Events center closer: Pending state legislation could benefit venues

A. Lee Graham

Pending state legislation could help fund a new public events arena at Will Rogers Memorial Center as Fort Worth officials review facility needs for when funding becomes available. Authored by state Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound), S.B. 748 would allow cities to use certain tax revenue to upgrade convention center facilities, multipurpose arenas and related infrastructure. Having secured state House and Senate approval, the bill now awaits Gov. Rick Perry’s signature. Similar to tax-increment financing districts in Fort Worth and other municipalities, the proposed framework would add another potential funding source for a Will Rogers-area venue that officials have discussed for years. While city officials have not publicly addressed the legislation’s potential impact, they remain hopeful. “This legislation might provide some new avenues of funding that might be able to help us,” said city Public Events Director Kirk Slaughter, hoping to boost the city’s marketability in attracting equestrian shows among other public events. Sharing that enthusiasm is another city events proponent. “That’s the big question we’ve all been grappling with: how do you come up with the money,” said Mike Groomer, president of Event Facilities Fort Worth Inc., a nonprofit organization charged with supporting the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo and, by extension, helping officials push through Will Rogers Memorial Center improvements. To that end, Slaughter gave the city council an update on Will Rogers improvements – both completed and planned – at the pre-council portion of the May 14 regular council meeting. Already completed are two new gatehouses as part of Trail Drive improvements. Planned for construction are a new RV lot at the northeast corner of the Will Rogers campus that borders the eastern edge of Montgomery Street, Gendy Street improvements and a new exhibits area in the Richardson-Bass Building. After touring the campus with District 4 Councilman Danny Scarth, who uses a wheelchair, Slaughter found the site lacking accessibility features for disabled visitors. The venue was built in 1936, well before the Americans for Disabilities Act was enacted in 1990. Procuring funds not only to add accessibility upgrades, but also to improve traffic circulation and upgrade existing cattle barns, is vital for maximizing the venue’s appeal, Slaughter said. “When you think about the coliseum and tower and auditorium, they are jewels of this city,” Slaughter told the council of the Will Rogers landmarks. To maximize their luster, he recommended submitting an application for having the Will Rogers Memorial Center listed on the National Register of Historic Places. “We think that would give us a great marketing opportunity,” Slaughter said. As for a Will Rogers public events arena – still only a vision, not a firm proposal – Slaughter foresees a 10,000-to-12,000-seat venue able to accommodate equestrian and other events. “Will Rogers would be a great place to build that facility,” Slaughter said.