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What’s that thing about one flap of a butterfly’s wings can alter history? By that theory, a butterfly must have flapped its wings sometime before the 1980s and sent some weird mojo hurtling toward Handley Church of Christ. The number of regular worshipers has dropped from more than 400 to less than 100 since then. Some Sundays, the parking lot is almost empty. The mammoth church anchoring the heart of the old Eastside neighborhood for nearly a century is struggling.

Church leaders decided to sell the two-story 40,000-square-foot building that sits on two acres of land fronting Handley Drive. They hired commercial realtor Jim Austin, who has handled numerous property deals in East Fort Worth over three decades. Austin is a man filled with ideas. If his mind were a butterfly’s wings, the world would live in a perpetual state of tsunami.

Soon the realtor was representing the buyer as well –– Austin himself. Church leaders wanted $1.4 million. Austin offered $1.28 million. A deal was struck and is currently in a 90-day holding period that ends soon.

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Houses surround the church, and the neighbors became alarmed after Austin sought a zoning change that would allow him to operate an event center with alcohol. The Fort Worth Zoning Commission recommended the change after a meeting on June 10.

The historical marker for the Handley Church of Christ. Photo by Jeff Prince.

The next day, Fort Worth, Texas magazine published a story that described Austin’s plans to draw 500 to 600 people to certain events and smaller crowds to others. Austin envisioned conventions, movie nights, car shows, weddings, banquets, educational events, talent shows, and other endeavors.

Neighbors imagined 500 people pouring into their midst, parking their cars curbside on narrow streets, drinking booze at the event center, and spilling back into the neighborhood.

The Fort Worth City Council was set to approve the zoning change on June 16, but Mary Moss and another neighbor showed up to seek a postponement. They wanted to hear Austin’s development plans and discuss public safety issues. The vote was postponed, and city councilwoman Gyna Bivens agreed to meet with neighbors.

The city council is set to vote on the zoning change at its regular meeting at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, July 28.

Residents are divided. Those in favor see Austin’s plan as a grand vision that will boost Handley’s economy by drawing businesses and visitors. The community’s central business district along East Lancaster Avenue is anchored by antique stores, service-industry businesses, and a couple of bars, including the Ozzie Rabbit Lodge. Most of them are located about a half-mile south near the intersection of Handley Drive. Many folks think an event center will be a welcome fit. Most of the dozen or so movers and shakers who lead the local neighborhood association and economic development group are cheerleading as well. Austin dangled a substantial carrot to those groups –– he’s promised to revive the Handley Street Festival that was discontinued a couple of years ago after Historic Handley Development Corporation, a nonprofit group that encourages business growth, ran out of money.

Detractors worry that the church will turn into a modern-day Bacchanalia.

Although alcohol appears to be the main point of contention, an undercurrent of racism exists. Handley is a diverse community, but most residents living near the downtown area are Anglo. Austin is African-American. Neighbors speaking off the record worry whether Austin will cater his events to African-American crowds specifically. Some claimed he owns some scary-looking bars in dangerous neighborhoods, and they worry he’ll bring the ’hood to Handley.

“It doesn’t make me feel safe,” a neighbor said.

The Austins say they are well aware that people are fretting over alcohol sales but haven’t heard anyone express racial concerns. They don’t own any bars and don’t know why someone would think they do, although several James Austins are listed as property owners on Tarrant Appraisal District. Maybe some of the neighbors are confused.

Austin wants people to trust him, but he hasn’t answered all of their questions as much as schmoozed them. He’s tall, handsome, and much younger looking than his 64 years. He has a slow, soothing voice and can be a charmer. But some residents sense he’s a smooth talker without the goods to back his claims.

Jim and Gloria Austin talk to the crowd at a recent event at Austin Event Center. Photo by Jeff Prince.

Austin owns numerous small businesses, including the JimAustinOnline PR company that tells the world about his wonderfulness: “It’s hard to go anywhere in DFW without hearing the name Jim Austin,” his website says. “A commercial real estate mogul whose Austin Company has been brokering multi-million dollar real estate deals throughout the Metroplex for 36 years, Austin is the definition of the modern day Renaissance Man.”

Austin, who talks about himself in the third person and calls people “sweetie” and “babe,” is seen around town promoting shows and events and dressing to the nines while attending various benefits and soirees with wife Gloria. They’re often out promoting the Multicultural Western Heritage Museum that they co-founded almost 15 years ago. For the past few years Austin has owned an event center on East Berry Street that’s smaller in size but similar in purpose to what he hopes to do in Handley.

