Graffiti wasn’t exactly the warm welcome they were expecting. Two months after opening Kent & Co. Wines, a posh bar/restaurant in the heart of the burgeoning Near Southside, the Historic Fairmount District, co-owners and fraternal twins Will Churchill and Corrie Watson were greeted by “Black Metal” spray painted on the West Magnolia Avenue storefront of their 2,000-square-foot building. Fortunately, for the sake of “the Fort Worth Way,” they weren’t the only victims.
“It happened up and down the block,” Watson said. “It happens every now and then [on our block], but it isn’t a big concern.”
On the surface, the luxury brand-minded business, whose bar is partly designed to resemble a swanky Cadillac showroom, contrasts with the Near Southside’s independent-minded, nonchain-establishment, DIY vibe. But as the neighborhood matures, Kent & Co. seems evermore right at home. The Near Southside, though not as residentially dense as Fairmount or nearby Mistletoe Heights, boasts 1,300 rental units, a number that is expected to double over the next 18 to 24 months, according to Near Southside Inc., a nonprofit whose members promote development in the 1,400-acre district just south of downtown.
The relatively affordable real estate likely explains only part of the attraction. With regular and extremely popular events like ArtsGoggle and Friday on the Green, and with award-winning bars and restaurants, the Near Southside has to be one of the best places to live, work, and play in all of North Texas.
And Churchill and Watson, as big sponsors of some of the events and as co-owners of one of those award-winning bar/restaurants, probably had a lot to do with that success.
“We have been coming to Magnolia for years,” Watson said. “We love Ellerbe Fine Foods, Cat City Grill … . There are more and more reasons for people to come these days. We love the family atmosphere.”
But not everybody loves Kent & Co.
Churchill and Watson, said longtime Fairmounter Tim Meagher, “didn’t realize this isn’t the old, conservative Cadillac Seville crowd that frequents their luxury car dealership.”
Last October, Kent & Co. attempted to brand its stretch of Magnolia via social media with a fun but somewhat odd hashtag. #Kentrification was intended to contrast with the baggage-laden term “gentrification.” But the idea didn’t go over well with everyone, and it quickly became the brunt of numerous jokes on Twitter and Facebook. Gentrification isn’t a popular word on Magnolia, a local business owner told me.
Though tensions have mostly eased, Meagher said, there is still unrest in Fairmount over the neighborhood’s potential to turn into “Little Dallas.”
Fairmounters, he said, “don’t want cookie-cutter strip shopping centers like they’re going to do in the Stockyards.”
Developers, he went on, “should leave it laid-back here. Enjoy the ’hood.”
Well, if a flurry of real estate activity by Churchill and Watson is any indication, some particularly offended Fairmounters might want to start looking into other parts of town for happy hour or some scrumptious food.
Over the past two years, the 40-year-old twins have bought –– with cash –– 13 premium streetside properties on Magnolia and nearby South Main Street under the business name Kent & Co., partly using profits from the 2015 sale of Frank Kent Honda, a car dealership that was part of several Frank Kent Motors dealerships throughout North Texas, all founded by the twins’ great-grandfather, Frank Kent. One lot, simply called The Space (1309 S. Adams St.), has already been renovated and serves as an extension of Kent & Co. Wines. Other properties are under construction.
Many residents and business owners I spoke with are still unsure of the twin’s long-term designs for the historic neighborhood. Despite the co-owners’ efforts to reach out to the community, there have been missteps.
Early last year on social media, Near Southsiders accused Kent & Co.’s co-owners of “pushing out” the proprietor of Mijo’s Fusion, a now-defunct, mostly Tex-Mex restaurant on Magnolia which has since been bought by Churchill and Watson. Connie Sheen, Mijo Fusion’s former owner, approached the Kent & Co. proprietors with an offer to buy her space, according to Churchill and Sheen. As the leaser of the space, she had a “first right of refusal” on the property, meaning her landlord could not sell directly to anyone without her approval.
Sheen said Churchill was never easy to work with. The two regularly fought over use of a partitioning alley they shared at the time and parking space. Kent & Co. employees, Sheen claimed, routinely parked Tex-Mex food trucks near her restaurant, cutting directly into her business. She hopes to return to the Magnolia area in the near future. For now, she manages and operates Mijo’s, a Mexican restaurant in Arlington.
The twins are now leasing the building to the owners of Heim Barbecue & Catering, a popular food truck-based enterprise.
The public relations rollercoaster may not be totally unexpected as the two new developers invest heavily in a neighborhood whose inhabitants largely welcome growth but are wary of losing their reputation for putting the “funk” in Funkytown.
