March 26, 2014

College Park District still a work in progress

UT Arlington ramps up its marketing to draw in the community after restaurants close and the arena struggles amid competition.

In 2012, civic leaders gushed about the opening of the College Park District, touting it as a place for the entire city to come shop, eat and play.

The 20-acre, $160 million mixed-use development, a collaboration between the University of Texas at Arlington and the city, included two student apartment complexes, 27,000 square feet of retail space, parking for 1,850 vehicles, and a $78 million, 7,000-seat arena for sports and entertainment acts.

University leaders said it would help UTA shed its commuter school reputation and give students the full college experience, while city officials said it would help revitalize the downtown business district. Arlington contributed $18 million to the project.

But a little more than two years after the College Park District opened on the eastern edge of campus, restaurants are struggling to stay open — or are simply shutting their doors — and the arena has seen smaller crowds than the university expected.

“I think our number out of the box was a bit optimistic,” said John Hall, UTA vice president for administration and campus operations. “… There is that awareness that only increases in time.”

A Star-Telegram analysis of records acquired from UTA through a Texas Open Records request shows that:

• Seven former and current restaurant owners in the College Park District either temporarily closed their doors over the winter or shortened their hours below the 11 required by their lease. Restaurant owners claim the rent is too high. They were paying $26 per square foot.
• Officials predicted crowds of 4,000 or more at eight of its men’s basketball games at the College Park Center for the first full season at the arena but averaged 2,564. Beginning this past season, the university lowered its projections, forecasting at most 2,500 for men’s games.
• Concerts were supposed to help the students and community mingle. Though the March 2012 Drake concert drew 6,200, a Flo Rida concert seven months later brought in 1,100. Overall, concert crowds have averaged 3,935.
• Maverick Speakers Series lectures that have drawn high-profile names like Seth Meyers, Anderson Cooper and Dr. Sanjay Gupta have yet to meet attendance expectations, with 2,808 people on average. University officials note that there was bad weather on the night of Cooper’s performance, which drew 2,000 fewer people than expected.

The College Park Center has drawn a total of 508,945 to date. A month after it opened, a March 13, 2012, university news release said College Park Center events were expected to draw up to 400,000 patrons in the first year.

“Probably, that number was driven by an overestimation on our part as far as the ability to bring in a certain number of external events. It takes more time than we had realized,” Hall said. “I think it’s important to point out that the Dallas-Fort Worth area is a very competitive market when it comes to external events.”

University officials are taking steps to address College Park’s sluggish start. The university is negotiating new rental rates with the restaurants and has hired a new marketing manager with professional sports experience to promote the arena.

“We are by no means satisfied with where we are. We understand it’s a building block,” UTA athletic director Jim Baker said.

High hopes, high prices

This spring, UTA set an enrollment record of 34,249 students. While 5,100 live in university-owned housing and 1,090 live in private student apartments nearby, students don’t appear to be making their way to the restaurants as hoped.

Part of the problem is that students living in Vandergriff, Arlington and Kalpana Chawla halls are required to buy meal plans that cost upward of $1,300 a semester and come with “Dining Dollars” that can be used only with on-campus vendors.

“If I have to pay money for a meal plan and I have to eat at the dining hall and I get Dining Dollars that don’t cover these [College Park] restaurants — obviously I’m not going to eat here,” said Andrew Atalla, a junior business management major.

Natalie Gamez, who did marketing for the now-closed Grip Mediterranean Grill, said competing with the meal plans proved difficult. “To get a student to spend $7-$10 on lunch as opposed to the University Center — that was a big struggle,” she said.

Coupled with high rent, the lack of foot traffic made it hard for restaurants to stay afloat, said Joey Milan, who owns Digg’s Taco Shop in Dallas but closed his College Park District location in January.

“They are just going to have to make those lease numbers a lot more desirable,” Milan said.

The university generated $519,819 in restaurant rent for fiscal 2012-13, but because the restaurants opened at different times, there wasn’t a clear picture of what the full rental revenue would be that first year, UTA spokeswoman Kristin Sullivan said.

Hall said the university and its leasing agent, Jack Burgher, are negotiating lease rates for current and incoming tenants. The university already worked with Milan and the owners of Coolberry Frozen Yogurt and the now-closed Grip Mediterranean Grill to defer rental rates to as low as $4.80 a square foot for this past summer.

