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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.

A room in the museum featured a cheap kids’ guitar and other items lying unmarked on the floor and a display case that’s empty. Photo by Jeff Prince.
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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Neighbors called the zoning department and asked if Austin had rescinded his request for alcohol sales.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 canget 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.

National Multicultural Western Heritage Museum. Photo by Jeff Prince.

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.

No.

“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.”

They’re moving?

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.

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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