But neighbors discovered a police report from November 2014 describing a riot at Austin’s event center at 1111 E. Berry St. The report said a fight broke out among a dozen people at Venice Beach Teen Center. The promoter herded the entire crowd of about 100 people outside and then locked the door. The report mentions no security guards. The promoter called police after the revelers said they’d come back with guns. The first police officer on the scene called for backup.
Fenyes, whom Austin plans to put in charge of the Handley event center, said the riot occurred before he became Austin’s operations manager. Venice Beach Teen Center did not sell alcohol.
“This particular incident led to Mr. Austin closing the teen center and deciding on a new venture,” he said.
Austin Event Center opened in its place earlier this year and employs a security company, Fenyes said.
“Based on how I run my business, sweeping changes and processes were implemented,” Fenyes said. “I adhere to safety and compliance in every aspect to protect my relationship with TABC, my licenses and permitting privilege, as well as my insurance and patrons.”
Austin Event Center has held 20 events since February, including some with alcohol. No instances of “theft, obnoxious, rude or disorderly behavior” have occurred, Fenyes said.
The Handley center will host many events without alcohol, including cat and dog shows, craft shows, charity events, consignment sales, quilt expos, art exhibits, childcare, educational classes, and “mundane and ordinary everyday life type events that in no way should bring the conduct which is of concern,” he said.
After the meeting with neighbors, Austin announced he would no longer seek a zoning change that allowed alcohol sales. Distrustful neighbors smelled semantics, since Austin’s vendor would have a permit.
Fenyes said Austin plans to stick to his word and “no longer has plans to have events that include alcohol.”
Neighbors called the zoning department and asked if Austin had rescinded his request for alcohol sales. City staff said he hadn’t, although he could wait until the July 28 meeting to make the request. Regardless, they said, if Austin’s vendor has an alcohol permit, Austin could always change his mind and allow alcohol at events if he felt like it.
Just to be safe, homeowners are continuing with a petition to stop the zoning change from including alcohol. A city employee told them they could force a super-majority vote at the July 28 city council meeting if they got 20 percent of homeowners living within 200 feet of the church to sign the petition. So far, about 50 percent have signed, or about 45 homeowners.
Supporters of Austin’s project say they’ll present their own petition at the meeting, urging for approval.
Days later, I walked around the neighborhood and spoke with neighbors and nearby business owners, trying to get a feel for whether the neighborhood was for or against the plan. Most people I talked to were for it — unless they lived near the church.
“It’s our own little war,” said a neighbor who has lived next to the church for almost 20 years.
Not far away, several men, all white, were enjoying breakfast kolaches at Handley Antiques Mall & Café. Owner Ray Barnes said he’s all for the community center. People want new businesses and restaurants, and here was an opportunity.
“If the building sells for $1.3 million, that shows Handley is worth something,” he said. “That’s a huge investment they’re willing to make. If you get that going, maybe we can get some bed and breakfasts here.”
Another guy piped in, saying Austin was being too vague about his plans while also trying to fast-track the deal.
“The people down here don’t move fast,” he said. “Chill out.”
Both men agreed that Austin’s plans beat letting the church sit vacant.
Austin can “get things done,” Barnes said. “He’d be a good addition for Handley.”
Of Austin’s many endeavors, none appear to be closer to his heart than the multicultural museum. It dominates his conversation, his time, his efforts. Gloria had to tell him to focus more closely on his paying gigs because Austin was spending so much time on museum projects. Austin said his bank account would contain hundreds of thousands more dollars from real estate commissions if he didn’t spend so much time working on the museum.
Austin is a New Jersey native but has spent most of his adult life in Fort Worth. He graduated from Howard University in 1976 and started a commercial real estate business in 1981 in Fort Worth. He served on the Texas Real Estate Commission for eight years after being appointed by then-Gov. George W. Bush.
About 20 years ago, the Austins became involved in the Cowboys of Color Rodeo and were surprised to learn that at least half of the cowboys in the Old West were African-Americans, Hispanics, or Native Americans. The Austins made it their mission to spread this information by establishing a museum that honored the forgotten cowboys.
“I’m a giver,” Austin said. “I give a lot. I don’t look to receive back.”
The Austins established the museum on Evans Avenue in 2001. I was working at Fort Worth Weekly and stopped by the museum a couple of times during the week to check it out, but it was closed. As it turned out, the museum is closed most of the time. Touring it requires setting up an appointment or coming on Saturday when the museum opens to the general public.
All those years ago, I arranged an appointment and met Austin at the museum. I recall thinking back then that the museum was tiny. Few artifacts were displayed, and what was there appeared haphazard in presentation. But the museum was new, and I figured it would improve over time.
Flash forward 14 years: I made my second visit last month. The museum moved in 2003 and is now located at 3400 Mt. Vernon Ave. in the Meadowbrook neighborhood. I arrived at about 2 p.m. on a Saturday, the day the museum opens without an appointment. The parking lot contained two cars.
Inside, museum coordinator Richard Robinson was about to begin a tour for the museum’s only customers –– six Swedish-speaking people. Robinson invited me to join the tour and requested $6 for admission. I dug cash out of my pocket and paid up.
The tour began with Robinson telling the seven of us, who’d just paid our admission fees, that the museum relies on donations and sponsorships to survive. Just in case any of us wanted to pony up more money. None of us did.
The day was hot, and the museum was stifling.
“Sorry it’s warm in here,” Robinson said. “We’ve had the air-conditioning off for awhile, and it takes a long time for this building to cool down.”
