Arena action: City leaders call for new Cultural District facility, Convention Center upgrade

By Soctt Nishimura

Fort Worth is putting two long-discussed projects – a new multipurpose arena at the Will Rogers Memorial Center, and the potential replacement of the old Convention Center Arena with modern meeting space and a major full-service hotel – on the path toward construction over the next several years.

The Fort Worth City Council on July 15 signaled its intention to call an election to provide funding for the 14,000-seat Will Rogers facility, which would augment the center’s ability to recruit larger equestrian shows and other events it doesn’t draw now. And a city-commissioned study recommended Fort Worth replace the Convention Center Arena with a 50,000-square-foot ballroom, exhibit space, meeting rooms and full catering kitchen.

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The study also recommended the city encourage the construction of a 1,000-room convention headquarters hotel and 400-room addition at the Omni Fort Worth Hotel across the street. The Convention Center additions would help the city meet expanding meeting and leisure demand, and put Fort Worth in better position to host multiple medium-sized conventions at the same time, the study said, in reasoning that city and business leaders have long advanced.

“Having a multipurpose facility opens Fort Worth up to being able to attract conventions and events that we don’t have,” said Mike Groomer, CEO of Event Facilities Fort Worth, a nonprofit that has long benefited the Fort Worth Stock Show and Will Rogers and has agreed to raise 50 percent of the money to build the multipurpose building.

“But equally as important or more important, it’s a pathway for the Convention Center wing expanded,” Groomer said in an interview.

The city would build the Will Rogers arena first, potentially within three years of voters’ election, Kirk Slaughter, the city’s public events director and manager of Will Rogers and the Convention Center, said.

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“Then maybe you’re prepared as a community to start looking at this facility,” Slaughter said of the Convention Center.

Fort Worth would pay for its share of the multipurpose building through increments of hotel and mixed beverage taxes collected in a radius around Will Rogers that the City Council authorized in a vote last year, plus – if voters approve – potential taxes on tickets, parking and livestock pens at the new multipurpose building.

The city’s goal would be to raise enough money from the volume generated by the multipurpose arena that it wouldn’t have to raise taxes, Assistant City Manger Susan Alanis said.

Event Facilities, created in 2000 to support Southwestern Exposition and Livestock Show and raise funds for the arena, will raise the private monies for the area. The group’s latest filing lists its assets at more than $75 million.

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The chairman of Event Facilities is Fort Worth businessman Ed Bass and other members are Bradford Barnes, president and general manager of the Livestock Show, Fort Worth businesswoman Anne Marion and attorney Dee J. Kelly.

The group has not said how much it has raised specifically for the arena. Convention Center To seed a Convention Center remodel, the council last year authorized the setting aside increments of hotel and mixed-beverage taxes collected in a radius around the Convention Center.

The city’s remaining debt from a 2003 Convention Center expansion expires in 2021 and 2023, and “that would free up some (debt) capacity as well” for the proposed remodel, Slaughter said.

The $75 million Convention Center expansion included $19 million raised through a city bond program, and the city raised the rest through certificates of obligation repaid through hotel occupancy taxes. Two percentage points of the 9 percent tax the city collects on hotel stays goes to pay for the 2003 debt.

“We’re really still in a very early stage and trying to understand the whole thing,” Slaughter said of the various potential funding sources for the Convention Center expansion.

The council on July 15 approved a resolution saying it supported a public-private partnership to build a multipurpose building at Will Rogers and identifying three potential taxes it might levy.

The vote was a necessary step under state law before the council can call a funding election. To qualify under state for the incremental taxes, the city must raise at least 40 percent of the money for the Will Rogers arena from private sources, but it committed to a 50-50 split in the resolution.

The election would be as early as November, District 7 Councilman Dennis Shingleton, who represents the district, said in an interview.

“This is going to be a game-changer” for the city, he said in making his motion to approve the resolution.

The possible taxes: A tax on tickets sold to events held at the arena, capped at 10 percent of the ticket price; A tax on parking in a parking facility that serves the arena, capped at $5 of the total parking charge at the time of the arena’s first public event; A tax on each stall or pen used or occupied by livestock during events at the arena, capped at $1 a day and up to $20 for an event.

The estimated cost of the arena hasn’t been determined yet, city officials said. “I expect it to be high, but I also expect it to be one of the great venues for the city,” Shingleton said.

The arena and support facilities would be built on an existing parking lot at Harley and Gendy streets, and the size and form would “complement the architecture of the Will Rogers District,” the resolution says.

