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Arnett: “You never knew what you might find.” Jeff Prince
Arnett: “You never knew what you might find.” Jeff Prince

For four decades, visitors to Fort Worth’s longest-running flea market could find baseball cards, straight razors, Beanie Babies, 45-rpm records, and a thousand other cool items that had fallen out of favor with the general populace or become obsolete.

And now the Cattle Barn Flea Market itself is falling into obscurity. After more than 40 years of operating every weekend except during the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, the indoor flea market at Will Rogers Memorial Center has closed.

“It’s an icon of Fort Worth that’s going away,” manager Norman Pannell said. “People are upset about it –– it’s been part of their lives for a long time. There’s no indoor flea market anywhere around Fort Worth and Dallas.”

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Most dealers blame the city’s high parking fees for killing the market, although other factors contributed to its decline, including the work habits of the dealers themselves, who often showed up late to tend to their booths, frustrating early-bird shoppers. In the end, perhaps, the general scruffiness of the market and its dealers just didn’t fit into the city’s efforts to beautify and renovate Will Rogers Memorial Center in conjunction with a planned $450 million equestrian center.

Several years ago, the city borrowed $27 million to provide more parking during the stock show and built a four-story garage that sits nearly empty most of the time. On May 1, 2010, city leaders decided to start charging for parking year-round in all of the parking areas around the Will Rogers complex, even curbside. The city paid for the garage with revenue bonds, and parking income is supposed to cover bond payments. Many people refuse to pay the fee and instead park in nearby neighborhoods or simply don’t visit the area anymore. So the city raised parking fees from $5 to $8 to $10 over the next few years.

Surrounding businesses suffered. The nonprofit Z’s Café, in the Fort Worth Community Arts Center, moved to a new location due to the massive drop-off in business. The fees also hurt the popularity of nearby museums.

The main beneficiary of the parking fees and garage is the stock show and rodeo, an event that lasts only three weeks a year and is privately owned.

“They [city officials] don’t care about losing customers, they care about making money,” Pannell said. “It’s all about the horse shows.”

Flea market attendance dropped immediately after a $5 parking fee went into effect and declined further after the fees doubled. The city has allowed some of the gun shows and horse shows to offer reduced parking fees to their customers, but a similar arrangement was never offered to the flea market, Pannell said.

Dealers had to pay, just like customers, so vendors too began to abandon ship. The city turned fee collections over to a private contractor, who typically placed only one parking attendant outside the flea market, creating a long line in the mornings as vendors arrived to set up their tables and customers arrived early to get first crack at finding a good deal. Adding insult to injury, the sprawling parking lots were almost always nearly empty. Vendors and customers who’d enjoyed free parking for four decades felt as if the city was gouging them to pay for a parking garage that only benefited stock show enthusiasts for a few weeks each year.

The number of dealers shrank by more than 60 percent.

“I’ve been managing it for three years and have seen us come down from 90 dealers to 30 dealers in that time,” said Pannell, who leased the booths to dealers and also worked as a dealer himself. “We can’t open with 30 dealers. It just doesn’t pay.”

During the 1990s and early 2000s, the barn attracted more than 100 dealers, so many that an overflow room was added. Hundreds of customers would show up on weekends looking for deals on antiques, books, records, knives, furniture, guns, stamps, and any number of items. (Note: I was a vendor there for about six years but left before the current controversy.)

Most North Texas flea markets are held outside, such as the Henderson Bazaar in Fort Worth and First Monday Trade Days in Weatherford. Dealers enjoyed the indoor Cattle Barn because they could leave their booths set up all week, safe in the locked and weatherproof barn. But that hurt the flea market as well. Customers wanted to see new items on display each week, like at a true flea market, rather than stagnant booths like those at antique malls.

Other factors also worked against the market. Little advertising was done. The barn was designed for animals, and while the floor had concrete walkways, the booth areas themselves were just patches of dirt and sawdust that would stir up easily. People were allowed to bring pets, and the animals sometimes peed (or worse) on or around the merchandise.

As the number of customers began to dwindle, so did dealers’ interest.

“A lot of it was our fault –– half the dealers wouldn’t be there until after 11 on Saturday,” said Charles Estell, whose booth anchored the northwest corner of the barn for 20 years. “People would pay to park and then come in, and half the dealers wouldn’t be there.”

Some dealers could be a little crusty, showing up for work without bathing or maybe even still drunk from the night before. One vendor earned the nickname Crowbar Steve after chasing a customer with a crowbar during a dispute. The barn was hot during summers and cold during winters. The advent of online auctions pulled away more customers –– and dealers –– to those virtual flea markets.

