Texas-based cowboy and businessman Billy Bob Barnett, founder of the "world's largest honky-tonk" in Fort Worth, will be part of a team that plans to reopen Baltimore's Fishmarket early next year, owners of the $25 million Inner Harbor complex are expected to announce tomorrow.
The Market Place complex -- which opened in December 1988 and closed eight months later -- would be one of the first major projects for Mr. Barnett since 1988, when he experienced financial difficulties and lost control of his large operation in the Fort Worth Stockyards, Billy Bob's Texas.
According to Hub Baker, promotions director for the Fort Worth project, Mr. Barnett filed for protection from creditors under the U.S. Bankruptcy Code after suffering losses several years ago on real estate holdings in Fort Worth unrelated to the nightclub.
The 9-year-old entertainment complex that bears his name is now run by a management team under an agreement with Landmark Bank, which foreclosed on a loan it made to Mr. Barnett's group, Mr. Baker added.
Representatives of the Fishmarket have repeatedly declined to discuss their latest plans for the Baltimore property, and Mr. Barnett could not be reached for comment.
Members of the new operatingteam will outline their plans during a "walk-through" with city officials, media representatives and others tomorrow, according to William Boucher, a Baltimore businessman handling public relations for the Fishmarket.
Mr. Barnett, a former Texas A&M football and basketball hero who opened Billy Bob's Texas in 1981 inside a recycled cattle barn, has been negotiating for some time with representatives of the McCourt Co., the Boston-based group that opened the Fishmarket.
According to area businessmen who are privy to the negotiations but spoke under the condition of anonymity for fear of angering the developers, developer Frank McCourt's group will continue to own the Fishmarket property and will lease it to a group headed by Mr. McCourt and Martin Resnick, head of the Martin's Inc. catering operation.
Working with Mr. McCourt and Mr. Resnick on the new operating team, the businessmen say, will be Mr. Barnett and Spencer Taylor, another Texan, who launched the successful Dallas Alley entertainment complex. The new group is expected to rename the Fishmarket Billy Bob's Baltimore to signal its change in operation.
The new operating group would replace Opryland USA, the Nashville-based company that ran the Fishmarket for McCourt.
Billy Bob's Baltimore is expected to be essentially the same kind of operation as the Fishmarket: a multifaceted entertainment complex containing a variety of bars and eating spots grouped around a large central performing hall for live musical acts and other entertainers.
Some of the themed areas in the original Fishmarket complex, such as a World War II-era section called the Officer's Club, are expected to change. Other areas, such as a three-level disco, are likely to remain. The performers are expected to include big-name acts of all kinds, not solely country-and-western performers.
Benjamin Hackerman, executive director of the Maryland Industrial Development Finance Authority, said his agency is considering a request to guarantee part of a loan that First National Bank of Boston plans to make to help Mr. McCourt's group reopen the complex. He said it was his understanding that Mr. McCourt will have a "substantial" interest in the new operating team, along with Mr. Resnick and the Texans.
Mr. Hackerman said he was aware that Mr. Barnett had filed for bankruptcy in Texas but understood that Mr. Barnett's financial difficulties were related to the downturn in the Texas real estate market and had nothing to do with his ability to operate an entertainment complex.
"That is what has been represented to us," he said.
Mr. Hackerman added that his office has been dealing with Mr. McCourt, not Mr. Barnett. He said representatives of the Maryland Industrial Development Finance Authority have not come to a decision about backing the Boston bank's loan because they have not seen details of the final loan proposal.
Mr. Baker, the spokesman for Billy Bob's Texas, described Mr. Barnett and Mr. Taylor as "fantastic operators" who built Billy Bob's Texas into one of the largest tourist attractions in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
But he said the attraction was the only profitable operation in a 110-to-115-acre development assembled by Stockyards 85, a group Mr. Barnett headed, and that Mr. Barnett lost control of it when the economy "went to heck."
Billy Bob's Texas closed for nine months in 1988, after Mr. Barnett's group ran into financial troubles, and was reopened by Link Management, a separate group operating under a lease-purchase agreement with Landmark Bank, Mr. Baker said.
Capable of holding more than 6,000 people, Billy Bob's Texas is open seven days a week and contains two stages, two dance floors and an area for "live bull riding," Mr. Baker said.
Although it primarily books country-and-western acts, the operation has brought in other performers ranging from Bob Hope to the late Marvin Gaye.
"It's not a pick-up place," Mr. Baker said. "It's an entertainment center where families and people on dates come to see top quality entertainment. . . . There's really nothing like it that I know of."
Billy Bob's is especially popular among conventioneers visiting the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and 20 percent or more of its visitors on a given night may be from outside the area or even the country, Mr. Baker said. It's also the kind of operation that is successful even in "bad times," he added. "When times get tough, people go to honky-tonks."