Talking to people who know Austin reveals more split opinions. Depending on who’s doing the talking, Austin is a wonderful guy or a vindictive bully, an inner-city savior or a self-promoting peacock, a professional entrepreneur running a conglomerate of successful projects or a scattered bungler who lacks follow-through. Maybe he’s all of those things. Maybe none. What’s certain is he wins over some people and rubs others the wrong way.

Bivens is a fan. Handley is in Bivens’ district. If she votes in favor of the zoning change, other council members will probably follow suit.

Handley residents might want to visit Church of Christ for a quick prayer.

 

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11 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for a comprehensive investigative article. Your efforts are greatly appreciated. The only point I want to clarify is that several African American owned businesses exist in close proximity to the Historic Handley area. These shops are on Lancaster near Handley. The article suggests that this issue has racial undertones, but the main issue is alcohol sales in a former church. The majority of people who are opposed to the zoning change are predominantly against this issue and are concerned about parking along the narrow streets behind the existing building. The developer has announced in the media that events will have up to 600 visitors and outdoor musical events will be scheduled. This additional noise to a quiet neighborhood is unwarranted. For a buyer with a history of poor management and sketchy business practices, this type of change in our historic setting is not appropriate.

  2. This article only scratched the surface about the Austins and how they conduct business. I worked on a project that was suppose to recognized veterans and members of the military that the Austins reneged on in 2014. After they bailed on the project that would honor the “forgotten” members of the military who fought in WW2 to the tune of thousands of dollars, they continued to fund raise for their museum as if nothing ever happened. After they left others with the bills for the project, they sued the military family who worked with them. I was not sued but when I was contacted by an attorney that encounter reeked of intimidation. The attorney was informed that the Austins owed ME (and others), I did not owe the Austins! I am surprised that information was not included in Mr. Prince’s article since the case is now in Tarrant County Court. If the modern day Renaissance Man threatens individuals through attorneys and sues families who are serving our country, I hate to see what he is going to do to the neighborhood of Handley. Will the Austins sue homeowners who do not allow visitors to the event center park in the homeowners’ private driveways?

    When an individual does not come with the “nuts and bolts” to various projects that affect others well being, peace of mind, and finances over and over but continues to seek notoriety through photos opps and media outlets; it is time to drop the Renaissance Man title and call him what he is, an Unbolted Rodeo Clown dressed to the nines who is known near and far for his unethical business dealings.

  3. Thank you for this story. I too am surprised that the veterans story was not shared.

    I was contacted almost a year ago to help facilitate working with VSOs in the DFW Area as they worked to honor World War II veterans who did not received their congressional gold medals. The presentation of medals were to be presented at the Austin’s museum Hall of Fame program that was ironically held last night. There were numerous conference calls about the event for several months.

    In December, after a few months of planning, many individuals began to express concerns that the Austins did not understand military pageantry and protocol that would not embrace Jim Austin’s desire to be the star of the show. In January, I received a call stating the Austins had cancelled working with everyone and refused to pay for the work that was done in the name of their musuem.

    This spring, everyone was made aware that the Austins had file a lawsuit to keep individuals from talking. Many wondered would 96 and 98 year old veterans be sued as well. How everyone was treated has become the stuff of legends but many lessons were learned. Now that some time has passed, we are seeing more and more that what transpired did not surprise anyone from this area.

    After reading this and sharing it with others who were engaged, there is a consensus that it was a blessing that the Austins backed out. There is no telling how much damaged would had been done had their name been attached to an endeavor that was suppose to honor men and women who fought with bravery and courage.

  4. Your time and efforts in collecting this information are greatly appreciated. Please remind everyone that city council is taking place this Tuesday, July 28th, at 7:00 pm. In order to make our opinions and voices heard as citizens, it is necessary to be involved and commit to improvement of the community. This project simply is out of place in this neighborhood. Concerns about the noise, traffic flow, emergency vehicle access, and alcohol sales contribute to my decision NOT to support this change. Although Historic Handley is an ideal place for improvement and enhanced growth, this direction is unwarranted and wrong. Our beloved local church will change into a venue with loud outdoor music, guests estimated up to 600, and street parking prohibiting fire vehicle access if needed to surrounding homes. The peace and serenity of home owners should be paramount, not simply an afterthought.

  5. I have been following the proposal to rezone the church property to allow for its use as an event center.  I have to say that I feel this is an extremely bad idea for several reasons.  First and most importantly the building is in the middle of a residential area, separated by several blocks from the business core of Handley along East Lancaster.  The traffic issues alone could cause huge issues for the local residents.  The streets in the area immediately surrounding the building are very narrow and overflow parking could clog the streets rather easily.  This would be an issue for emergency vehicles, something I worry about since my family member is a senior citizen with health issues.  

