Perhaps the first thing you need to know and remember about the North Texas Commission is that it is not a chamber of commerce.
Although at one point – at the start – it kind of was.
When Dallas and Fort Worth, under pressure from what is now the Federal Aviation Administration – built what is now Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, there were few national headquarters in the area. And there was no single organization that could work to bring in that kind of development.
The NTC was formed July 29, 1974, by a few North Texas leaders to promote this location, in the central United States and only a relatively short plane ride from either coast. The NTC was designed to do something that the individual cities either could not or would not do – promote the entire area.
Under Chris Wallace, the president and CEO hired in May 2018, NTC is finding new roles that in some way reflect its origins and in other ways look to issues that were unconceivable in 1974.
Wallace brings much experience.
He was president and chief operating officer of the Texas Association of Business when he was hired by NTC. And before that, he was president and CEO of the Greater Irving-Las Colinas Chamber, the third largest chamber in North Texas.
One of the roles he and his board of directors visualize is focusing the attention of North Texas leaders on issues in the Legislature and in Congress and other agencies in Washington, D.C., that directly impact this area in particular and Texas business in general.
"I've always been a strong advocate for our region working together. To be successful in D.C. and in Austin, we must come together on common issues. While our cities have different needs, the reality is we are all here to serve our citizens and strengthen our communities and the region as a whole,” says Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price.
One example of encouraging widespread engagement was NTC’s nonpartisan get-out-the-vote campaign in the recent mid-term elections.
The model was formed in the last legislative session in Austin in 2017 when some lawmakers were focused on the so-called bathroom bill – an attempt to force transgender people to use bathrooms in public schools, government buildings and public universities based on the sex on their birth certificates. The bill died in the regular session but was revived in a special session and again died when the Legislature adjourned.
That’s an issue near and dear to the hearts of some people but with serious impact on the business community. Recent history has shown that for large corporations and businesses, inclusiveness and non-discrimination is an important business strategy and is becoming increasingly so with the rise of the millennial and later generations.
Other states that passed such legislation were hit by organizers’ decisions to relocate large national conventions and sporting events away from those states, at considerable costs to the cities that were eligible to host them.
But it was a hard-fought battle in Texas.
The NTC became the first point of contact for opponents of the bill when they needed top employers, big associations or chambers of commerce to speak out against it.
“The bad news is that we had to deal with that. The good news is that really convened a lot of people and engaged a lot of businesses and even the public sector, too, to come to the table and voice their concerns over that particular piece of legislation,” says Wallace. As head of the Texas Association of Business, he was a key leader in opposition to the bill.
“So now we have that model; we know that it works,” he said.
There may not be another bathroom bill in the next Legislature, which convenes Jan. 8, but there will be efforts by some legislators to pass laws that infringe on the traditional roles of cities and counties – revenue caps, for example, or unfunded state mandates that force local governments to levy tax increases for essential services.
LOCAL AND REGIONAL
Individual local political entities have specific concerns that are best left to them, but when the concerns are overarching, then there needs to be an organization that can collectively speak for and organize the region.
“Somebody moving here from California, or wherever, the big decision is where I buy my home, because that's where my kids are going to go to school,” Wallace said. “Otherwise, people commute all over the region, they shop, they go to the movie. One town versus the next, and they don't care where their tax dollars go, they just want to go where they want to go.”
Cities and towns have to think about those kinds of amenities.
But someone also has to be thinking about the larger issues that are bigger than a single city or county or chamber of commerce.
And, frankly, NTC can provide cover for chambers that might take heat from constituents if they don’t land the big plant or headquarters in their city, even if they do land it for the region.
“If there's projects they want us to take the lead on, we can gear up and prepare to do that, because there are some times where they'll take the lead on a project, and frankly they catch a lot of heat if they don't get it for [their city],” he said.
An example is Toyota’s headquarters – desired and sought by many – that located in Plano and not Dallas or Fort Worth.
“Well, what's good for Plano is good for Dallas. What's good for Dallas is good for Plano. What's good for Fort Worth is good for Dallas,” Wallace said.
Another example is Farmers Brothers Coffee, wooed and recruited by Fort Worth, but which located in Northlake literally across the street from the Fort Worth city limit.
“Everybody benefits,” Wallace said. “And that's one of the challenges of a big region. I can't name any other region in the country where you have the city of Dallas, and the city of Fort Worth, and you have 15 other cities around that have a population of 100,000 more.”
Anywhere else in the country – or even in Texas – the City of Arlington would be its own hub. But it’s not, because it’s in the heart of the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
“But to me, that's good, because it brings a lot of people and business here, but it also has it's challenges,” Wallace said.
Asked what message he would like to send to business leaders about the NTC, Wallace answered with one word: “Engage.”
He cited the commission’s get-out-the-vote effort.
“We have seen more businesses engage this election cycle than we've had in years with our employer-to-employee tools,” Wallace said.
That was a “really massive campaign” to ask employers to engage their employees with information on how to register to vote, the deadlines for registering, where to vote and when they could vote, coupled with some links on how incumbents voted on issues that affected specific industries or links to candidate questionnaires about issues that affect their industry.
