Downtown Fort Worth, Sundance Square are coming back to life. It’s just happening slowly

May 13,2022


See full Fort Worth Star-Telegram article by James Hartley here.

Sundance Square holds a special place in the memories of Marcus and Mary Henderson. This is where, six years ago, the two of them officially decided to spend the rest of their lives together.

Marcus, 31, took Mary, also 31, to the Sundance Square Plaza with a ring in his pocket, a rapid heartbeat and a plan. He got down on one knee and asked her to marry him. Somehow, there, surrounded by strangers in downtown Fort Worth, the moment was intimate. There was the life and buzz of the plaza all around them, but at the same time they were alone.

The downtown shopping district of Sundance Square became a part of their story that night. The lights, the buildings, the mural of the Chisholm Trail, even the sounds of people and traffic, when put together, became almost like characters in their shared journey.

The area has the same effect, creates the same reminder, today.

But Sundance Square and downtown Fort Worth feel different. Whereas six years ago, or even just a little more than two years ago, Marcus and Mary Henderson could stand in the middle of the plaza and feel alone together even as crowds of people moved around them, today they might actually be alone there, depending on the night they decide to make a visit.

If the streets of Sundance Square feel a little darker than they did in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic led to the near complete shutdown of business in downtown, some recent visitors said it may be because the glow of neon signs and ceiling lights has disappeared from many of the storefronts that decided, or were forced, to call it quits amid the restrictions and shutdowns of 2020 and 2021.

Life has been returning to the area, just not all at once. In 2020, some downtown businesses cited less foot traffic as a challenge. Over the past two years, other restaurants and stores found having a downtown location less profitable or struggled to work out a lease agreement.

But leaders with Visit Fort Worth, Downtown Fort Worth Inc. and Sundance Square said the return of normalcy to Fort Worth’s city center is going better than in most cities. Conventions and festivals have returned to downtown, workers are returning to offices and businesses are looking to move their employees to the area, they said.

SIGNS OF GROWTH

Month-to-month sales tax data from the downtown area collected by the city and compiled into a graph by Downtown Fort Worth Inc. shows receipts — which are an indicator of retail and restaurant sales — on a non-linear rebound from the lowest point in April 2020.

A look at averages provided in that data shows revenues began an upward trend in January of 2021.

In December 2021, sales tax revenues in Fort Worth breached $500,000 for the first time since the last quarter of 2019. Revenues bottomed out around March and April of 2020, dropping to around $250,000.

Sales tax collections dipped again in January of this year and saw a less dramatic drop going into February, ending up somewhere around $425,000, but so far this year have stayed above $400,000.

While tax revenues from downtown businesses haven’t reached the level of early to mid-2019, they have come much closer than they did in 2021, according to the data from Downtown Fort Worth Inc. First-quarter sales tax collections nearly matched numbers from the end of 2019.

According to data from Downtown Fort Worth Inc., demand for office space in the city center also is going up. The organization measures this by looking at net absorption of space.

When an office space goes vacant, it becomes a negative absorption. When that space is leased, it’s positive. A positive net absorption, as downtown Fort Worth has seen since the third quarter of 2021, shows that more office space is being leased than going and sitting vacant.

Fort Worth saw occupancy drop in all of 2020, with the largest drop by far coming in the third quarter.

Shane Smith, director of research for Downtown Fort Worth Inc., said the rebound since the second half of 2021 tells a story of people wanting to bring office space to downtown again.

And trends with parking suggest more employees are returning to work in-person. Smith said that parking rates for offices are not the best way to look at how many people are coming to work downtown, but it is at least a good indicator.

In the middle of the pandemic, Downtown Fort Worth Inc. data shows parking utilization for employees in the area was at 30% of its usual levels. In recent months, it’s been at 60%, showing that it’s not back up to pre-COVID numbers but has improved since the middle of the pandemic.

Smith said the demand for office space downtown is outperforming other cities. That means more workers in the area during the week, buying lunch at local restaurants and spending money at stores and bars after work.

Bob Jameson, president and CEO at Visit Fort Worth, said conventions are returning to Fort Worth, and business travelers and day- and weekend-trippers have started coming back to the city.

Things are reopening, vaccination rates are growing and concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic are waning, Jameson said.

“That just has encouraged people to get out and be among other people,” Jameson said. “We are social beings, and I continue to hear messages of I have missed being out and about. So people are embracing travel as a means of reclaiming what they’ve missed for a couple years.”

