs, the technical assistance that you’re offering and that business model.”
Some of her recommendations are rethinking the business model for the Business Assistance Center and how to fund it. She points to Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, which has a foundation and works with an economic development office and the area’s research universities.
One funding mechanism could be raising money through tax increment financing districts to create an economic development fund, or making a Chapter 380 tax agreement that has a portion of funds go toward entrepreneurship efforts, she said.
Robert Sturns, director of the city’s economic development department, said some economic development staff will be at the center when the transition to downtown occurs. The department is also hiring a small business specialist, and the city will still work with the center’s various partner organizations to do programming.
“It’s not as if just because the bulk of the staff is moving to City Hall that we’re just kind of giving up our hands,” Sturns said.
West said staffing doesn’t solve the problem, though.
“That did not solve the issue of what the (Business Assistance Center) needs as far as the business model and structure,” West said. “And based on the research that I’ve done, I think the community feels that way. I think the community feels that that one person is not going to solve the issue for the (center).”
West is expected to present her final recommendations by the end of her fellowship this year.
Jared Sloane, executive director of the Accelerate Fort Worth Foundation on the center’s campus, describes the transition as a changing point.
“If economic development is going to leave, that’s really the anchor on this campus,” Sloane said. “And I don’t think that we’ve done a very good job individually as campus tenants of demonstrating our output and our community impact and our economic value.”
He said the center is not broken. It’s just adrift.
During the start of the pandemic in 2020, the accelerator organization went through leadership changes. Programming fell to a standstill. He said now as the city figures out the future for the center it could be an opportunity to strategize to make the center better.
“This could really be a hopping hub of entrepreneurship and small business if we wish it to be so,” Sloane said.
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.
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