Convention goals will require a plan worth public trust

02/04/2014 5:40 PM

02/04/2014 5:41 PM

In a preview of results from a $150,000 study of the Fort Worth Convention Center expected this spring, a consultant says the city could draw bigger meetings and conferences if it had more hotel rooms and meeting space.

Picking up on that thought last week at the annual meeting of the Fort Worth Convention & Visitors Bureau, Bob Jameson, the bureau’s president and CEO, said “some investments” will be needed.

“We are turning away some amount of convention activity because of space limitations at our facility and in downtown hotels,” Jameson said.

That’s important information, and the bureau is investigating the need and the desired response in a thorough and professional way.

But Fort Worth has been to this rodeo before, and it wasn’t a pleasant experience last time. It will be crucial that the bureau present measured goals; that any proposed public investment be limited, strategic and not speculative; and that it be accompanied by private-sector investment.

The message from tourism boosters was much the same back in 1996: not enough quality space to attract bigger meetings.

By 2002, city leaders had developed a $160 million plan to build a city-owned and -operated hotel. The plan alarmed other hotel operators and many residents, and a petition drive killed it.

It took three years to develop a new plan that would give Irving-based Omni Hotels $48.5 million in tax rebates and refunds from the city, county and state for a new hotel.

Less than a year later, after construction costs had risen to $115 million, Omni was back to renegotiate. The public investment was eventually capped at $89 million.

This time, one of the makeover targets is the convention center’s 10,000-seat oval arena, built in 1968. The arena was left untouched in the city’s $75 million expansion 10 years ago.

The arena sits empty much of the time, and the push for a better use of the space is no surprise.

Still, a solid plan for any renovations must leave Fort Worth residents confident that their money and facilities are being well-used.

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