Not suggesting how to vote, mind you, but telling people how to do their homework to make an informed decision.
It’s not a one-off campaign. The mid-terms are over, but there will be other elections.
And now, it’s all hands on deck to prepare for the legislative session that begins in January.
That means getting businesses to engage in the session, “so when we do have a bathroom bill, or whatever the big issue's going to be and the piece of legislation that's filed, we have a pool of leaders who can pick up the phone,” Wallace said.
Or maybe write a letter or an email to employees suggesting that they contact their legislators.
Or meet with legislators to speak about issued from a corporate view.
“Because from a business standpoint, our voice is not yet being heard at the level that we need,” Wallace said.
WATCH THE FEDS
One very important situation that has not always had highly focused attention collectively from the region in the past is bills in Congress and other issues specific to North Texas before federal government agencies.
Trade is such an issue and Wallace says it is a top priority.
“We hope that U.S., Mexico, Canada agreement – the new NAFTA 2.0 – will be ratified,” he said. “We think it will.”
NTC wants to be able to work with the 36 U.S. House members who represent the region.
In August, NTC hired Holli Davies as vice president of advocacy to lead the legislative initiatives of the NTC and its North Texas Advocacy Coalition.
Davies is a graduate of the Leadership Fort Worth LeadingEdge program and most recently was the regional director for U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, whose 10th Congressional District stretches from Austin to Houston.
Prior to that, she worked with the Camp Bowie District and as a public affairs representative with Chesapeake Energy in Fort Worth. In addition, Davies worked for U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, in Granger’s Washington, D.C., office.
NTC is also working with Drew and Byron Campbell of Capitol Insights, a Dallas-based legislative and business consulting firm with more than 40 years of experience at the local, state and federal levels, and with Chris Lamond of Thorn Run Partners, a lobbying, deep policy and communications firm in Washington, D.C.
“That is how serious we are about owning that federal space, because no one's really doing that for the region, and it makes sense for the North Texas Commission to step up and do that,” Wallace said.
NTC plans to take area mayors, top business leaders and other officials to Washington, D.C., to meet with federal agency heads on transportation, immigration, trade and other priority issues for North Texas.
Lamond would help set up those meeting, Wallace said. Many businesses have their own federal lobbying teams and Wallace is hoping “we could harness their ability to help us track and to hold legislators accountable on bills that impact our region.”
Someone, he said, has to lead that space.
The concept is welcome in the area.
Brandom Gengelbach, executive vice president of economic development at the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, says the NTC had an exceptional strategic planning effort last year.
“Through that process, they realized the void of a unified advocacy voice for DFW and have built their new strategy around advocacy for the North Texas region. We at the Fort Worth Chamber are pumped to partner with the NTC in new ways as we present a stronger legislative agenda for the DFW powerhouse, the fourth largest metro in the country." Gengelbach said.
A uniform voice is significant, says Tom Stallings, a founding partner of Mosaic Strategy Partners. He is the former chief of staff for Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley and has extensive experience in Washington, D.C., including as a senior policy adviser on energy, environment, technology, telecommunications, trade and transportation in the Senate.
“It is almost always a very good idea for entities and/or organizations to coordinate, streamline and unify their messages to lawmakers and regulators,” Stallings said. “When different groups of constituents are able to deliver a consistent message, it certainly makes the decision for the policymakers much less complicated.”
Consistency of message is important when there is consensus, Whitley said.
“We all will be more effective if we are all singing from the same page in the hymn book,” he said.
And that includes facts and figures. If those vary, it’s easy for officials to say come back when you are all in agreement.
“It’s very important that the wording be the same on all the material that we pass out,” Whitley said.
TRADE IS SIGNIFICANT
Wallace refers to the late unpleasantness over NAFTA as a process that “tweaked” the agreement among Canada, Mexico and the United States.
“I'll say tweaked because they added a chapter on certificates of origin, particularly for automobiles. There's a whole new chapter on intellectual property … because, frankly, it was drafted before the internet was developed. … but otherwise, it really didn't change too much,” he said.
But the trade issue deserves careful watching because of the significance to the area.
The Texas-Mexico Trade Coalition currently reports that trade between North Texas and Canada is worth $9.47 billion, seventh among 100 U.S. metro areas. Trade with Mexico is $8.95 billion, also seventh. North American trade accounts for 27.6 percent of North Texas’ total global trade.
And North Texas’ largest North American trading partner is Toronto.
Trade with Japan and China is also a concern since President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 2016 agreement among 12 countries that border the Pacific Ocean and represent around 40 percent of the world's economic output.
Canada and Mexico are working separately with the TPP countries after the U.S. withdrawal
Wallace said that at a recent meeting with some officials from Quebec, they were quick to point out that “there's 168,000 North Texans that are directly impacted by NAFTA.”
Trade, he said, is a huge issue. Mexico is the state’s No. 1 trading partner, but the state does a great deal of business with Canada as well.