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Downtown Fort Worth Inc. has started an ambassador program in downtown Fort Worth to help locals as well as visitors. They'll help with everything from giving directions, helping a homeless person to carrying packages to a car.
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Downtown Fort Worth Inc. has started an ambassador program in downtown Fort Worth to help locals as well as visitors. They'll help with everything from giving directions, helping a homeless person to carrying packages to a car.

Expansion of the Fort Worth Convention Center could be under way by 2022, including the demolition of the 50-year-old arena, at a cost of nearly $380 million.

Additional hotel rooms and added convention space is one part of a redevelopment effort on the south side of downtown that the city has dubbed the “Convention District.” The expansion will be key to marketing Fort Worth, said Bob Jameson, president and chief executive officer of Visit Fort Worth.

The convention center has largely outgrown the space and only the northern third — the saucer-shaped arena built in 1968 — remains untouched by remodeling.

“There’s unmet demand for hotel and convention space in our city,” Jameson said. “We need to be more flexible with our space.”

Visit Fort Worth estimates 9.4 million people visit the city each year with a $2.6 billion economic impact.

The city has discussed demolishing the arena since the 1990s but left it out of the $75 million renovation completed on the south half of the complex in 2004. The arena has a storied history — it has hosted Elvis Presley, U2 and the Rolling Stones, gymnastics star Nadia Comaneci in the 1979 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships and tennis stars Andre Agassi and John McEnroe in the 1992 Davis Cup.

This endeavor would cost just under $377 million.

The city is looking to move forward with the expansion by 2022, beginning with design work and straightening Commerce Street, which curves around a section of the building. This first phase, which also includes a new ballroom kitchen, would cost more than $48 million with an annual debt service of around $3 million, assistant city manager Susan Alanis told the City Council on Tuesday.

The second phase, with work expected to start in 2024, would cost more than $328 million and include the demolition of the arena and construction of the expansion.

What that would look like remains undecided.

With the 14,500-seat Dickies Arena opening in November, the convention center arena becomes less useful in its current role.

The arena seats up to 12,000, but most conventions need 10,000 or less, Jameson said. That leaves a large chunk of the arena unused.

Visit Fort Worth envisions something that can convert from ballroom or exhibit space into a more arena-like setting, but designs have not been made, he said.

Councilwoman Ann Zadeh, whose district includes the southern part of downtown, said that if the arena is demolished, whatever replaces it should be “embracing” and “iconic.”

“Every time you take a photograph at that end of Main Street, that’s in the background,” she said.

The expansion would bring exhibit space to about 300,000 square feet and add another 60,000 square feet of ballroom space. That extra space lets the convention center continually book mid-size events, creating a constant flow of visitors.

“We’re really creating the opportunity for us to grow into the next size convention,” Jameson said. “We can keep a stream of people in our hotels and restaurants.”

The realigning of Commerce Street will open space east of the convention center for possible development, Alanis said. A 1,000-room hotel to complement the Omni Fort Worth will be needed to support the expanded convention center, but that development is years away.

Some of redevelopment is already under way.

Burnett Lofts, a five-story, 330-unit apartment complex at Lancaster and Cherry, will break ground in May. At the southeast corner of Main Street and Lancaster, the Kent Lofts will bring another 248 apartments to a five-story building. Ground-breaking is expected in mid-summer.

East Lancaster will also get an aesthetics boost.

About $600,000 from a special Lancaster Avenue tax district will fund improvements to the avenue, including opening access to the Fort Worth Water Gardens. The North Central Texas Council of Governments will contribute another $200,000. Work is also being considered to better connect pedestrians to the T&P Station.

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Luke Ranker covers the intersection of people and government focused on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. He came to Texas from the plains of Kansas, where he wrote about a lot, including government, crime and courts in Topeka. He survived a single winter in Pennsylvania as a breaking news reporter. He can be reached at 817-390-7747 or lranker@star-telegram.com.

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