Time is short, list of questions is long on arena

Posted Thursday, Aug. 07, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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norman Three Fort Worth City Council members were clearly excited Tuesday after a staff briefing on the proposed new $450 million arena, parking garage and livestock building in the Will Rogers Complex.

Much of that excitement came because private donors have pledged to pay half the cost, plus any budget overrun on the long-planned project. That means the city’s outlay for construction is capped at $225 million.

The other five council members in the room at the time — Councilman Jungus Jordan was absent — were mostly silent. Councilman Danny Scarth asked for more information before he goes out to sell voters on the project in a Nov. 4 election.

Silence is not an indication of concern or objection. It’s just odd in this case.

City officials in most cities probably would gush at such a gift. Councilman Dennis Shingleton did.

A “magnificent project,” he called it, “a jump-starter for this city,” and “obviously great news.”

Mayor Betsy Price said the proposal is “a remarkable opportunity.”

“I couldn’t be more excited about it,” she said.

Councilman Sal Espino said he’s ready to support the plan.

Yet from council members Zim Zimmerman, Gyna Bivens, Kelly Allen Gray and Ann Zadeh, not a word.

Maybe that’s because of something else Price said: “It’s a tight schedule to do a [Nov. 4] election, because it’ll require a lot of public education.”

Despite the generous gift, despite the potential of having a large venue for family events and concerts, and despite the number of years a new, multipurpose arena has been on the city’s wish list (at least since 1997), there are many unknowns and complications here.

Those have to be ironed out before the project can be sold to voters, and the council members are not ready yet. But if there’s going to be a Nov. 4 election, they’ll have to call it on Tuesday.

The election wouldn’t be a direct up-or-down vote on the arena itself. Voters would be asked whether they approve three new taxes to help pay for it: a 10 percent ticket tax, a $20 fee on use of livestock stalls and a maximum $5 tax on “parking in a parking facility that serves or will serve the multipurpose arena project.”

The parking tax has drawn controversy. Plenty of people already complain about parking fees at Will Rogers and nearby attractions.

It’s not clear that the new taxes, plus revenue from a special hotel and mixed beverage tax increment zone extablished by the council last year, will meet the city’s $225 million obligation. Preliminary numbers presented to the council came up as much as $38 million short.

Even the proposed public-private partnership — as generous and greatly appreciated as it truly is — raises questions. Who’s on the hook if the new tax revenues don’t meet payments due on construction bonds?

What additional annual operating and maintenance costs will the city’s budget have to bear?

Finally, it sounds great that a large arena would attract a new level of concerts and other special events to Fort Worth. But established venues, especially those in and around Dallas, make this a very competitive market for those events.

How realistic are those plans, especially since what’s drawing private donations is the expectation that the arena will be available for equestrian and other livestock events that are already the mainstay for Will Rogers?

The city must take advantage of the private financing and build the new arena if at all possible.

But the election is not a slam dunk. Mayor Price is right, “it’ll require a lot of public education.”

Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram. 817-390-7830 Twitter: @mnorman9

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