February 28, 2020

The Texas Rangers’ Shiny New Stadium Embodies the ‘New Arlington’

It’s part of a bigger plan to make the North Texas city a destination.

Live! by Loews, in Arlington, almost looks out of place compared with the North Texas city’s other hotels. Historically, those have been either imperious structures built in the early eighties or budget walk-up motels. But the newest hotel in the Tarrant County suburb is a sleek, thirteen-story glass curved structure with contemporary art in the lobby. Its rooms overlook either AT&T Stadium, where the Cowboys play, or the new Globe Life Field, where the Texas Rangers will host their home games starting in March.

Across from the hotel, down a short walkway, lies Texas Live! It’s a massive entertainment compound with a concert venue, a “family entertainment” venue with bowling and Skee-Ball, a PBR bull-riding-themed bar with two mechanical bulls, a Guy Fieri-branded taco joint (named “Taco Joint”), a burger place co-owned by former Cowboy Troy Aikman (“Troy’s”), a pizzeria co-owned by past Rangers catcher Pudge Rodriguez (“Pudge’s Pizza”), and a one-hundred-foot-tall flat screen showing a constant stream of nonstop sports.

Visitors tend to know Arlington mostly as a place where you’d take the family to a ballgame or Six Flags, then maybe stop for dinner in one of the casual dining chains along the highway. But in recent years, the city’s leaders, voters, and developers have become eager to reinvent it. To that end, they’ve placed a hefty bet ($5 billion, according to Decima Mullen, senior director of marketing and public relations for the Arlington Convention & Visitors Bureau)—$500 million of which comes from taxpayers—on new investment in this version of Arlington. They’ve already spent $2 billion of it, much of it on getting Globe Life Field baseball-ready by the start of baseball season in the spring.

Beyond that, their long-term plan is ambitious. Private developers, the team, and Arlington taxpayers alike are gambling that people who come for a game will want to book an extra night or two in Arlington. The Cowboys, the Rangers, or Six Flags might be what gets them into town, but once they’re there, the hope is that they’ll be drawn to a concert or MMA fight at Texas Live!, feel pulled to try the barbecue and microbrews available downtown, or maybe take the kids to the new Esports Stadium in town, the largest of its kind in the nation. And at the end of it, those people won’t just be passing through a suburb somewhere near Dallas—they’ll know that they just visited Arlington.

In September, the Arlington Convention & Visitors Bureau hosted a media junket so people could see the “new Arlington” for themselves. They assembled a small group of reporters, and were determined to show us a good time for the 48 hours we were in Arlington. The itinerary for the weekend trip was packed, and included a brewery tour, a massive barbecue spread, drinks in the hotel bar, a feast assembled from the menus of all the restaurants at Texas Live!, and dinner in a suite at Globe Life Park during one of the final Rangers games at the team’s old stadium. They were also extremely accommodating. I have a twelve-year-old dog who suffers separation anxiety if I leave him too long, and I asked if it would be okay if he stayed with me at Live! by Loews. They not only had a dog bed waiting for Dio in the room, but they also had loaded the fridge with a box of hand-baked dog treats.

After we checked into the hotel, we were off to our first destination: downtown Arlington. As we drove the mile and a half from the hotel and stadiums to Legal Draft, a brewpub and event space, we passed a stretch of buy-here-pay-here used car dealerships, tire shops, and discount motels. “Oh, don’t look at that,” Mullen said as we drove past.

Arlington’s downtown area is small, largely industrial, and runs mostly along Abram and Division streets, near UT-Arlington, where the first of the new businesses started opening up. Those used car lots and tire shops still make up much of the landscape, but these days, you can see increasing development popping up along and between the two roads. Legal Draft was among the first of a new wave in 2016; 4 Kahunas Tiki Lounge, Cartel Taco Bar, Lone Star Axe Throwing, and Sugar Bee Sweets Bakery followed in quick succession. Hurtado Barbecue, a Central Texas-style barbecue spot that built a huge following with its weekends-only trailer, opened a permanent brick-and-mortar outpost in late February.

