Noel Nelson and girlfriend Madelyn Walsh walked their dogs along the Lake Worth shore on a recent morning, enjoying the breeze, the green grass, and the anticipation of a brighter future.
Nelson has lived most of his 27 years in a house about a quarter-mile from Casino Beach, site of the old Casino Park outdoor entertainment complex that rose to glory in the 1920s and faded to rubble by the 1970s.
“I’m excited,” Nelson said, stopping near the spot where a roller coaster, ballroom, playground, bathhouse, and boardwalk once made up a jewel of North Texas. “I really hope my property value goes up.”
He’s excited because Casino Beach is poised for a revival. Currently the beach site is vacant, just a grassy shore and a boat ramp next to a lake with a reputation for hazardous waste and fish you don’t want to eat. Nelson has found trash, including used syringes, on many of his walks, but the recent dredging and beach management have already improved the place.
If things go as planned, within a couple of years the couple will be able to walk to Casino Beach, paddle on the lake, dine at a nice restaurant, have a drink, catch a concert under the stars, and maybe jump on a ferris wheel or a roller coaster for a nostalgic thrill.
The City of Fort Worth has spent the past two years dredging the lake that was created in 1914 and had slowly filled with sediment. The silting had reduced lake depth to a mere two feet, even in some places away from the shore, making it unusable or dangerous for many boating and ski enthusiasts. The lake is now deeper and cleaner than ever — at least six feet in all recreational areas and even deeper in the middle. Stumps and debris have been removed. The water stays cooler longer.
“For a long time, you are going to see good navigable boat areas on Lake Worth,” developer Jarod Cox said.
With lake improvements expected to lure more visitors, an Arlington-based development group is eager to tap into that revenue source.
Patterson Equity Partners Ltd. has been planning a Casino Beach revival for several years, although no dirt has been turned yet. Developers Mike Patterson, his son Tyler Patterson, and Cox envision a reborn Casino Beach that offers not only a restaurant and boardwalk but a marina, riverboat, and recreational activities. Site plans currently include 20,000 square feet of mixed-use indoor/outdoor space, 129 boat slips, an on-water fueling station, and flexible space for food trucks and carnival rides to come and go.
The company has signed a contract with the city, which owns the land, to buy and develop a portion of the site and to lease other areas. Details are still being hammered out on both sides. Patterson Equity, working as Casino Beach Properties Inc., is seeking a loan package from its bank and lining up investors.
The company has a year remaining under its current contract to come up with about $30 million, finalize the deal, and begin construction.
In the high-stakes world of property development, plans often die before the ink fades. There are no guarantees that Patterson Equity will pull off its ambitious idea. But company officials say they’re doing everything they can to make it happen. They’ve spent about $3 million on design work and studies.
“We don’t plan on walking away from this deal,” Patterson said. “We have a lot of money and time involved.”
“This is a different kind of investment than a lot of people do,” Cox said. “It’s got a lot of moving parts. You’ve got a partnership with the city for the next 45 years. You’ve got stakeholders that include Lockheed Martin and the [Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base]. You’ve got home-owners, a park area.”
The Naval Air Station is just south of the lake, with planes taking off and landing intermittently. The jets make for some thunderous moments.
“That’s the only thing I don’t like down here,” Nelson said. “The airplanes bombard us.”
Some skeptics wonder how an outdoor music venue can compete with jet engines. Cox isn’t worried. Fort Worth is an airplane-friendly city and most people are used to the sounds, he said. However, the naval base doesn’t publicize its take-off and landing schedules, so there is no way to plan events around them.
“It will be loud when those planes come through, but I don’t think it’s a deterrent,” he said. “If it is, we’ll deal with it. We’ve told the city that we’ll take that risk and responsibility. If somebody is upset that they came to a concert and there were a lot of planes landing, then we’ll refund their ticket.”
City officials want to see the plan work.
“Staff has been working with the developer and their consultants over the last year and a half to help them design the public improvements necessary to support the development and satisfy the requirements of their development agreement,” city spokesman Bill Begley said.
The original Casino Beach offered a ballroom that attracted some of the country’s most notable bandleaders, including Tommy Dorsey and Guy Lombardo. The beach opened to visitors in 1917 and blossomed in the 1920s as word spread. Developers back then, just like today, saw the profit potential, and they built the boardwalk, an elaborate ballroom, and an amusement park that included the largest roller coaster in this part of the country. Teenagers enjoyed their first kisses there. Couples were married there. Children were probably conceived there.
If Patterson Equity can come up with the money to buy 17 acres from the city and implement its site plan, modern-day visitors will get a chance to create their own histories at Casino Beach.
“This project is going to bring some cool people down here,” Walsh said as she and Nelson walked the now-deserted beach, watching their dogs and envisioning what the future might hold.