Finding Kent & Co.’s Near Southside headquarters isn’t easy. At the moment, the stretch of South Main Street that runs along the family-owned business’ main office looks bombed out. But the mess is evidence of the neighborhood’s recent resurgence. At the urging of local business owners and community leaders, the city (in partnership with Near Southside Inc.) is expanding water lines and overhauling a stretch of road that now needs more capacity.
The office’s interior offers a welcome reprieve from the dusty, cantankerous construction outside.
The twins run a multifaceted operation. As we chatted at a conference table, a dozen or so employees busily took phone calls or typed away on computers nearby. The purple-themed workspace, decked out with Kent & Co. logos, TCU décor, and wine bottles, felt leisurely.
The venture into retail development largely happened by chance, Churchill said. The siblings now split their business (Frank Kent Family of Businesses) into two parts: automotive and nonautomotive. Watson focuses on the nonautomotive areas while her brother manages the several car dealerships.
In early 2013, the twins began looking for a location to open a wine bar in their hometown, where they already had a following. The move might have seemed odd for two car dealership magnates.
The Cadillac dealership at 3500 West Loop 820 began selling choice vinos in-house in 2012 through a retail shop called Cadillac Wines. Soon after, Churchill and Watson began thinking of ways to expand the concept through a separate retail space.
Property managers at West 7th, Sundance Square, and University Park Village were less than receptive to the wine bar concept, Churchill recalled.
Around October that year, Churchill reached out to Near Southside Inc., whose president, Paul Paine, said he loved the idea and pointed Churchill toward a property (then a computer repair shop) for sale at 1101 W. Magnolia Ave.
Kent & Co. Wines, Paine said, “complements the neighborhood by giving customers a place to grab a glass of wine before or after dinner.”
After Churchill and Watson’s flagship wine bar opened on June 6, 2014, they began looking for parking space to minimize vehicle spillover into the surrounding neighborhood.
One after another, the property owners from whom Churchill sought leasing space surprised him with offers to sell their property.
“If you want to lease my property, why don’t you just buy it?” Churchill recalled several landowners telling him.
Being new to the retail development game at the time, Churchill believes that the property owners felt it was a good time to capitalize on their properties while avoiding the millions in investments it would take to renovate the spaces for new use.
“The generation before did a great job of saving Magnolia Avenue, bringing it back, and preserving it,” he said. “And now we’re taking it to the next level. It’s part of the natural growth of an area. When we put in Kent & Co. Wines, we had no intentions — zero— of doing what we’re doing. Now, we have sizable stakes on South Main and Magnolia Avenue.”
Among the Kent & Co. businesses currently open or set to open are the newly remodeled Cartan’s Shoes, Austin-based Gus’ World Famous Fried Chicken, the first brick-and-mortar home for Heim Barbeque & Catering, Kent & Co. Lofts, and Melt Ice Creams.
The preference for local businesses wasn’t by accident, Churchill said.
Massive corporate chains aren’t “the right look for the street,” he said. “If we can help someone like a Melt Ice Creams, that’s more important than cashing some check from Brinker” International Restaurants, the Dallas-based company whose employees own, manage, or franchise more than 1,500 Chili’s and Maggiano’s Little Italy eateries.
Beyond bringing in local businesses, Churchill said he is working to balance the neighborhood’s offerings with nonbar retail options.
As the Kent & Co. projects move along, Churchill said he still routinely battles negative posts on social media, primarily through Facebook pages frequented by Fairmount neighborhood residents. A handful of locals, he said, are trying to paint his business as kicking out tenants and making rent unaffordable.
Kent & Co.’s community involvement and support of small, local business is the “part of the story that people don’t know,” he said. “We’ve never kicked out one tenant. They want to bash us with all this negativity. We [aren’t letting] the view of a few sway us in a negative direction.”
The #Kentrification effort was a misunderstanding, he added.
Facebook posts after last fall’s ArtsGoggle ran the gamut from “WTF?” to “Are they trying to say the area hasn’t been gentrified?”
Churchill said his company didn’t come up with the word.
“A bar owner on Magnolia said we’re just Kentrifying stuff,” Churchill recalled. “So we said, ‘OK, let’s change this conversation. Let’s come up with a definition.’ ”
Kent & Co. defines Kentrification as occurring when a “family-owned company invests in a beloved locale to preserve its unique culture while revitalizing the area, providing lower lease rates, and opportunities for local businesses and entrepreneurs.”
Where do you provide lower lease rates and opportunities for locals?
Melt Ice Creams will benefit from rent “far below” market rate, Churchill said, while Cartan’s Shoes is getting a remodel for free.
That doesn’t mean rent for everyone is cheap. Watson said the streetside Kent & Co. Lofts run for $1,800 a month.
“Gentrification is a bad word,” Churchill said. “It connotes kicking out the old and bringing in the new. They tried to slap us with it. Our goal is to work with the existing tenants.”