Let's expand the Fort Worth Convention Center — we're leaving money on the table

The Fort Worth Convention Center's round arena section at 9th and Main streets.
The Fort Worth Convention Center's round arena section at 9th and Main streets. dkent@star-telegram.com

Elvis Presley, U2 and Johnny Cash have performed there. It’s been the backdrop for presidential hopefuls Donald Trump and Barack Obama. And don’t forget the boat shows, home and garden extravaganzas and the Shrine Circus featuring the Amazing Sylvia on horseback.

The Fort Worth Convention Center and its 10,400-seat arena has been a gracious host and an integral part of the city’s history since it opened in 1968. It’s attracted visitors who boost the economy by staying in the city's hotels, eating in the restaurants and shopping in stores.

But the once-proud facility has seen better days. Its massive loading dock along Commerce Street is not welcoming, and the spaceship-looking arena simply looks dated and sad.

What is even more sobering is that tourism officials say the city is leaving $200 million in potential convention business on the table because the facility can’t handle the big conventions.

So, when Fort Worth Convention and Visitors Bureau officials talk about their plans to expand the aging facility during their annual meeting Wednesday, city officials need to pay attention and get on board. Fort Worth is lagging behind other cities and leaving money on the table. Everyone involved needs to do what’s necessary to accelerate the expansion of the aging facility.

The capacity of Fort Worth’s convention center is not only smaller than those in other major Texas cities — Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin — it is also smaller than centers in cities it competes with for business. That includes Nashville, Louisville and Portland.

While exact plans and financial models have yet to be released, one city official said he hopes to expand the center to handle up to 7,000 convention attendees, about double what it can comfortably accommodate now. He wants to break ground on the new convention center by 2023, several years ahead of the current timetable.

Expanding the convention center seems only natural given what’s already happened.

The city has been talking about tearing down the arena and replacing it with ballroom and meeting space since the 1990s. But that couldn’t happen until there was alternative space. Enter the new 14,000-seat Dickies Arena being built in the Cultural District. The $540 million arena, set to open in time for the 2020 Stock Show, will be a new host for sporting events and others shows previously held in the convention center.

The expansion will require straightening Commerce Street, opening up land on the east side of the convention center for a hotel of about 1,000 rooms. Construction of that building alone could be a catalyst for other development in a darker corner of downtown.

It’s not clear how local taxpayers would be affected by the project. The city would likely pay for it from the state’s portion of the hotel tax revenue, money it's now using to help finance Dickies Arena. It could also collect other visitor-generated taxes such as higher Dallas Fort Worth Airport rental car taxes and local hotel taxes.

We’re not sure why it has taken so long for Fort Worth to get the ball moving on a new convention center, but if this is how we compete and build our economy, let’s do what is necessary as quickly as possible.