And data from hotels provided by Visit Fort Worth and Downtown Fort Worth Inc. shows more people are coming. The occupancy rate in early 2022 was still lower than for the same time period in 2019, but it was up from about 30% of hotel rooms occupied last March to about 60% this year.

“This is looking to be one of the best years in recent history for hotels in downtown Fort Worth,” Jameson told the Star-Telegram.

That occupancy rate is also impacted by new hotels like The Sinclair, the Kimpton Harper and the AC Hotel, which means there are more hotel rooms to occupy.

“On the development front, Downtown Fort Worth has planned and under construction developments for both housing and hotels,” Smith said. Housing developments including apartments, condos and townhomes have the potential to increase the number of units by 65%, while the number of hotel rooms could increase by an additional 14%.

NIGHTLIFE AND ATTRACTIONS

A lot of how much energy this part of town has depends on when visitors find themselves in the area. A Friday night one week may find the streets and sidewalks busy and the plaza packed and another Friday night might feel lonely and quiet. Saturdays are usually a better bet if you’re looking for the energy that can come with getting lost in the crowd, but they can be hit or miss sometimes, too.

On April 1, a week before Fort Worth’s dueling art celebrations kicked off, the Gregory Newman Jazz Trio performed on the small stage in the plaza for about 35 people. Older visitors, families and young couples alike were in the diverse crowd there, with kids running around the plaza shouting and playing a game of tag to a soundtrack of smooth jazz.

That’s when Marcus Henderson and Mary Henderson, who still live in Fort Worth, were back in Sundance Square for the first time in a while. It wasn’t empty, but compared to the crowds that used to gather on Thursday nights for family-friendly movies or on Fridays for live music, it might have looked that way.

The area still feels safe, they said, noting they’d heard some people saying it wasn’t as secure as it used to be. The population of people experiencing homelessness in the area may have been a bit higher than they remembered (which Mary Henderson said she worries is the main reason folks don’t feel as comfortable there as they used to).

And the number of TCU students bar hopping and queuing up to grab dinner at places like Razzoo’s and The Cheesecake Factory wasn’t as high as they remembered from six years ago. Most of that crowd is hanging out in the West 7th/Crockett Row area now, they guessed.

But the couple is confident the crowds will return, they said. April 2 did see more people in the plaza, including about 20 people separated into their groups of friends and family, waiting outside The Cheesecake Factory, and around 50 people were in the Sundance Square Plaza at any given moment.

‘JUST GET PEOPLE HERE’

Fasi and Emany Zachary said during one visit on April 1 that the lower frequency of events in Sundance Square is probably the main thing that stops them from going downtown more often. The Fort Worth couple has made it a habit for years to go to Sundance Square, usually once every week or so, just to walk around.

They said downtown Fort Worth isn’t dead. It’s just got a long road to recovery ahead of it.

“I like how calm it feels, but I also miss how there were more people here before,” Emany Zachary said during the couple’s visit on April 1. “It’s less colorful. The buildings aren’t lit up like they used to be. The sidewalks feel lonely.”

Fasi Zachary said he used to venture to the plaza every chance he had to attend the free yoga sessions hosted there. And Emany said she and Fasi liked making it to movie nights when they could.

Being there for those things usually led them to walk into at least one store in the area and, more often that not, spend at least a little money. It also brought them back to the area just to visit businesses they would see when they attended events in the plaza.

“Just get people here for something and they’ll stay and support the restaurants and shops,” Fasi Zachary said. “I miss the yoga on Thursday mornings. I wish they’d bring that back.”

Live music has come back to Sundance Square Plaza. Some things, like yoga, are in Sundance Square’s near future, according to Ruth Meharg, who leads event organizing in the shopping district.

Other things have moved elsewhere, at least for the time being, like movie nights that are in Burnett Plaza now. That could be due to an ongoing feud between Sundance Square and Downtown Fort Worth Inc.

The Zacharys said they still come for their walks, but there’s something different when they go to Sundance for that. They said they’re less likely to spend money when they come just to get in some exercise, though they can’t exactly place why that is.

And they may be onto something.

When country musician Clint Black came to the plaza on April 8 to perform for the Fort Worth Art Fair — Sundance Square’s response to the idea that the Main Street Art Festival didn’t have enough local representation — the vibe was totally different. And while crowds have swelled and fallen, the number of people has seemed consistently higher than before the renewed festivities brought people downtown this spring.

The Main Street Fort Worth Arts Festival was held for the first time since two years’ of cancellations due to the COVID pandemic. The Fort Worth Art Fair held the same weekend was new this year.

