Preserve the Fort: Neighborhood pub finds new lease on life
Published on May 13, 2021
In honor of Small Business Week (May 9-15), we’re sharing a few of the experiences of Fort Worth small-business owners during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the impact that the city’s Preserve the Fort grants had on them and their business.
For 16 years, Finn MacCool’s Pub has sat nestled in its corner of Eighth Avenue and West Allen, watching Fort Worth’s popular Near Southside neighborhood grow up around it. The building was about to be torn down before Robert Holt intervened, fixed it up and created the neighborhood pub, which soon became a local hangout where customers were treated like family.
Business was good, and reliable. By the time the pandemic hit, Holt had been debt free for 14 years – a point of pride for any small-business owner. Once bars began to shut down across the country, he and his business partner, Ginger Steinman, began dipping into their retirement and their savings to cover the pub’s expenses, from regular bills like water and electricity to larger ones – the pair had to replenish the bar’s inventory twice after weeks of shutdowns caused the product to go bad and suppliers refused to buy it back.
“The worst thing was not knowing, the day-to-day waiting,” Holt said. “We didn’t do anything wrong to bring this situation on ourselves – we never missed rent and always paid our bills on time. But we were still having to ask ourselves some serious questions. What if we burn through our savings and we still can’t open? What becomes of this family we’ve created here, this building, our livelihoods?”
Fort Worth is a city full of small businesses – almost 83% of the city’s businesses have fewer than 250 employees – and many of them are longtime neighborhood institutions, beloved by their local communities. These businesses were also the most at risk as the impacts of the pandemic intensified – which eventually resulted in the City of Fort Worth spending a whopping 34.6% of its CARES Act funding on developing and implementing the Preserve the Fort small-business grant program last year.
When Holt heard that the City of Fort Worth was offering Preserve the Fort grants, he was initially uncomfortable applying. It was his first time applying for financial aid, and he wasn’t sure that his neighborhood pub would even qualify, or whether a bar would have less credibility in the eyes of the city than businesses in other industries.
“We didn’t want a handout. We wanted to get up and work every day, and make our mark on the community,” said Holt. “But even when we partially opened up, we were still paying 100% of the expenses we’d be paying if we were open completely, and there wasn’t enough coming in to offset that. It wasn’t a great business model at all.”
But just when things seemed darkest, Holt received an email from the city – Finn MacCool’s had been awarded a grant.
“The Preserve the Fort grant was a lifesaver, and it truly gave us a new lease on life,” he said. “Not just because of the financials and the business side of things. There was a major emotional component too. This pub isn’t just a business – it’s our baby, a gathering place for our friends and neighbors. The Preserve the Fort grant didn’t just save our livelihoods, it saved part of who we are and helped keep our dream alive.”
Huge local impact
The impact of the Preserve the Fort grants on Fort Worth’s business community was immense, with grants awarded to 1,640 local businesses. Roughly 32% of the grants were awarded to minority-owned businesses, and 31% of grants were awarded to companies located in the city’s targeted revitalization areas and investment zones. Almost $1 million went to local performing arts nonprofits.
Altogether, the city’s Preserve the Fort grants distributed $54.9 million dollars to small businesses throughout Fort Worth, giving business owners like Holt a bit of financial breathing room.
Holt was able to use his Preserve the Fort funds to pay down several months of back rent – “my landlord was ecstatic” – while also paying his staff and avoiding taking on debt. It also put his business on firmer financial footing, so that by the time the City of Fort Worth reached out to its bar owners to help them get the necessary licenses to become a bar/restaurant – thereby complying with the state’s reopening guidelines – Holt was ready. With Steinman overseeing the kitchen, the Finn MacCool’s team was able to make lemonade out of lemons, incorporating a menu of pub favorites into its long-term business strategy.
While Holt was able to save the Fort Worth location of Finn MacCool’s, its sister location in nearby Ennis wasn’t so lucky. He and Steinman made the difficult decision to shut it down after four and a half years of operations, almost entirely due to COVID-19 and the venue’s inability to accommodate social distancing guidelines.
“Fort Worth has been good to us – I grew up here as a kid, and came back to start my business here,” Holt said. “Seeing how the city stepped up to help small businesses like mine has made me so proud to call Fort Worth home, and we’re so grateful and glad to be a part of it.”
As businesses have started reopening more fully, more patrons are flocking back to Finn MacCool’s. When leaving the pub on a weeknight, snatches of conversation can be heard as regulars are joyfully welcomed back to the pub, warmly greeted by staff and fellow customers alike.
“It’s like coming home!” laughs one customer, raising a glass to Steinman behind the bar.
“You have no idea how true that is,” she replied.
Photo: Robert Holt of Finn MacCool’s Pub: “The Preserve the Fort grant didn’t just save our livelihoods, it saved part of who we are and helped keep our dream alive.”
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