The arena – substantially larger than the 5,700-5,900-seat capacity of the Will Rogers Coliseum – would be able to host concerts, family shows, sporting events, community and high school sporting events and ceremonies, rodeos, and other agricultural and equestrian shows, city officials say.

Fort Worth competes hotly against Oklahoma City and Tulsa for equestrian shows, and the new arena would augment the city’s arsenal in going after that business, city officials say.

Some of those shows won’t come to Fort Worth because the facilities aren’t big, modern and flexible enough, and there isn’t enough covered exercise area, city officials have said.

Once voters approve the money, “we’re going to start marketing that arena,” Slaughter said. “Hey, we’re going to have the best one ever to be built – let’s talk business here.”

The same day the council voted for the Will Rogers resolution, a consultant laid out expected recommendations for an overhaul of the north end of the Convention Center, to include a potential razing of its arena.

That end of the building comprises about a third of the Convention Center. Direct sales conventions and religious rallies use the arena for its original purposes, but few other conventions do and the space is outmoded, city and local business leaders say.

Fort Worth has been losing larger meetings to other cities, due to the outmoded nature of the Convention Center Arena and the lack of enough full-service hotel rooms, city and business leaders have long said. The study recommended the city:

* Expand exhibit space to 280,000-300,000 square feet from the current 182,000, 45,000 of which is “not prime” and rarely used;

* Add a 50,000-square-foot ballroom, which could be used for plenaries, banquet and reception venues, exhibit halls and meeting rooms;

* Add 80 flexible-space meeting rooms, for a total 80,000 square feet;

* Add a full catering kitchen and mini food court, and allow food trucks to come on site;

* Tear down the Annex on Commerce Street, allowing the straightening of Commerce, which would turn three partial blocks into three full blocks and “make the development of one or more convention hotels easier;”

* Turn a new north entry “into a welcoming public access point” with grand lobby and second-level terrace restaurant or reception area “that simultaneously functions as a counterpoint to the courthouse at the other end of Main Street;”

* Add more restaurant spaces to the east and west sides; Add underground parking.

In augmenting the hotel inventory, the study recommends the city add the premium hotel rooms and encourage “only products that enhance Fort Worth’s hotel package in terms of quality, such as a high-end boutique hotel, or (that) fill a service gap (extended stay).”

“Any hotels without full-service amenities and smaller than a size that would induce large events to Fort Worth should be placed on hold until the development of these headquarters properties is underway,” the study said. “We would hate to have a high-end site developed with a hotel that doesn’t maximize the opportunity,” Rob Hunden, the study consultant, said in an interview.

If the 614-room Omni doesn’t expand, the city should look to add a “third large hotel” adjacent to the Convention Center, the study says.

The study found that Fort Worth’s remodeling of the Convention Center more than 10 years ago and opening of the Omni in 2009 paid off in strong downtown hotel rates and occupancies that prompted other hotels to upgrade and have raised the industry’s interest in investing more in the city. The city’s increasing image as a “fun, walkable” city has added to the draw, Hunden said. Room nights, for one, have doubled downtown since 2007, the study found.

“Have the investments paid off?” Hunden said in the interview. “The short answer is yes, in spades.”

Hunden Strategic Partners in Chicago did the $150,000 study with Atlanta-based TVS Design and Fort Worth’s Benner Bennett Partners.

The city “succeeded, wildly,” with its investments in hotels, Andy Taft, president of Downtown Fort Worth Inc., an economic development nonprofit, said in an interview. “And what this study underscores is we are in position to do that yet again.”

The city will have to find a balance between full-service hotels and limited-service ones, for which “there’s quite a bit of demand,” Taft said.

“If we know we want this larger number of full-service rooms, how do we balance the limited-service hotels with the limited amount of public incentive dollars we can offer anybody, with the needs for full-service rooms?” Taft said. “That’s what this study is digging into.”

The study was scant on details about potential locations for a new convention center hotel; those determinations will come later, Hunden said.

Options include attaching it to the Convention Center and building east of Commerce Street once Commerce is straightened, he said.

The study says the Omni has an adjacent site it could acquire and develop. That is a building to the south owned by Tarrant County College, said Bob Jameson, president of the Fort Worth Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Omni representatives did not return phone calls for comment on the study’s findings.

Fort Worth leaders have long indicated the city is losing out on some convention business because it doesn’t have the meeting space or enough hotel rooms.

The Texas High Schools Association and Texas Library Association are two examples of large meetings that once rotated into Fort Worth, but have dropped off those groups’ rotations, Jameson said. The coaches meet in July and bring about 6,000 attendees, he said. The librarians meet in April and draw about 7,000, he said.