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Déjà Vu for New Downtown Arlington President

(O.K. Carter for the Fort Worth Business Press, March 30, 2019)  It’ll be déjà vu for newly appointed Downtown Arlington Management President Maggie Campbell, but with a twist: All of us have at some time said the equivalent of “If I only knew then what I know now.”

Campbell will have that been-there-done-that-do-it-again experience, sort of, because she was the first president of DAMC when it was created in 2006. She departed a decade ago for new adventures in downtown development in St. Louis and San Diego. Before DAMC she was involved with Sundance Square in Fort Worth and the West End in Dallas.

Now she’s back in Arlington, appointed in March to lead the downtown restoration group for the second time.

From her office on Front Street – part of a new development among many that didn’t exist when she left in 2009 — the now 50-something Campbell clearly likes what she sees of an evolving downtown that is far, far different from the village sketched out by the Texas and Pacific Railroad in 1876. That little prairie town had 500 people. Today it’s a not-small-at-all metropolis of 400,000. And growing. Until recent years, though, most of that growing took place away from a languishing downtown in the form of rooftops, shopping centers and visitor attractions such as the Cowboys, Texas Rangers, Six Flags and Texas Live!

“I’m a Texas girl (high school in Abilene, college at UT) so I’ve been checking in on Arlington every couple of years when I come to visit family and friends,” Campbell said. “I’ve always missed it.”

Sidelined into immobility in San Diego for a few days recently with a knee mishap, Campbell had time for thinking-about-things-Texas nostalgia that coincided with a discovery: The DAMC board wanted a new executive director.

“This is full circle,” she jokes.

Though many downtown Arlington aficionados have labored to resurrect the city’s smallish, aging square-mile downtown, most give credit to Campbell as a critical player in setting off a new pattern of redevelopment that continues today.

She still receives major recognition for bringing the Levitt Pavilion and its free concerts to downtown, as well as for kicking off an off-center restaurant boom that continues today.

Rule one according to Maggie Campbell: Believe in tipping points. Make them happen one after another. Yes, like a domino chain.

Rule two: Small things add up.

Rule three: A “No” does not mean the same as “Never.”

Example? “On my third day of work in 2002, somebody stopped by to introduce themselves and suggested what downtown Arlington really needed was a Babe’s Chicken Dinner House,” Campbell recollects. “They even gave me a menu, which swiftly worked its way to the bottom of a stack of materials on my desk.”

But an edge of Babe’s menu peeked out, catching her eye. It read: “Never attempt to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and annoys the pig.”

A chuckle later she found herself calling Babe’s owner Paul Vinyard, who was polite but told her that cities everywhere were making him offers. In short, a “No.” But as events evolved the “No” switched to “Maybe” and then to “Yes.”

She got the same reaction from Flying Fish Restaurant owner Shannon Wynne, though it was more like “No,” followed by “No,” followed eventually by a new Flying Fish downtown. Both Babe’s and Flying Fish have prospered, as has virtually every other new restaurant arriving downtown.

Campbell tends toward a mix of dogged persistence, persuasion and development of what she terms “a den of whisperers.”

“Get enough people talking about possibilities and possibilities begin to happen.”

This time around, Campbell will have greater possibilities but also challenges. Both the University of Texas at Arlington – which is part of downtown -- and the nearby Entertainment District, which is not, have exploded since her departure. A Business Improvement District she helped create has been renewed and demonstrates willingness of stakeholders to invest. Where once a few hundred people lived downtown, that population will soon hit 10,000. There’s live music, theater and museum exhibits along with many new restaurants. Public art offerings are growing.

The challenges? Abram Street, the downtown main drag, is under major renovation and completion is months away. Many linking streets are profoundly unattractive. The Entertainment District (Cowboys/Rangers/Six Flags/Texas Live!/Esports Stadium Arlington) is only a mile away but seems farther and needs downtown linkage. A greenbelt walkway that would connect the Entertainment District, UT Arlington and downtown remains incomplete. Retail development is slow in arriving. Historical connections, such as a once-famous mineral water well, need to be linked back into the downtown vision mythology. There’s much to do.

“Right now, I’ll be talking to everybody and looking for some early wins,” Campbell said. “We’ll see where the leverage is and where the priorities are. The city also has a new downtown master plan. By fall we’ll have a work plan based on all that direction. It’s safe to say we expect more great things.”

Read the full story by O.K. Carter, which was originally published in the Fort Worth Business Press on March 30, 2019. Photo by O.K. Carter.