The City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved moving forward with plans for a 14,000-seat multipurpose arena and sports facility in the Cultural District, the first step in a larger plan that includes tearing down the 44-year-old domed arena of the Fort Worth Convention Center downtown.
The council’s 9-0 vote came after members heard about sweeping changes consultants are recommending for the convention center, including underground parking, another ballroom and a second-story restaurant at the north end.
The new arena would be at the southeast corner of Harley Avenue and Gendy Street on the southern side of the Will Rogers Memorial Center.
It would be funded by an even split of private money and public dollars, including taxes on each ticket sold for an event at the venue, on parking, on each stall or pen used by livestock and the state’s portion of the hotel tax within a three mile radius of the location.
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Fort Worth voters still have to approve the project in a referendum.
Rob Hunden, principal of Chicago-based Hunden Strategic Partners, wrote the report on his firm’s recommendations and briefed the council on the report Tuesday afternoon.
The 22-page executive summary released Tuesday doesn’t offer cost estimates for what’s being proposed, but recommends the work be completed by 2020.
Hunden said cost estimates and design ideas would be a part of the second-phase look at the convention center and could be ready by this fall.
The report focused primarily on the downtown convention center but noted that the public-private partnership under way to build the 14,000-seat arena the council approved Tuesday will provide Fort Worth the chance to recapture business that goes to Dallas instead.
Before any changes can be made at the convention center, the city must first complete the arena, planned for city-owned land. That space can host some convention center events while construction is ongoing.
Convention center plans
The report calls for straightening the curve in Commerce Street on the east side of the building. After tearing down the landmark “flying saucer” arena, a multistory building would be built to include a 50,000-square-foot ballroom installed with retractable seating to host events in an arena-style setting; 97,387 square feet of exhibit space; 46,480 square feet of space for 25 more meeting rooms; and two board rooms, among other things.
Hunden said this was all work that was left out of the $75 million expansion and renovation of the south portion of the convention center, completed in 2004, and is now costing Fort Worth valuable convention, meeting and hotel business.
“You did the best with what you had,” Hunden said. “Your business gravitates towards the quality space and tries to avoid the older, lower quality space.”
Bennett Benner Partners in Fort Worth and tvsdesign in Atlanta, one the largest convention center design firms, also helped on the $150,000 study, commissioned by the city and the Fort Worth Convention & Visitors Bureau.
According to the report: “The convention industry has changed significantly, with conventions looking for more ballroom and meeting space. Many potential users will not consider coming to Fort Worth without larger and better quality spaces. The addition of a 50,000-square-foot ballroom will do the most within the building to make Fort Worth more competitive and able to meet the market’s needs.”
The report says the convention center needs an identifiable front entrance, complete with a grand lobby and a second level terraced restaurant or reception area that would be “a counterpoint” to the Tarrant County Courthouse on the north end of Main Street.
“There’s nothing visually luring them down to this area,” Hunden said. “They see this imposing large structure, they don’t see anything that’s a pedestrian orientation beckoning them this direction.”
The city bought the convention center from Tarrant County in 1997.
More hotel rooms
Hunden recommends a second convention center hotel with 1,000 rooms and suggests that the 614-room Omni Fort Worth hotel add 386 more to make it 1,000 rooms.
If the Omni does not expand, a third, large hotel adjacent to the convention center at the south end of Main Street “should be encouraged,” the report says.
The Omni opened in 2009 across the street from the convention center after receiving more than $31 million in city and county tax incentives. It has been credited with boosting convention business here as well as other downtown hotels responding with quality property improvements.
Downtown Fort Worth has 2,623 rooms among its 10 hotels, which is already 600 too few to meet current demand. If the expansion is done, downtown would be 2,000 rooms short if no new hotels were built. Developers are considering some projects that could increase the number of rooms to nearly 4,500 in the coming years.
The new proposed changes suggest attendance at convention center events could rise to 1.2 million people annually within 10 years, an increase of 31 percent from current attendance averages, according to the report.
Hunden said that figure is conservative and could go much higher, particularly if Fort Worth competes hard for business. The new space would allow the center to host more than one convention or meeting at a time.
“Texas is a growing market and everybody is competing at a higher level and there is more business to get out there,” Hunden said. “There are customers and groups out there that love Fort Worth. It’s got a real attitude about it that makes it easy and fun and more walkable and enjoyable than many other cities across the country and some other Texas cities.”
Paying for the projects
The nonprofit Event Facilities Fort Worth, which was created in 2000 and supports the Fort Worth Stock Show, is raising the private dollars for the arena. The group, whose chairman is Fort Worth billionaire Ed Bass, has not said how much it has raised.
According to the latest filing on Guidestar, which gathers IRS information on nonprofits, Event Facilities Fort Worth listed its assets as of March 31, 2013, at a little more than $75 million.
Funding for both projects will also come, in part, from the city’s hotel/motel tax.
In October, the City Council passed an ordinance establishing a “project financing zone,” or a three-mile radius around each planned project, in which the state’s 6 percent part of the city’s hotel/motel tax is collected from hotels in the zone and placed in an account.
The state will use 2013 as the base year and keep the 6 percent collected on that amount going forward. The tax collected on the increment will be placed in the fund and the money set aside for 30 years. The city has five years to start each project or the money goes back to the state.
The city said it was still analyzing how much debt the account could support. Figures were not yet available from the Texas Comptroller’s Office, which started the account this year.
Staff writer Caty Hirst contributed to this report.