The plaza was crowded as it used to be when Sundance Square hosted those movie nights before the pandemic. Couples danced to Black’s live cover of “Mama Tried” by Merle Haggard. The air was thick with the scents of fried foods, barbecue, beer and the occasional whiff of cigar smoke or musky cologne sprayed on a little too heavily.

The following weeks have seen an increase in the number of people who are in Sundance Square and other parts of downtown. Fridays are usually a little slower than Saturdays, when several of the bars regularly have live music and crowds of people gather outside some of the more popular eateries like Flying Saucer and Jake’s Burgers and Beer waiting for a table to open up.

Most people haven’t said they started coming back to the square because of the feuding Fort Worth festivals in April, but many said that was their first time back to the area in a long while. Not a whole lot has changed for most of them. They park in the same places (most people find space in one of the garages that are free at night, others find free street parking and some valet), and they still feel the same sense of safety.

But almost everybody who came to Sundance Square before the pandemic said at least one of their favorite places is gone.

Because of school, 19-year-old Tarrant County College student Ben Tran said he doesn’t get much opportunity to leave behind his homework and studies for a night, but he said downtown is usually his first thought when he does want to go out.

“I just feel like downtown’s a nice area to go and it’s an easy place to meet up with people,” Tran said on a recent weekend as he and seven others around his age stood and sat outside Melt in Sundance Square eating ice cream. “But there’s just not as much to do here anymore. We usually end up somewhere else.”

Tran said he and his friends aren’t old enough to enjoy the bars and there’s not just a whole lot else left for them to do downtown. Before the pandemic, then-high school student Tran and his friends might get dinner at Taco Diner and check out what the nearby H&M had to offer.

Now, he said, Melt Ice Creams and the AMC Palace 9 movie theater are just about the only things left for them.

Taco Diner is no more now. Revolver Taco had a brief run in the space right off the plaza, but now the storefront is empty even as all the lights turned on inside cast a welcoming glow out the windows and the tables are set with colorful glassware as the restaurant were ready to open its doors and start dinner service at a moment’s notice.

The farther from the plaza visitors get, the more they’re greeted by darkened storefronts and relatively empty sidewalks, populated occasionally by groups heading to and from areas closer to the plaza.

Even just a block away, at Third Street and Houston Street, most of the storefronts are unlit. On the west side of the block, Four Day Weekend, Melt Ice Creams and Reata were still open (though Reata announced recently it wouldn’t be staying in Sundance Square after a lease dispute), but on the east side of the street all the spaces that housed businesses before the pandemic were empty save Flowers To Go.

Bryan Eppstein, a spokesperson for Sundance Square, argued that the shopping area is not struggling with vacancies but is going through a transformation brought on in part by changing goals (a tighter focus on local business and a desire to make the area more dedicated to local artists) and the shift from brick-and-mortar sales to online retailing.

In response to an unscientific Star-Telegram poll in late March, 56% of the 142 respondents said they visit downtown Fort Worth a few times a year. About 14% said they visit a few times a month, 12% daily, 10% never and 8% weekly.

About 40% of those surveyed said the day of the week when they’re most likely to visit is Saturday, and 19% said Friday.

About 51% said restaurants are what brings them downtown, while 15% said work and 14% said entertainment. For those who don’t visit downtown often, 38% said the reason is parking costs.

Visitors downtown in the past month said they’d heard about the decision announced by Reata for an upcoming move, but most didn’t fully understand why. Most also said the relocation of Reata wouldn’t change much for their experience but that they worry it may be a sign of what is to come with other local, unique offerings in the area.

Reata, the restaurant that launched “cowboy cuisine” in 1996, is looking for a new place to call home after owner Mike Micallef said it hasn’t been able to renew its lease that ends in 2024.

The return of conventions to downtown Fort Worth hotels might also help Sundance get a little more business.

Almost every weekend, it seems, folks from out of town and from out of the Lone Star State are coming to the city Where the West Begins, getting a hotel room, attending conference events and then going out at night to dine, imbibe on local craft beer at downtown bars, listen to music or shop in Sundance Square.

On the slower weeks, many will comment on how they expected more activity in what they were told by conference organizers and hotel concierges was the heart of Fort Worth, maybe second only to the Stockyards. It’s a bit quieter and more lonely than they expected.

But on weeks where things are “really bumpin’ out here,” as one conference-goer put it, most of the comments are about how kind and friendly the people are, how clean the streets and sidewalks are kept and how the area somehow blends the atmosphere of a small town with that of a major city downtown.