Does Fort Worth’s iconic Convention Center arena need a remake?

Posted Monday, May. 27, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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Ten years after the city spent $75 million to expand the Fort Worth Convention Center, the city’s top two convention and visitor leaders want the City Council to start considering how to complete the project.

First they must address a question that has been considered for two decades: Should the 45-year-old round arena on the north end of the facility be torn down and replaced with added meeting space?

In the next several weeks, Bob Jameson, president and CEO of the Fort Worth Convention & Visitors Bureau, and Kirk Slaughter, the city’s public events director, will begin looking for a consulting firm that can be hired by the city to answer that question and conduct a market analysis of the city’s hotel needs.

The study, if approved, could be completed by year’s end. It would complement a visioning process on the local visitors and convention industry that began about 15 years ago, bringing sweeping changes to the convention center, Jameson said.

“Let’s take a broad-scale look again, and let’s look down the road at what else should happen at that center,” Jameson said. “Today is a new place in time. I would not be comfortable with what was drawn and recommended in the mid-’90s as the plan that ought to be executed in 2013. There was a lot of good work done with that, but we’re in a different place.”

For one, Fort Worth has grown considerably and is in much more demand as a convention destination than ever imagined. This year, the city is expected to see a record $20 million in hotel occupancy taxes collected, driven by convention business, Jameson said.

“Demand for visitor services will continue to grow,” Jameson said. “Where we are today, for the visitor and convention segments we’re talking to, and how that affects our city, is different today and different from what we even envisioned when we undertook all of this.”

Since the city bought the convention center in 1997 from Tarrant County, the facility has more than doubled in size and has been made a much more desirable destination for conventions. Last year, for example, the state’s Republican Party held its convention here. Recently, Fort Worth drew more than 7,000 people attending the Texas Library Association meeting as well as the national Army Aviation Association of America convention. In July, about 13,000 members of the Texas High School Coaches Association will have their convention in Fort Worth.

Work completed in 2003 brought more exhibit and meeting space and a much-needed ballroom to the marketplace. The convention center stretches from Ninth to 14th streets between Houston and Commerce streets. Now, the convention center has about 252,000 square feet of exhibit space, 40,000 square feet of meeting rooms and a 30,000-square-foot ballroom.

But in that work, the 10,000-seat arena that opened in 1968 was left untouched. Other than maintenance work and some cosmetic remodeling and upgrades over the years, the arena looks pretty much like it did some 45 years ago. And Slaughter said convention groups are taking notice.

Slaughter said the convention center could use another 30,000-square-foot ballroom and several more meeting rooms, in addition to arena space. There’s a lot of space at the north end of the center where the arena sits that holds potential for redevelopment, he said.

Design and construction techniques, for example, could provide flexible space with retractable seating that could house as many as 9,000 in an arena setting, but that could be hidden when the open floors are needed.

The arena is still used for many events. It’s the annual location for the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus. Earlier this month, the WWE Raw World Tour made a stop there, and the Gaither Brothers had two nights of concerts.

“We’re a very popular destination for the big conventions that need big seating capacity as well as all the meeting and exhibit space that we have,” Slaughter said. “Whatever we do on this north end is important to study.”

Slaughter said the convention center hosts about 400 events annually, including 40 to 50 conventions. The convention business is booked first and other things such as sporting events, graduations and bridal and auto shows are scheduled in between.

Convention business is on the rise from a wider variety of groups and associations, Slaughter said.

“We need to continue to build on that,” he said. “We’ve been hearing for years there was pent-up demand for Fort Worth, and it was true. We’ve got to respond and continue to be competitive.”

Any work at the convention center arena, though, would have to wait until a planned arena at the Will Rogers Complex across town is built so that it can temporarily fill in and host events until construction is completed, Slaughter said.

Jameson said it’s the right time to make a decision about the arena space.

“Something needs to happen with that last block of the convention center,” Jameson said. “Increased capacity would give you increased opportunity to accommodate more visitors. Let’s talk creatively about how we use that third section of the building that is currently the arena.”

Sandra Baker, 817-390-7727 Twitter: @SandraBakerFWST

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