Those distractions turned off some customers over the years but didn’t come close to putting the flea market out of business.

“A few years ago they built that high-rise parking garage that nobody uses –– it’s the most expensive storage building ever built,” Pannell said. “One vendor has been out here for more than 40 years. We’ve got some who have been here 30 years. People are upset about it. It’s been part of their lives for a long time.”

Estell used to make between $600 and $800 per weekend re-selling items he’d find at garage sales or at other flea markets. In recent months, he’d been pulling in less than $200 a weekend, he said. At 71, he’s decided to drop out of the game altogether.

“Everything changed,” he said. “It was fun while it lasted, but I guess everything has got to end.”

Valerie Arnett saw the writing on the wall after the parking lot fees were initiated. She vacated her booth and opened her own store, Junker Val’s Antiques, on Bluebonnet Circle. She’s selling the same types of items she sold for 17 years at the flea market.

“The cattle barn was a wonderful place to go and shop and find bargains,” she said. “You never knew what you might find. I’m sad that it closed.”

Estell suspects that the planned horse arena and improvements to the Will Rogers complex painted a bull’s-eye on the flea market.

“I don’t think they really wanted us out there,” Estell said. “They’re trying to pretty up the place. “We probably don’t fit into the pretty part. They really just want that place to be an equestrian center.”

18 COMMENTS

  1. Isn’t it a shame that the Bass brothers couldn’t allow this market to stay open. It makes me wonder what chic, upscale boutique they plan to put there instead, of course at the city’s expense.

  2. Mo fo rich “just can’t have that scruffiness” ruining our renovation of the area & equestrian center????? That’s exactly the stinking attitude that ruined the decades old square in McKinney, is changing the face of Austin & uniqueness of other places. Makes me sick. What about those scruffy, hard working people who supplemented their income? So sad that money sea to prevail once again.

    • I’m not sure why everyone is so surprised about this move. Tarrant County and Arlington allowed Jerry Jones to charge outrageous parking fees with absolutely no argument. As parking spaces become less common, the price is going to rise. If you want to blame someone, blame the zoning boards that allow developers to build while skirting existing parking ratios. By the way, that’s been the norm in most Texas cities for awhile now. While development pays the bills, there’s a great deal to be said for having the ability to attend an event without feeling like the tickets are only half of the cost.

  3. Most of the dealers were out of touch with reality just being honest, I think the prices were way to high, there were a few good ones that wernt out to rob you, but if you wanted a deal I dont think this was the place to go, and really who would actually want to pay to look at someone elses stuff this isnt Traders Village

    • Maybe– but it was a vast spacious clean indoor facility for other small craft shows and pet shows, which have since moved out. Funny how they manage to find a venue in other cities Okla,Houston, Grapevine etc. with no hassle to the attendee.

  4. The excessive parking fees have really adversely impacted many traditonal Will Rogers small trade shows such as the Birdmart and Birds and Pets etc which used to use the facilities at Will Rogers on a biannual and quarterly basis, but have since moved on. Am I wrong or didn’t the city have a parking fee scandal initially where the fees were “pocketed” (i.e. stolen) by the toll booth employees for nearly a year before anyone in control was the wiser? Are these people even bonded or insured?

    Fort Worth has really “shot itself in the foot “with the high parking fee policy, IMO. The first problem is that unless you have a really innovative or great art museum (FW has great art museums–but the rest are mediocre),people will not be interested. People just do not spend all afternoon at an average museum anymore–life is far too busy, info is available on the internet,etc. In addition to attending the small trade shows and flea market, people did–as the article mentions– spend some additional time and money in other neighborhood businesses-cafes etc. FW has lost out on that. We have to debate whether to even go to the major shows anymore (like the stock show or dog show) because the parking situation is all s*rewed up.

    If downtown goes the way of Will Rogers, downtown cultural events and businesses will likewise suffer greatly. Hope those empty garages make the mayor and city council happy, the fools…

  5. Austin has shows near Zilker Park with free parking to my knowledge and many have local charm. I think you are blaming the wrong group. The city council and mayor thought (evidently) that the museums and major shows would drive paying citizen customers increased (exorbitant) parking fees into the city coffers, and the tradespeople and citizens would just keep on coughing up higher parking fees for all of this “wonderfulness”.