The agreements allowed the tenants to pay an agreed-upon minimum rent for their property during the slow summer months, then pay back rent with above- market payments.

“From an economic standpoint, some of these tenants were just paying too much per square foot,” said Burgher, who also leased retail space at the West Seventh development in Fort Worth. “We are at a point where we are getting creative with the rent structure to make it work.”

Jennifer Frank, a commercial real estate agent and Smiling Moose Deli franchisee, is one of the remaining four restaurant owners in the district. However, she isn’t worried and likens College Park to other now-successful developments.

“This reminds me very much of what has happened at the West Seventh Village in Fort Worth,” Frank said. “A project like this that’s unproven in a market needs a couple of years.”

‘They will come’

The 7,000-seat College Park Center was expected to draw larger crowds, especially at men’s basketball games, which had been played on the stage at Texas Hall since 1965.

When the men’s team transitioned to the arena in February 2012, it saw an uptick in fans — far above the average of 821 people who attended the Mavs’ last nine games at Texas Hall, which seated 2,709.

The rise in attendance between the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons — by an average of 1,320 people — was the 11th-largest increase among Division I schools, according to the NCAA.

Baker said the larger crowds initially came out because the university offered free tickets to the rest of the 2011-12 season.

But of the 15 home games played during the 2012-13 season, when UTA went 19-14, an average of 1,926 fans attended — 60.5 percent of university forecasts.

By comparison, TCU had average home attendance of 4,854, North Texas 3,518 and SMU 3,443, according to NCAA figures for 2012-13.

Sullivan said the attendance projections are used to plan for security and staffing and should not be viewed as actual expected attendance. But with the 2013-14 basketball season, the university lowered its projections, forecasting at most 2,500 for men’s games and 1,500 for women’s games.

This season, the men’s team, which finished 15-17, saw an average of 1,873 for its 14 home games, or 85 percent of what was projected.

“There’s not a lot of history coming from playing on a stage [Texas Hall]. I think a lot of people said, ‘We’ll build the building, and they will come,’ ” Baker said.

University officials also noted that attendance at NCAA Division I games is down 9.8 percent over the past 20 years and 4.7 percent over the past 10, according to NCAA statistics.

“If you look across the country — student attendance is down everywhere. It’s not just us,” Baker said.

The university hired Russell Warren last month to work on marketing and ticket sales for athletics and entertainment. Warren is a former director of business operations for the San Antonio Stars WNBA franchise at Spurs Sports & Entertainment.

“We’ve got a long way to go — the base wasn’t very big coming from Texas Hall,” Baker said.

Pushing forward

The College Park Center generated $1,393,842 in actual revenue in fiscal 2012-13, plus $1,356,062 from a $2-per-semester-credit-hour fee approved by students in 2005.

The operating budget for the first full year at the center is $2.4 million, while revenue totals $2.7 million. Sullivan said those numbers are in line with university predictions in 2012. She said the university would like to sell more tickets and get more use out of the arena.

“We want the College Park Center to be used every day of the week,” she said.

To draw more people, the university’s sports department is crafting marketing plans, reviewing student feedback, and looking at changing game times to accommodate alumni and busy parents, Baker said.

In the fall, the university will give out free Maverick All-Sports passes, worth $25, via its First-Year Experience course. The mandatory course will orient incoming students to UTA life, and the free passes will allow them entry to any home game.

Also, the university will add on $50 a semester in “College Park Dollars” for students with meal plans.

Continued residential growth should also help, officials said.

When nearby student-oriented apartments are completed by 2016, a combined 1,378 residents will become potential visitors to the district, Sullivan said.

“I think it is a really critical element in explaining what’s going on in downtown Arlington,” Sullivan said. “Are there really enough people living in the downtown area to support this? We are about to have the next wave of residential construction. All things play a critical role in building up the mass of business.”

The City Council recently gave preliminary approval to a 135-unit apartment complex that would be built on East Border Street as early as 2015 and marketed toward young professionals.

“If we are going to expect for downtown to redevelop, we are going to have to have a residential component down here so those businesses can survive,” Councilman Robert Shepard said.

While some of the Maverick Speakers Series lectures might be better suited for Texas Hall, the demand for high school commencement ceremonies has increased, with 15 booked for this spring, Hall said.

“We are reaching out to get the community and the students. We are looking at everything. It’s a great building — the hard part is done. Now we’ve got to go out and do it,” Baker said.

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