On a recent gusty but sunny Saturday afternoon, Magnolia Avenue was teeming with pedestrians. Parents were pushing strollers, dogs were pulling owners along on leashes, and buskers provided the outdoor soundtrack to the biannual Arts Goggle. The event was a showcase for the Near Southside. The streets were closed to cars, and dozens of shops and offices moonlighted as art galleries and concert venues.
The Southside is arguably the most progressive neighborhood in Fort Worth. New, hip, independently owned shops, restaurants, and bars open every year. Local trends get started here. And the Southside is leading the city on one very important social issue: women-owned businesses.
Mike Brennan of Fort Worth South Inc., a member-funded nonprofit development organization, estimated that women are the principal owners of more than half of the new businesses that have opened in the Southside over the past five years. The phenomenon reflects a statewide and national trend. Over the last two decades, women-owned businesses have accounted for roughly half of the nation’s new jobs.
Federal, state, and local governments all set aside contracts for businesses owned by women. Larger companies are required to subcontract a certain amount of their work to companies owned by minorities or women. But to be eligible for those lucrative contracts, businesses must go through a long and often-expensive certification process.
On the Southside, businesses owned by women range from theater companies, public relations firms, and restaurants to medical clinics, jewelers, and bakeries.
“It’s an impressive list,” Brennan said. He believes diversity is a real drawing card for the area.
“This is a district where there is a large variety of business types,” he said. “Certainly the medical industry is the dominant one, but outside of the medical district, you’ll find a wide range of business types. So I think that encourages new business owners to open shop down here.”
Small businesses do well there, he said, and many entrepreneurs like the area’s unique architecture and low cost of renting and buying property.
One of those woman-owned businesses is Elemental Yoga. Brynn Byrne opened the yoga studio two years ago, attracted, she said, by Fort Worth South Inc. and by the city’s investment in the Near Southside. She also liked having a thriving vegan restaurant in the area.
“When I first came to the Southside, the first thing that stuck out in my mind was the Spiral Diner,” she said. “Having Fort Worth South and the extra money from the city to develop the area has attracted independent, open-minded people.”
Some of the development was spurred by establishment on the Near Southside of a tax-increment finance district (TIF), which provides a pool of tax money that can be used to improve an area’s infrastructure. Since the Southside TIF was created in 1997, $22.9 million from the TIF fund has been spent on improving the neighborhood. Fort Worth South President Paul Paine said that for every TIF dollar spent, the Southside has gotten $10 in private investment.
“We’ve grown the tax base by 110 percent” since 1997, he said.
Across the country, according to research by American Express, since 1997 women-owned firms have outstripped all but the very largest publicly traded corporations in revenue, employment, and other growth measures. Texas ranked second in the U.S. in the number of women-owned businesses during that period, according to the study, with 637,300 women-owned firms employing more than 1.2 million people and pumping nearly $115 billion into the state’s economy.
At the Fort Worth Business Assistance Center, which provides business training for minority and women-owned small businesses, more women than men are attending training classes.
“It’s probably … closer to 60 to 65 percent women,” said William Johnson, the city’s assistant director for housing and economic development.
The Near South is so diverse, Brennan said, that barriers that elsewhere might discourage women are nonexistent there.
“There’s never been a good ol’ boys environment down here,” he said.
Elizabeth Northern, owner of Magnolia Cheese Co., said that her gender wasn’t a barrier in opening a business.
“As we were doing build-out, I did get a few raised eyebrows [from male workers],” she said, “But I don’t feel that it was more difficult for … me. I didn’t get that impression at all.”
Northern serves on the marketing committee for Fort Worth South Inc. and said she was attracted to the area because of its unique energy.
“There are a lot of younger business owners taking a lot of chances here,” she said. “And to me, that’s kind of inspiring. I feel it’s a young, educated group.”
Her business is on the corner of Magnolia and 5th avenues. Three out of four tenants in the building are women-owned businesses.
Beth Hutson, who is the owner of Hutson Creative public relations firm on the Southside, went through both state and regional certification processes. Her business is certified with the Women’s Businesses Enterprise National Council (WBE) and the state’s Historically Underutilized Business Program (HUB). She did both, she said, because many state and local government agencies require a business be HUB-certified, while large companies prefer the WBE certification.
Huston said the process was expensive, but she’s paid it back in contracts with companies such as TXU and Texas Christian University — organizations that require a percentage of their money be spent with women-owned businesses.
“They want to evaluate everything about you,” she said. “They want to know what your income is, what your expenses are, who your employees are, what you’re paying in taxes, a list of clients, a description of your company. We had to prove that 100 percent of the shares were in my name.
“It takes awhile to process all of that — more than six months,” she said. “There’s a cost involved with getting all of those details together, and it’s something … we’ll have to continue to apply for.”
She estimates that 20 to 30 percent of her income is from contracts that her company got as a result of being certified.
Hutson said that she has connected with other women business owners based in the Near South, and they have formed a bond.
“We’re supportive of one another. We send business one another’s way, we look out for opportunities for each other,” she said. “There’s such a great sense of community on Magnolia and the Southside.”