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As Fort Worth Welcomes Thousands Each Year, Officials Address Growing Pains, Opportunities

Christopher Connelly
Fort Worth City Manager David Cooke discusses the North Texas bid for Amazon's second headquarters at a regional chamber of commerce luncheon on Oct. 19.

Fort Worth is growing fast. And while all that growth is exciting, it comes with challenges the city must meet.

That’s what Fort Worth City Manager David Cooke recently told business leaders.

Cooke said the city adds about 20,000 to 25,000 people each year. That puts Fort Worth on track to become the 14th largest city in the country next year, skipping ahead of Columbus, Ohio, and Indianapolis if current trends hold. By 2019, Cooke said, Fort Worth is set to be the 12th largest city in the country, bigger than cities like Jacksonville, Florida, and San Francisco.

Many see growth as a good thing for cities, Cooke included, but he said there are three big questions to ask that raise big implications for Fort Worth: “Where are they going to live, where are they going to work, and how are they going to get around?”

Fort Worth has the most ready-to-develop land in North Texas, Cooke said, some 70,000 acres on which people can build homes and businesses. That’s more developable land than any other three cities in North Texas combined.

At the same time, there’s a worrying trend: Household growth has been outpacing job growth. Basically, the city’s adding people faster than it is adding new jobs, which means more and more Fort Worth residents have to drive out of the city limits to go to work. And that’s a long-term trend; Cooke said they’ve been seeing this over the last 10 to 15 years.

The city has been working on an economic development plan that it’s getting ready to unveil soon. The goal is to grow more jobs within city limits.

On the question of how to get around, Cooke said public transit is part of the answer. The city lags behind other big Texas cities in investing in public transit. Still, he points to the TEXRail train that’ll go from downtown to DFW International Airport as evidence of investment.

Public transit isn’t the only infrastructure issue that comes with a fast-growing population. That’s why the city’s going to hold its biggest-ever bond election in May. The city is asking residents if it can borrow nearly $400 million to pay for things like roads and bridges, police and fire stations, parks, senior centers and libraries.

Cooke said another priority for 2018 is action on the city’s public employee pension fund. Fort Worth has been struggling to get the fund under control over the years, but has faced major setbacks in terms of investments not returning at the rates officials expected. It currently faces a $1 billion-plus shortfall.

“The city has been downgraded twice in the last two years by rating agencies based on the pension system alone,” Cooke told the crowd. “So it is something we have to tackle.”

Cooke said that fixing the plan is important, but he predicted that it’ll also be painful and rancorous process. 

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.