The vision is to eventually grow downtown Arlington into a destination in its own right. Mullen has ideas about what that could look like, name-checking Oak Cliff’s Bishop Arts District in Dallas as the sort of project she admires. Maggie Campbell, of the nonprofit Downtown Arlington Management Corporation, says she can name a half-dozen other inspirations around the country—and it would certainly be a big next step for a city that’s long had its eye on getting out of Dallas’s shadow. “When it’s fully developed out, it’ll be it’s own place,” Campbell says. “We’ve got all of this investment happening all around us, and we’ve got this quirky, funky mix of buildings. It’s not going to be a typical downtown.”

But $5 billion is a huge bet to place on a city whose identity has long been marked by a strip of highway with a couple of stadiums, a theme park, and a bunch of chain restaurants. “When I first came here in 2006, we really had to boost Arlington’s self-image and build the community’s confidence,” Campbell says. There were big ambitions for downtown Arlington back in the nineties, too, back when the old Rangers ballpark was the new Rangers ballpark, and again in the mid-aughts, but they never materialized. But Campbell is confident that, this time, the city is ready for it. That’s the reason the Convention & Visitors Bureau flew several reporters in and ordered so much hormone-free, USDA Prime beef from Brandon Hurtado that my dog could have had a pair of ribs all to himself. They want the world to know that this is a city unto itself. Will it finally work?

Arlington is the seventh-largest city in Texas, and the biggest of the North Texas suburbs, with 400,000 people. That’s more than Corpus Christi, Laredo, Lubbock, or Amarillo. The city was founded in 1876 and incorporated in 1884, but it didn’t become well-known until the 1930s, when the Top O’ Hill Terrace opened a tea garden as a front for an illegal gambling den and speakeasy.

The city’s run as a Vegas-like den of vice wasn’t a great fit the local community, though. It drew colorful gangsters like Benny Binion, who—according to legend—opened the famous Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas with money he won at Top O’ Hill. It also attracted the attention of Fort Worth preacher J. Frank Norris, a rabble-rousing anti-Catholic who once shot and killed a Catholic businessman who confronted him in his church. Norris had successfully lobbied the state of Texas to abolish racetrack gambling in the twenties, and when Arlington threatened to become a predecessor to Vegas, Norris crusaded against it, eventually rallying law enforcement to a post-World War II raid.

The end of its “Vegas-before-Vegas” days didn’t crush Arlington’s spirit, though. Under the guidance of Tom Vandergriff, who served as mayor from 1951 to 1977, the city boomed from a tiny town of a few thousand to a massive suburb with a population that tipped well past 100,000. In 1954, a General Motors plant—which these days manufactures SUVs—opened, and in 1961, Dallas businessman Angus G. Wynne picked the city as the site for his Six Flags Over Texas theme park. In 1965, the city made a multimillion dollar investment in a baseball stadium, which housed a minor league team until it was able to lure the Washington Senators to Arlington. Upon arriving in 1972, the team changed its name to the Texas Rangers.

Arlington has long been a place where people go to seek entertainment, in other words. “Being between Dallas and Fort Worth, it had all the beer joints, honky-tonks, and motels. Well, what else were you looking for?” Geraldine Mills, a lifelong Arlingtonian who was born in the city in 1941, and who assumed her role as head of the Arlington Historical Society in 1996, laughed. “Later on, it had the drive-in theaters, restaurants, nightclubs. It’s taken a little while to find an identity, but having the Rangers, Cowboys, and Six Flags has helped.”

It’s also a place where, in more recent years, taxpayers have become accustomed to footing the bill for some of that. In the mid-aughts, as the Dallas Cowboys sought an upgrade on Texas Stadium, a deal between the Jones family and the city of Dallas fell through over public funding. The team turned to Arlington—and the city delivered, offering $325 million in bonds, paid for by a series of tax hikes, for the construction of AT&T Stadium, which the team inaugurated during the 2009 season.

