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How Fort Worth wound up with two festivals and a big mess in the middle of Main Street

April 8,2022

See the full Fort Worth Star-Telegram article by Bud Kennedy here.

You know how kids feel when Mommy and Daddy fight?

Now imagine how Fort Worth feels about a fracas among our billionaire philanthropist families and their friends.

The 2019 division of Sundance Square from City Center has left a rupture deep enough to sink downtown.

With proxies and social-media sock puppets doing the public bickering around families that keep their disputes private, loyalists are siding with either the new Sundance Square owners or the longstanding City Center managers. They’re venting over dismissals, accusations, rejected leases, inexperienced leadership, communication breakdowns, landscaping, parking charges and generally over the slow reopening and struggling overhaul of the city’s central square.

In a cinnamon-roasted nut shell, that is how Fort Worth wound up with adjacent art festivals this weekend.

I am not saying that any other Bass family member personally had anything to do with Sundance owners Sasha and Ed Bass’ dysfunctional split with downtown neighbors over the annual Main Street Fort Worth Arts Festival.

I’m just trying to say that this is really not over trees, or whether somebody owns a dog, or the price of valet parking.

It’s about a downtown divide among neighbors who no longer want to get along. It’s about the dire future ahead for any city that is less about business and economic development and more about middle-school immaturity.

City Center and its parent Bass Brothers Enterprises helped start the Main Street festival. The year was 1986, and City Center gave $100,000 to bankroll the new promotion drawing shoppers and diners downtown.

Back then, the original music headliner was supposed to be Stevie Ray Vaughan. That deal didn’t work out, so Delbert McClinton played to a Main Street crowd six blocks deep.

More than 30 years and countless windstorms and deluges later, Main Street is now the third-largest arts festival in the country and an established stop on a national art festival circuit.

Chaired by former local Coors executive Larry Anfin, it draws 300,000 people and runs a nearly $2 million event with no need for big-name stars.

But on Sunday night, 173 of the 200 artists will load up their profits and leave town.

Downtown merchants bank off the crowds coming for first-class art carefully selected by jurors. But not all the money stays in Fort Worth.

So new Sundance owners Sasha and Ed Bass, a lifelong nonconformist, took the opportunity to devote their plaza to unique art by a culturally diverse lineup of local artists, with music headliners to draw shoppers.

That brought a downtown dispute that had simmered for months to a boil.

The 2017 losses of homebuilder D.R. Horton Inc.’s headquarters and 1,700 ExxonMobil employees had already emptied downtown towers. Then came coronavirus shutdowns, followed by justice protests that occupied cities nationwide.

As business boomed at the Shops at Clearfork and Mule Alley, Sundance reopened slowly under stricter COVID protocols.

That was when the drumbeat of complaints began. Over the past year, anonymous social media accounts and unsigned comments have complained over store closings, rejected leases, Sasha Bass’ chippy management style and even over petty gripes about alley murals, offbeat Christmas tree ornaments and the small dog she often carries.

Early this year, Sundance tangled over landscaping maintenance with Downtown Fort Worth Inc., the merchants’ association that in part governs downtown and operates the Main Street festival.

Basically, that’s how we wound up with this mess in the middle of Main Street.

The signs on the plaza outside the Fort Worth Art Fair define it with a single word: “Local.”

But they also mark the brink of a brewing feud among billionaire developers who can’t bury their gripes long enough to support both suffering downtown businesses and struggling hometown artists.

The infighting and mean-spirited gossip seem to be only beginning.

This is not the way to attract business or build community spirit in downtown Fort Worth.