Although the new building is nicer than the previous one, the artifacts themselves appeared just as sparse as they were in 2001. The museum isn’t much improved.
The tour began in the Hall of Fame Room, where individual cowboys have been honored over the years. The annual Hall of Fame event is a big fundraiser for the museum and an opportunity for the Austins to give people awards and solicit more support. Each HOF member is enshrined on the museum wall. “Enshrined” might be overstating it, since the shrines are just white pieces of paper with pictures and bios printed on them, stuffed inside ugly frames, like the ones you see for a buck at Dollar General. The room looks cheap and cheesy other than a couple of pieces of Native American garb on display.
A few interesting historical artifacts were scattered throughout the museum’s half-dozen rooms, but the overall cluttered tackiness of the museum overwhelms the senses. I began to feel like I was at a flea market. Nondescript horseshoes, washboards, irons, and rusted tools were scattered around. In one room, a primary display case sat empty. Another case held Western magazines and pamphlets that were only 10 or 20 years old. Many of the walls were covered in framed prints. Modern items were mixed in, such as a pair of leather chaps that had once belonged to former NBA star Magic Johnson, hardly known for his cowboy skills. Some items were displayed with no information describing their provenance.
The tour ended about 15 minutes later with Robinson, once again, reminding us that donations were welcome. He pointed to the empty glass jar. The Swedes left without donating more money.
I caught up to them in the parking lot.
“We knew from online that it was small, but we didn’t realize it was this small,” one of them said. “If he hadn’t have taken us around and talked about stuff, it wouldn’t have been interesting. His stories were the most interesting part.”
Would they return or recommend the museum to others?
Probably not, they said.
A couple of weeks later, I met with the Austins at the museum. Jim Austin said running a museum is much like running a business.
I said the museum hadn’t improved much in 14 years. They strongly disagreed.
“Are you in the museum business?” Gloria said.
“So you don’t really have a great understanding then of what it takes to operate a museum and how hard it is to finance one,” she said. “You have the right to your opinion, but that doesn’t make it necessarily so.”
The museum’s 2012 tax statement lists only $939 collected in admission fees. Most of the museum’s $200,000 in revenues came from donations, grants, gifts, and income from fundraising benefits. Austin said about 2,000 children visited the museum that year through grants, and the kids learn much about their history during those visits.
“That’s all Gloria and I are wanting to do is to educate the world about the forgotten cowboys,” he said.
The tax report showed that Gloria received a $45,000-per-year salary for an estimated 20 hours of work per week. Austin didn’t draw a salary. The couple said they often dip into their own pockets to pay for the museum’s upkeep.
“We’ve done a yeomen’s job of sharing the history of the forgotten cowboy,” Austin said. “That’s what it’s about. We work very hard to make it one of the best museums –– it’s the only museum in the world that’s talking about the forgotten cowboy.”
Museum board members describe a couple that works hard and has good intentions.
“I’ve known Jim and Gloria for 10 years-plus, and they have always been upfront and done their due diligence on their museum,” board member Steven Heape said. “They are sticklers at following the protocol.”
But the Weekly spoke with several people who have worked with Austin in the past and describe far different perspectives. A woman who requested anonymity spent some time working professionally with Austin. She didn’t like the way he handled business.
“Behind the scenes was confusing,” she said. “Everything was unorganized. Details were always missing. A lot of personal drama going on. It was a messed-up situation.”
She described Austin as an ineffective communicator who ran his businesses loosely.
“Go to the museum,” she said. “See for yourself. The fact that he’s been allowed to do this for 15 years is sad. The museum looks like trash.”
Austin said there are plenty of great artifacts he’d like to display but said the current building isn’t suitable.
“This building does not have the humidification, the lighting,” he said. “That’s why we have to move, we can’t get the big … displays to come through here because we don’t have the facilities for that.”
Austin said he and Fenyes have developed a plan to start a for-profit archery range at another property the museum owns farther east on Berry Street – a building he’s recently discussed turning into a health and wellness center with office space.
Fenyes said he’s a good yin to Austin’s yang.
“When you get to know Jim –– and Gloria shares this problem as a lot of people do –– he’s the visionary,” Fenyes said. “Jim has all the ideas that don’t always come with the nuts and bolts. What I’ve been able to do is re-tune and refine the focus.”
Austin believes an archery range is “the new frontier” and hopes to train inner-city kids to handle a bow and arrow.
“Maybe in 10 or 12 years from now we’ll have an Olympian come out of that process,” he said.
Austin owns about 10 acres of land in the 3500 block of East Berry Street that includes an old farmhouse and a rundown shopping center. The commercial building is about 30,000 square feet, compared to the current museum’s 4,000 square feet. Someone donated the shopping center about 15 years ago. He hopes to renovate and relocate the museum there. He envisions a temperature-controlled room with museum-quality lighting and design. But the roof alone needs $900,000 in repairs to bring it up to code, Austin said. A total reconstruction could cost a fortune.
“We’re going to take about 10,000 square feet of it and build an indoor archery range, and we determined that will help raise a lot of funds for operation of the museum,” Austin said. “Then in two or three years we’ll actually start renovation on the other two-thirds of the building.”
He expects to hire a management company to run the archery range and generate “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to pay for reconstructing the shopping center.
If they can pull off that ambitious business plan on a donated building that’s been sitting empty and decaying for many years, conquering a community center in sleepy Handley ought to be a walk in the park.