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Handley, named after a Confederate officer, came to life around a small train depot in the late 19th century. Townsfolk started a church in someone’s house in 1905 and built a church at 3029 Handley Dr. in 1919. A Texas Historical Commission plaque is displayed in front of the big white building with the arched roof. The building itself is only 35 years old, but the site is considered historically important. The town prides itself on its history, marketing itself as “Historic Handley.”

The Austins want to turn this church into a community event center. Photo by Jeff Prince.

The little town has endured its share of setbacks over the years. The Turnpike, later to become I-30, was built parallel to Lancaster Avenue in the 1950s. For decades, motorists traveling between Fort Worth and Dallas took Lancaster, which led them through Handley’s downtown business district. I-30 stole much of that traffic. Businesses suffered. Then in the 1960s, Loop 820 was built, cutting Handley in two and wiping out many homes and businesses. The town’s been trying to get back on track ever since, and Austin’s plans strike many as an ideal impetus for better days.

A July 2 meeting with Austin, church officials, and Bivens attracted a large crowd to the church. Numerous rumors had left neighbors scratching their heads about Austin’s plans. Would it include a club and restaurant with booze? Would it stay open late, disrupting the quiet neighborhood?

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Bivens ramrodded the meeting and asked residents to step forward and say why they supported or rejected the project. Some residents who’d spoken with Austin privately say he bends with the wind. If someone expresses reservations about the event center, he downplays its impact on the community. If someone expresses support, he plays up the possibilities. They wanted more details.

Austin assured the crowd that he’s an Eastside guy with their best interests at heart.

“Bringing a conference center here is something positive for this neighborhood,” he said. “Your home values will immediately increase. Our hope is we will build an awesome wedding chapel, we’ll have educational conferences, we’ll focus on having a wedding banquet hall here.”

The center won’t differ much from the church, he said.

“This will be something that’s very, very positive,” Austin said.

Jean McClung told the crowd she favors the project. McClung is the longtime Fort Worth school board trustee who was voted out of office in 2010. Now she’s president of the Historic Handley Development Corporation and says Austin’s plan makes good business sense.

“We are working really hard to make things happen here, and it is very difficult if you don’t have any money,” she said.

Austin has promised to pay for the Handley Street Festival, which for years had been the primary source of income for the development corporation. In the past, they’ve used money to market the community and to pay for streetscaping and lighting.

After Bivens opened the floor, residents quickly focused on alcohol sales.

“This is not East Lancaster Avenue,” a neighbor said. “This is a residential neighborhood. A middle school is one block away. There are houses all the way around the [church] building.”

Church of Christ minister Tom Wacaster said church elders weren’t told about alcohol sales prior to signing the contract.

“It came to light when the zoning change was entered into the city,” he said.

Wacaster and other church members say they’ll object to the zoning change if alcohol is going to be included at most events. They want to make it clear that the church doesn’t condone alcohol. However, the sale will go through regardless.

“Who we sell to does not, in any form or fashion, endorse what the purchaser shall do with that property,” Wacaster wrote.

Gyna Bivens appears to support Austin’s plan. Photo by Jeff Prince.

Neighbors worry that the church parking lot is too small to accommodate large crowds, forcing cars to park on the streets. Some streets around the church are narrow. Cars parking on both sides of the street leave not enough room for emergency vehicles.

“I see this as a traffic and parking nightmare,” resident Moss said. “Most of the people advocating for this don’t live right here on top of it. If we could get some very clear defined parameters on how things are going to go, we might be more open.”

Everyone wanted to hear Austin describe his plans more thoroughly. But Bivens wanted to keep the meeting short.

“He won’t tonight,” Bivens said. “This is strictly for input.”

Neighbors left with few answers, wondering why Austin and his operations manager, Robbie Fenyes, would attend the meeting without answering questions. The neighbors’ suspicions grew deeper.

Fenyes e-mailed Moss to explain their plans for alcohol, saying the events will have “an element of alcoholic beverage service,” although Austin doesn’t condone behavior “consistent with alcohol consumption above the legal limits.” Fenyes said Austin would produce events with a vendor partner that will provide insurance and security and is fully licensed and certified by the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission.

“There have been no events to date by the Austin Co. with alcohol being served that have resulted with disorderly, drunken, obnoxious, and dangerous or life-threatening matters,” Fenyes wrote.

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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