This flashback began with a discussion between myself and the famous “door” at Edna’s bar along the old Classen Circle. With the addition of the Drunken Fry, 51st Street Speakeasy, a handful of other veteran bars and surrounding Belle Isle development, it’s fair to say this area has the potential to become yet another thriving entertainment district with and emphasis on bars and clubs. For whatever reason, the Door, friendly enough, makes it a point to promote the area at the expense of Bricktown (indicating parking and traffic is bad, area is expensive). At some point in this Twitter conversation I pointed out that West End is a reminder that districts like Bricktown are not invincible.
I spent a few days in West End, Dallas in 2006 not long after the landmark West End Marketplace closed. I returned last year and found that conditions hadn’t improved much. The marketplace was, and still is, closed. The area is now a forgettable mix of restaurants and clubs that include well-worn names like TGIFridays.
You might notice in this 2006 story that there was a hope in West End that development of Victory Park would reverse its fortunes. No such benefit has taken place. And Victory is, from what I saw, a far cry from being the 24/7 success story originally envisioned. Major projects have been shelved and the ground floor store fronts are dead and empty.
So now in 2010 we have another “victory” being pursued in an area we call “Core to Shore” – and we’re told Bricktown has had its share. No need for it to be included in Project 180, no need for it be a major recipient of MAPS 3. Thanks to Edna’s door, a fresh read of this story was well overdue.
THIS STORY WAS PUBLISHED IN 2006:
DALLAS — Fourteen years ago, a delegation of Bricktown developers and merchants traveled to the West End district in Dallas to learn what it takes to create a successful entertainment district.
West End was the region’s premier entertainment district, drawing millions of visitors and sparking a revitalization of downtown Dallas.
Greg Schooley, executive director of the West End Association, hasn’t seen the Bricktown visitors since. But they still may have something left to learn from one of the region’s oldest downtown entertainment districts.
West End, Schooley said, is in a transition. Others say it’s dying a slow death.
“On the face of it, it doesn’t look good,” Schooley said. “But as much as you see some empty space in the district, you need to know that there is still a lot here. A lot of deals are in the works, and the end result will be good.”
The West End Marketplace, once home to a 10 screen theater, five floors of retail and a Planet Hollywood restaurant, closed for good in June. Also dark is Dallas Alley, the former mega-club complex that once boasted the highest concentration of liquor sales in Texas. Gone also are landmark West End restaurants Dick’s Last Resort, Tony Roma’s and Lombardi’s.
Ed Shelton, strolling West End with his wife Cessnie, was shocked to see a district that on a Friday night two weeks ago was a virtual ghost town. Less than a dozen people were gathered to listen to a free musical performance in the plaza outside the West End Marketplace. The Oklahoma City couple didn’t see any hints of decline when they last visited West End six years ago.
“These streets used to be filled with people,” Ed Shelton said. “It’s totally changed.”
Standing in front of the darkened Tony Roma’s, the Sheltons said they were in Dallas for a friend’s wedding and thought the West End might be a fun night-time distraction. Instead, the only excitement consisted of hustlers selling flowers and Hare Krishna followers dancing, singing and offering out free cookies.
“We might as well go back to the hotel,” said a disappointed Cessnie Shelton, clutching a small flower bouquet. The couple said their first thought was of Bricktown as they first encountered the quiet West End.
“I think we’re seeing in Bricktown what was here five years ago,” he said. “I’d hate to see it get to where it is like this.”
Perception problems and solutions
The Bricktown Association estimates the downtown Oklahoma City entertainment district now draws more than 10 million visitors a year, rivaling West End’s popularity at its peak in the early 1990s.
But Bricktown is battling complaints about parking, that it’s becoming too touristy and after some recent shootings that it might be dangerous late at night. West End fought off similar image problems.
And West End is no longer the exclusive downtown hot spot in Dallas. In the past decade, competition emerged in the off-beat Deep Ellum and the more urbane West Village, Greenville and McKinney districts.
Josh Adkins, one of hundreds enjoying a hot, hazy Saturday afternoon recently at a West Village restaurant, took comfort in thinking that area is also off the radar of out-of-town visitors.
Adkins cited a list of reasons why locals have abandoned West End: no free parking, street hustlers and a gang element late at night.
“West End is for tourists,” said Adkins, a Dallas resident. “I’ve not been there since college — back when Reagan was president. I’ll bet nobody else around here has either.”
But even tourists arriving at West End are disappointed. The district was a favorite downtown Dallas destination for Oklahomans throughout the 1980s and 1990s. But as they return, they’re seeing a West End that falls short of the district they knew and loved.
“I’ve not been here in five or six years,” said Marilyn Wallace of Altus. “I’m just kind of shocked this has all dried up.”
Like the Sheltons, Wallace and Edmond resident Denise Kramer’s discovery of a locked up Marketplace spelled the end of their brief visit to West End.
“There is no retail here anymore, so it’s only restaurants,” Kramer said.
“Bricktown is trying to incorporate a lot of clubs and bars and retail, and stuff to do other than eating, so that’s good.
“I’m impressed they’re turning it around, it’s really expanded beyond the Bricktown area and I think they’ve really cleaned it up a lot.”
Schooley warns against declaring West End dead, and says it is emerging from years when it wasn’t quite sure whether it wanted to be a family destination or an adult club district.
“We had our heyday in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” Schooley said.
“That’s when Dallas Alley was open, we had all the nightclubs, and they were rolling. In the ’90s, we stayed flat — we were stagnant.”
Part of that stagnation is blamed on the Dallas city council’s refusal to create a business improvement district (BID) in West End to pay for security, marketing and cleanup — even as BID assessments were set up for other emerging districts including Deep Ellum and Victory around the American Airlines Arena.
Tax Increment Financing for new development also was withheld from West End even as it too was extended to competing entertainment districts, including West Village.
“The city turned us down every time,” Schooley said. “We would get a pat on the head and be told ‘you’re the West End — you’re doing just fine.’”
So to this day, the district’s upkeep and operations are supported only by association dues and special events.
Forced to stand out on their own, Schooley said district’s merchants and property owners had to decide, “what do we want to be?”
West End made its choice, and is now looking at everything in terms of whether it will draw families.
Special events, including the Taste of Dallas and OU/Texas Weekend, still draw tens of thousands of visitors, and Schooley said the district hasn’t had to turn away people because of a lack of parking.
West End might not be what it was, but better days are ahead, Schooley said.
“We actually have chains leaving, and local stuff coming in,” he said.
“We’re drawing more attractions — the House of Blues is coming in, the Museum of Nature and Science coming in, the Holocaust Museum coming in.
“And with the House of Blues coming in, we think that will bring back the clubs … I’m proud of the fact the district has survived as well as it has.”