The Rangers, meanwhile, looked upon AT&T Stadium, with its world-class luxury suites and retractable roof, with envy. The team had threatened to leave Arlington back in the early nineties if they didn’t receive a new ballpark, and voters found those threats persuasive enough that they agreed to pay 70 percent of construction costs for what was originally called the Ballpark in Arlington (now Globe Life Park), which opened in 1994. By 2014, though (with ten years remaining on the lease), the team began making noise about moving yet again, and managed to extract concessions that even Jerry Jones wouldn’t get.

That’s how Globe Life Field (not to be confused with Globe Life Park) was born—with $500 million in public funding and a slew of incentives that made the deal even sweeter for the team. In 2016, voters approved a deal that not only put up half a billion dollars, plus interest, in taxpayer money toward construction. It also gave the team, not the city, all of the admissions and parking taxes collected at the stadium. That was a concession worth an estimated $300 million over the life of the lease, as well as the naming rights to a stadium that’s technically owned by the city of Arlington, which is worth about $12 million per year.

Stadiums are generally a bad deal for cities—economists have found that the impact of a pro sports team is roughly the same as that of opening a large supermarket—but who can put a price tag on civic pride? Rangers officials seemed to understand that, too—at a meeting with the Dallas Morning News editorial board in 2016, before the stadium vote, Rangers vice president of business operations Rob Matwick was asked if the team was really considering leaving. “To leave North Texas, no,” Matwick said—implying that a jump to a neighboring municipality was a possibility. When the paper’s editors followed up to ask if they’d consider moving out of Arlington—perhaps to a rumored development in Dallas, which Arlington mayor Jeff Williams had spent the time leading up to the election warning voters about‚ Matwick responded coyly: “We have a lease through 2024.”

When I asked Mullen if the city really needed a new stadium, she said yes, echoing what everyone in the city seems to express—Globe Life Park, after all, doesn’t have a roof. The Rangers looked at adding a roof—too expensive—or building a canopy structure to add more shade, which a rep for the architecture firm the team commissioned said “would change the entire character of Globe Life Park” without substantially cooling it down. Inside the sales office for the new stadium, there’s a display on the wall emblazoned with “107,” the hottest temperature ever captured at a Rangers game. It’s there to remind visitors that, while the 25-year-old stadium is hardly obsolete, watching games there in the summer is a sweat-drenched affair.

From 1989 through 1993—the five-year period before the team moved into Globe Life Park—the average August high temperature in the area was 92.6 degrees. Over the five years before the city voted to approve the new stadium in 2016, the average August temperature shot up six degrees, to 98.6 Fahrenheit. Does that make Globe Life Field the first climate-change stadium? “Don’t put that in your story,” Mullen laughed when we talked about the balmy summer weather, which lasted well into October this year. But the weather is the only argument in favor of replacing a stadium that North Texans over age thirty still tend to think of as the new Rangers ballpark.

Arlington, meanwhile, is trying to make lemonade out of surplus-stadium lemons. In February, the rebooted XFL—the new incarnation of the upstart football league started by Vince McMahon—made Globe Life Park the home of its North Texas team. The Dallas Renegades are playing there in the spring, while a minor league soccer team will use it in the summer.

That’s another risk (this one paid for by the Rangers, who are financing the conversion to an XFL stadium because they still hold the lease on the park through 2024). The first incarnation of the XFL lasted only one season, losing $35 million in 2001 before folding. What if that happens to the rebooted XFL, too? There’s talk of using the stadium as a concert venue—Billy Joel played the stadium last October—but with both Globe Life Field and AT&T Stadium looking to book musical acts, too, Globe Life Park has a ceiling on its potential there. “We have explored potential development within the walls of the stadium,” Arlington economic development director Bruce Payne told me. “But nothing firm by any stretch. There’s been no financial analysis given to it.”

