How Texas Wesleyan president helped ignite the Rosedale Renaissance and reshape a neighborhood
Fred Slabach never intended to get into economic development. Texas Wesleyan University, though, needed it.
The perception of the surrounding neighborhood — and the university itself — was negative. People thought the area was unsafe. Storefronts along Rosedale Street were boarded up. Business was non-existent.
Slabach saw it differently. The university and neighborhood were safe. Businesses would come with changes. Reshaping the neighborhood could improve its perception.
In the 12 years Slabach led Texas Wesleyan as its president, the university transformed from a hidden gem in the Polytechnic neighborhood to one of the most visible landmarks along East Rosedale Street. More businesses have set up shop near the university of more than 2,600 students.
Texas Wesleyan has invested more than $50 million into new buildings and renovations on campus, as well as buying and improving buildings near the college during Slabach’s tenure, which officially ends July 1 as he leaves to become the dean of the University of Mississippi School of Law, his alma mater.
Slabach sees Texas Wesleyan as the spark that has helped ignite the redevelopment of the area about 4 miles southeast of downtown. However, the university didn’t do it alone. The combined effort of entrepreneurs, the city of Fort Worth, state government, philanthropic leaders and the university have helped spur the Rosedale Renaissance, he said.
“It’s been really gratifying to see as we prime the pump, then more things start coming, developing on their own without our input, which is great,” Slabach said.
‘Leverage that wonderful investment’
Don Boren remembers the Polytechnic neighborhood bustling with activity in the 1950s and 1960s. Rosedale had restaurants, a department store and even a movie theater.
“One by one, they just couldn’t survive,” said Boren, past president of the East Fort Worth Business Association. “Eventually, it was nothing but empty buildings, empty storefronts and nobody wanted to go there.”
Rosedale would remain that way for decades — and it could have been worse.
In the 1980s, Texas Wesleyan’s board of trustees considered relocating the university to west Fort Worth. Trustees decided against the idea.
Texas Wesleyan added buildings on campus and started — and later sold — a law school in downtown Fort Worth. Rosedale, though, remained mostly unchanged.
The North Central Texas Council of Governments, city of Fort Worth, Tarrant County and the Texas Department of Transportation decided to expand Rosedale Street from two to four lanes, adding lighting and sidewalks — a project that Glenn Lewis, current chairman of Wesleyan’s board, kick-started when he was in the Texas Legislature in the early 2000s.
Slabach, who had been tapped to be the university’s president in 2011, talked to the board and other top administrators.
“We decided that we ought to explore what we could do to leverage that wonderful investment that the city was doing,” Slabach said.
Starting the Rosedale Renaissance
Texas Wesleyan didn’t have a front door.
Slabach was determined to change that. He saw the changes happening to Rosedale and knew the university needed a presence on the street.
The Rosedale Renaissance was born. The term comes from a fundraising effort to build the 83-foot tall Canafax Clock Tower, reflecting pool and visitor park — all of which are now part of the university’s front door.
The campaign name has stayed far longer than the fundraising effort.
“It stuck. It did,” Slabach said. “It encapsulates all of the economic revitalization efforts that we’re trying to do.”
Mia Moss grew up around Rosedale. She remembers how the area was bare and how few businesses stayed and sustained themselves. The Poly Grill was one, but had to close as Rosedale was rebuilt, she said.
In 2019, Moss bought the building, about a block south of Rosedale, that housed the Poly Grill and transformed it into Black Coffee, 1417 Vaughn Blvd.
“I wanted to bring some new life on this side just by adding a coffee shop,” Moss said. “We know that when you see a coffee shop in a neighborhood that’s a safe space for everyone to meet, to hang out, to study, and that’s what I wanted to do.”
In 2022, a pizza restaurant — Joe’s Hangout — set up shop on East Rosedale and more recently, the Fort Worth Report opened its newsroom in a building leased from Texas Wesleyan.
Success of Texas Wesleyan, Poly connected
Boren, of the East Fort Worth Business Association, sees Texas Wesleyan as an entirely different school now because of Slabach.
“It’s hard to imagine that the Rosedale Renaissance would have happened the way it happened without him,” Boren said.
The Rosedale Renaissance is not stopping because Slabach is leaving. In fact, Slabach sees it accelerating.
Texas Wesleyan is nearing the completion of its new football field. Before too long, a field house and stadium will be constructed around the field.
The estimated $20 million stadium will be the home of the Texas Wesleyan football and soccer teams, but Slabach sees it as a draw for people who don’t visit east Fort Worth — or haven’t in years. Fort Worth ISD and other groups are interested in using the athletic field, too.
“We really think that’s going to be an economic draw for the neighborhood,” Slabach said. “It’ll bring more people to the neighborhood, which drives retail. It’ll help the restaurants that we already have here and bring more.”
Moss agreed. The Poly area will see new attention, something the neighborhood hasn’t had in decades, she said. Still, she has concerns.
“The fear is residents being forgotten — being forced out — based on development, growth and the rising cost of everything,” Moss said.
Moss is hopeful the Polytechnic Heights Main Street America Program can strike the right balance of development for her neighborhood. Texas Wesleyan and Slabach have taken that approach through their revitalization efforts, she said.
“With President Slabach, they just really dug into not just their campus, but the surrounding area,” Moss said.
Passing the baton
The revitalization of Texas Wesleyan and the Polytechnic neighborhood didn’t happen overnight. Bringing new life and energy into this part of east Fort Worth has taken more than a decade.
Slabach, though, knows he has run his leg of the marathon that is the Rosedale Renaissance. He’s passing the baton to his successor.
“The new person is going to be able to come in and survey the landscape and say now that we have this foundation, here are some opportunities and there’ll be a burst of energy and enthusiasm built around that new vision,” Slabach said. “That’s a really beneficial aspect of leadership transition.”
The board of trustees’ presidential search committee received 104 applications for Slabach’s position, Lewis, the board chairman, told the Fort Worth Report. The field was winnowed to four finalists who trustees interviewed in mid-May, he said.
The board is aiming to have Slabach’s successor in place before July 1, his last day.
Regardless of who the next president is, Lewis expects that person to start the next era of the Rosedale Renaissance.
“There’s still work to be done — a lot of it,” Lewis said. “He has laid the groundwork for what needs to follow.”
When Slabach leaves Texas Wesleyan for the last time, he will drive on a road that looks nothing like it did on his first day as president in 2011. He will pass storefronts that are ready for businesses. He’ll also see those that already exist.
And soon the Rosedale Renaissance he ignited will be in his rearview mirror.
Disclosure: Texas Wesleyan University is a financial supporter of the Fort Worth Report. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.
Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at email@example.com or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.