Friday, March 1, 2013

RICHARD GREENE: Angus Wynne Jr. became a visionary who didn’t give up

Editor’s note: This column is one in an occasional series that former Mayor Greene calls “How our city was shaped by ten things that didn’t happen.” Today’s commentary is about the fourth of those ten things.

Angus Wynne, Jr. stood on the front porch of his friend’s house watching the construction of the new turnpike and declared, “Dallas and Fort Worth are going to grow together and they will meet right here.”

His friend, looking all around at the expanse of grassland prairie, mesquite and oak trees for as far as the eye could see, wondered if Angus was dreaming. And he was. Visionaries are known for dreaming and for seeing things others can’t imagine.

That house was located on a knoll just south of Rangers Ballpark and is today the site of the Punch Wright Park and Pavilion. It’s one of the highest points in the county.

The conversation occurred a couple of years before the Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike opened in 1957. What happened after that is the stuff legends are made of and it’s one of the best stories in Arlington’s modern history.

Angus, a real estate developer, was no stranger to innovation in a world of change during the post WWII years. He had already foreseen that people buying houses in subdivision developments sprawling far from downtown would like the convenience of some shops and stores in their new neighborhoods.
Richard Greene

So he filled that need by building the first strip shopping center in Dallas – Wynnewood Village, still serving south Dallas today.

Next he would turn his attention to commercial and industrial development that he was sure would be a success at the mid point along the new expressway between Dallas and Fort Worth.

The fact that none of the land he wanted was part of any city and lacked the basic services and infrastructure essential to any development was something he would just have to work out. The enthusiastic mayors of the small towns of Arlington and Grand Prairie quickly became his strongest supporters.

He proceeded to put together an investment group that would include John D. Rockefeller III and four of his brothers and then consummated by what news reports said was the largest real estate deal in the history of Tarrant County.

They would call their 5,000-acre venture the Great Southwest Industrial District, or GSID. Those two mayors would be seen with really big smiles on their faces in all the local newspapers as they celebrated the announcement of the coming economic bonanza for their cities.

Visionaries share a common characteristic -- they are often ahead of their times. It would seem that Angus would reconfirm that peculiar trait as he proceeded to build the first warehouses and offices in the development, only to watch them remain empty as tenants in sufficient numbers were not to be found.

His partners became antsy and bankers were worried. There was some talk about how the whole idea of an industrial park was just not going to work and maybe it was time to sell the properties, recover whatever of the investment was possible, and try to forget about a deal gone bad.

Such pessimism was unthinkable to Angus. He started looking for something that would produce a quick cash flow and shore up the finances of the fledgling development. After considering the idea of a sports park with multiple activities, he turned his attention to Walt Disney’s attraction in California that had opened in 1955.

After visiting with the iconic master of the new concept in an amusement park, he returned and began convincing his partners that something akin to Disneyland would work here and quickly generate some badly need cash.

He wouldn’t try to copy what Disney had done, but rather wanted to create a Texas-themed experience and, unlike the Disneyland model, he would charge a single admission price. Visitors could experience all the thrills and attractions for no additional cost.

Those who recall his plans say he explained that if the idea worked they would operate the amusement park for a few years, use the profits to shore up the GSID, then reclaim the land for more warehouses when the rides and shows had run their course.

He would call the place Texas Under Six Flags but his wife insisted that Texans would not like putting the beloved state “under” anything. So, it became Six Flags Over Texas.

Angus’ investors, holding their breath, said okay and construction got underway at a cost that would top $10 million before the grand opening in August of 1961. Visitors had to fork over $2.75 to enjoy all that the new theme park had to offer. They came in droves.

So successful was this “temporary solution” to the GSID’s financial problems that by the end of the 1964 season news reports were describing the arrival of 125 national, regional and local manufacturing and distribution companies now with addresses inside the Great Southwest Industrial District. And, that was just the beginning of what would become, during the next 20 years, the largest planned industrial park in the country.

That was also the year that my wife and I first discovered Arlington. We were among the record 1.6 million visitors to Six Flags that year. I don’t know where all the rest came from, but we arrived from Louisiana the day after we were married. It was the chosen destination for our wedding trip.

When Angus didn’t give up on his vision the result was not only a huge success for his original plan of putting himself in the path of the future growth of the region but he also launched an entirely new and unexpected attractions industry that would see the development of Six Flags parks across the country and around the world.

The prime beneficiaries of it all would be the cities of Arlington and Grand Prairie. With the revenue from property and sales taxes, the financial fortunes of the two cities would be forever secure. Now Arlington would be more than the place where General Motors built cars, but a diverse array of economic and job opportunities that propelled its very promising future.

The next time you approach the entrance to Highway 360, take note that the road is officially named the Angus G. Wynn, Jr. Freeway. Honors like that are bestowed upon the dreamers and the visionaries who don’t give up when the going gets rough. And, aren’t we glad!

Richard Greene is a former Arlington mayor, served as an appointee of Pres. George W. Bush as Regional Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and currently is an adjunct professor in UT Arlington’s Graduate School of Urban and Public Affairs.

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