If Texas Live! and the rest of the entertainment district turns out to be a smashing success, that could work—but thinking that you’ll find something else to do with a used stadium, when there are two brand new ones literally across the street, seems like the sort of gamble that a city might make if its initial boom was built around an underground casino. All of this—the stadium, the hotel, the entertainment compound, the plan to reshape downtown into a hot spot people spend an extra night in town to enjoy—are the chips the city has bet on black.

For a city whose identity is very much rooted in the sports teams that call it home, Arlington’s name is conspicuously absent from those teams’ names. It hosts the Texas Rangers, the Dallas Cowboys—not to mention the WNBA’s Dallas Wings. Even the XFL named the team in Arlington the Dallas Renegades. That indignity matters. Former mayor Richard Greene, who’s now a professor at UT-Arlington, spent much of his tenure snarling: “We’re nobody’s damn suburb.”

It’s even caused controversy at the ballpark: When the Rangers clinched the AL West in 2015, they—like every division winner—were granted an MLB-designed T-shirt to sell at the stadium to celebrate the first-place finish. On all of the shirts, a slogan declaring dominance appeared before an iconic image representing the team’s city—the Gateway Arch for the St. Louis Cardinals, the Toronto skyline for the Blue Jays—while the Rangers got the words “The West Is Ours” emblazoned before the Dallas skyline. When locals noticed, the organization stopped stocking them in the stadium and did not offer them for sale on the Rangers website.

I asked Mullen how she felt about the fact that a lot of the visitors coming into Arlington might not even know exactly where they are. If you fly into DFW to watch your favorite team play the Cowboys, all you need to tell your Uber driver is that the hotel is by the stadium. Which is part of what the downtown investment is about—if people see cute shops and cool bars while they’re in town for the game, they’ll feel like they’re in a city. Arlington’s trolley service, which connects the stadiums to local hotels, added a weekend downtown line from the entertainment district this summer to help facilitate that. “It doesn’t matter if they know Arlington when they come here,” she told me. “It matters if they know it when they leave.”

That speaks to the city’s civic priorities, too. Arlington has a trolley for tourists, but it’s the largest city in the U.S. without a mass transit system—something that the same voters who approve stadium deals have voted down three times since 1980. The city does operate a ride-hailing service, Via, as a public-private partnership that operates a small fleet of on-demand vans in parts of the city during peak travel times—but when I asked Andre McEwing, chairman of the Tarrant County Transit Alliance, if that service meets the needs of Arlington residents who need to get to places other than the entertainment district, he laughed. “I think you can answer that,” he said. “It’s not an inclusive coverage system to cover all of Arlington.” If you’re going all-in on tourism, in other words, there are other civic priorities that end up off the table. In May, to help fund the city’s economic development plans, leaders are expected to raise the sales tax from 8 percent to 8.25 percent.

The old Arlington might have some trouble adjusting to the ambitious plans for the city’s future. Local leaders aren’t overly worried about the sort of gentrification that hit North Oak Cliff as Dallas’s Bishop Arts District took off—because downtown was largely industrial, UT-Arlington professor Kevin Sloan says that isn’t much of a concern. Brandon Hurtado, whose brick-and-mortar barbecue joint opened in February, has dealt with some resistance from locals. People in town are still warming up to the idea of things like waiting in line for meat, and restaurants selling out of their wares. “Most people who come here are used to Ruby’s or Dickey’s,” he says, explaining that he gets negative Yelp reviews from people who think that he limits the amount of meat he serves each day to create an air of exclusivity (rather than the reality, which is that he can only fit so much meat in his smoker).

For the sake of the people of Arlington, let’s hope that the Rangers win the next thirty World Series, that the Dallas Renegades host celebrations honoring their winning tradition in 2050, that the craft barbecue joints and taco trailers in downtown Arlington inspire the other suburbs to use them as a model. But, as befits a city that came to prominence as a gambling den, it’s definitely a roll of the dice.

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