    • Skeptic, you are mistaken about parking being free for the shows in Austin at the former Armadillo site. In fact, they also charge $10 for parking and then $6/person for entry. So a couple is already into it for $22 before even looking. It’s too bad.

      • Yes i believe that you are correct. The Palmer Auditorium on Riverside Drive by Zilker Park charges maximum of $8.00 for parking but if you are willing to walk up from the park, parking is not really an issue . Palmer Auditorium has events booked throughout the year–I think because of its centralized locale. Sadly, price inflation and overcrowding are really taking a toll on the Austin mystique as I recall it of 1-2 decades ago (and even then the “old timers” were bemoaning the loss of the “truly magical Austin of the “60’s-70’s and 80’s to progress). BTW there are some innovative metroplex civic centers Grapevine, Richardson and even Cleburn which are currently the locale for some of the displaced trade shows. Sadly–it is a drive to get there–but we still do to support the merchants Parking is still free, however.

  6. Sad that the city never cherished a unique event that was 35 plus years strong .
    Yep the parking charge killed the vendors and customers . Another way of keeping Ft. Worth vanilla !

  7. Bravo to Jeff Prince for this piece— which is sort of a micro dissection of how a historical site with appealing and utilitarian features can be used in a large city for many community events–until someone in city government decides to “improve” the facilities in a way that that destroys the community ambiance. Fort Worth is an appealing city mainly because activities of community interest are (were) so accessible. We used to attend events at Will Rogers 5-6 times a year, but because the events have moved elsewhere and /or the parking fees ($10.00 per day) were so breathtakingly high, maybe we go once or twice a year but we have to think about it because other activities compete well with the parking headaches at WR. Paying a premium for parking is one thing, but having to wait in line for up to 20 minutes because of under staffing of parking employees is just not acceptable. Too bad. You would think that the stock show could have contributed to the parking garage rather than having the tax payers foot the bill. Our city government at work (sigh)…

  8. I read the article and the comments, twice. I agree that another landmark in Fort Worth has gone the way of “progress” (read – greed). I wonder, what becomes of these vendors? Does Fort Worth not have any other indoor venues that can be rented out? There sure seems to be a lot of empty buildings/warehouses around town. Or, are these places going to just stay empty until another moneybags shows up to “improve” Fort Worth??

  9. This is a sad day for Fort Worth. The parking issue, probably more than anything else, killed it for us. $32 each weekend for parking on top of booth rental, and more times than not we barely broke even. It was scorching hot in the summer and bitterly cold in the winter. There were certainly a fair share of old curmudgeon among the venders, but they added character to the place. We loved the venders who shared our little corner of the flea market, laughing with them and very much enjoying their advice and company. RIP Cattle Barn Flea Market.

  10. This is a sad day for Fort Worth. The parking issue, probably more than anything else, killed it for us. $32 each weekend for parking on top of booth rental, and more times than not we barely broke even. It was scorching hot in the summer and bitterly cold in the winter. There were certainly a fair share of old curmudgeon among the venders, but they added character to the place. We loved the venders who shared our little corner of the flea market, laughing with them and very much enjoying their advice and company.

  11. Sadly we have another example of “gentrification” destroying some of the funk in Funkytown. When will the Powers That Be realize not all of us want to live in a Disneyland version of a city.

  12. I never go down there anymore because of the parking situation. And it’s no accident that there isn’t any semblance of efficient mass transit for busy people to use….I don’t go anywhere that I know from the jump that I’m getting ripped off. The greed and the telegraphing of it in the rush to give away everything that the regular taxpaying middle and working class people of fort worth have paid for, valued, and supported to the .01%ers is disheartening, to say the least.

  13. This is a new flea market, opened in October 2014. The Market at Forest Hill. Our parking is free! We would love to welcome any vendor’s looking for a new place to call home. Covered, asphalt, men and women’s restroom. Food vendor’s, farmer’s market. New & used merchandise. 3636 Mansfield hwy. Forest Hill, Tx. 76119. It’s about 15 minutes from the location of the cattle barn. Come visit us.

  14. Was set up at the Barn for a year in ’05 after off & on for 2 yrs. City fathers don’t have a clue to what its citizens want or will put up with until it is too late. Yes, the Vendors might have contributed to some of the decline, but Market Manager should have been more forceful in making sure the Vendors did what was required of them to have that spot. That market had some items not normally found at other flea markets and pricing wasn’t always the cheapest, but then, sometimes you have to pay a little more for what you want. The movie isn’t cheap, but should the popcorn cost as much?? Events, and parking should not be the same……

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