     

    My second worry is that Mr. Austin is being very vague in disclosing the type of events to be held in the building.  And why the need for alcohol sales? There are just too many unknowns to allow the rezoning to go forward without more time for local residents to learn the full story behind the center.  

     

    As someone who is watching the events from the outside I have to say I am very disappointed in how some council members seem to be completely ignoring the large percentage of residents who are against the rezoning.  Do council members only listen to concerns from constituents who share their views?  If so then it is a sad state of affairs in Fort Worth.

  6. I live near one of Jim Austin’s boarded up eyesores. Jim Austin met with community leaders, educators and pastors last August and September discussing his then CHRISTIAN teen club he opened on Berry Street. He promised it would be a venue to help young people stay out of trouble on the weekends. His “speeches” were filled with hope and inspiration for inner city youth. He told us not to worry when questions were raised about supervision, safety and security. He simplified everything by stating the kids in the area just need a role model to look up too. I will never forget him telling one of the youth pastors in a meeting, “OUR kids need to see entrepreneurs who have made it, like me, involved in their community.”

    There were problems from day one. No supervision. No security. People standing outside waiting for someone to show up several times. When we called the number to address issues, no one answered for days. When they did answer, it was someone managing his roller rink in Haltom. It was nothing but trouble. The teen club opened in September. By October, “promoters” from Dallas were using the place to shoot rap videos. One weekend, over a hundred people were dancing on cars in the parking lot while someone was filming in the middle of the street. It was a nightmare trying to get to my home. So much for the smiling Christian sales pitch he gave to everyone. By November, the police were being called to the club. Jim Austin had stopped meeting with us and did not take calls. He closed the teen club in December and reopened the building as an “event center” that now has blues events there several times a month.

    Jim Austin can do what he wants with his businesses. But when his businesses involves the safety of others, the communities that he put these thrown together ventures in must begin to speak up and demand accountability. I wish we had more people in our area willing to share about the number of promises he has made to OUR residents over the years. Yet, we continue to drive pass his boarded up buildings that he got for free or bought for peanuts to be renovated. His close ties to council members who vote to rezone the property for his benefit so he can shove another one of his grand plans down our throats should be scrutinized more closely.

    I am coming to the meeting tonight to support your efforts!!!

  7. I’ve eaten several times at the cafe in the antique store, and have several times observed mixed-races dining at the same table. I doubt that the Weekly has any ground to assert that racism is an issue here … other than the fact that the Weekly ALWAYS finds racism.

    • @Stoutimore: Overall, I found a genuine sense of openness and diversification among Handley residents. The downtown business district is fairly evenly split among Anglo and African American business owners. However, several white residents mentioned a fear of large numbers of black people gathering for concerts or other events in their neighborhood. I’d be remiss in not pointing this out in the story.

      • Stouty, if you have followed the Weekly Blog for a period of time, is quickly recognized as a hammer-headed, Tea-Bagging, jerk-off by every normal conservative and every decent Democrat. He is a fruit-loop, a pure loser. He was canned at the Star Telegram for behavior unbecoming and degrading to his employer. He’s a pure knuckle-head, a quality frequently found in other Tea-Baggers he hangs out with. He has nothing good to submit to conversations, only third grade bunk. He has been on my prayer list for months, but it’s no-go so far. Maybe others will join me in my prayers…. or take the fool fishing and don’t bring him back, just let him out in the middle of the lake and let GOD deal with the Peckerwood.

  8. Once again Mr. Austin did not tell the truth. He has been saying for weeks that he was going to remove the alcohol from the zoning however this NEVER happened but we knew it wouldn’t. The City Council passing this change even though the city’s own Planning and Development Department advised against it makes this look even more questionable. What exactly were there incentives to pass this? When someone’s home burns down because the FD cannot get to them in a timely manner or someone dies because an ambulance cannot get to them due to all the traffic, I wonder how our elected officials are going to feel then. Not to mention they are putting the entire Metroplex at risk. Drunk drivers leaving this event center will be traveling on ALL our major highways;I-820, I-30, etc. The City Council is going to have A LOT of explaining to do when a tragedy strikes. Also, at some point at least some of these officials will be reruning for office. Citizens do not forget bad decisions such as this one.
    Thank you Jeff Prince for this story. We really appreciate you covering this issue in a very comprehensive way.

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