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Thursday, October 29, 2020
Opinion Editorial: Convention Center, Will Rogers arena link is a sham

Editorial: Convention Center, Will Rogers arena link is a sham

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Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

The folks at Fort Worth City Hall are trying to pull a fast one. Surprise, surprise, as the long-ago TV sitcom philosopher Gomer Pyle liked to say.

This is the same City Hall, after all, that hatched a $900 million economic development extravaganza disguised as a routine flood control project.

Their latest sleight of hand? They have decided to link a potentially controversial renovation of the bottomless money pit known as the Fort Worth Convention Center with a completely unrelated project that most taxpayers almost certainly will support: construction of a long-discussed multi-purpose arena at the Will Rogers Memorial Center in the Cultural District. Fortunately for alert citizens, the maneuver is as transparent as it is cynical.

City officials will attempt to cloud the waters at today’s pre-council meeting when city staff and representatives of the consulting group Hunden Strategic Partners brief the council on the latest study of the city’s potential as a convention and tourist center. As expected, the study says Fort Worth will have a better chance of attracting convention and meeting business if it undertakes one more reconstruction of the city’s downtown convention center. This one would involve tearing down the center’s 46-year-old arena and replacing it with a more contemporary – and, Hunden says, more marketable – mix of meeting facilities.

The report makes a solid case for such a change and the recommendations are consistent with what convention and tourism gurus have been saying for years. But the report leads to a nagging question: Will this overhaul of the convention center finally be the one that turns Cowtown into Conventiontown? Previous makeovers and marketing strategies – including a major renovation project 10 years ago – were supposed to solve the convention puzzle, only to come up short. So, is this the one? And will taxpayers believe it? Or is it possible we’ve reached the point where Fort Worthers are ready to say, “No more. We’ve spent our last tax dollar on a convention center that never quite seems to fill the bill.”

These questions deserve careful consideration and considerable public input. But city officials aren’t in the consideration and input business when it comes to such things. They want to press ahead with what they believe is best for the city, the public be damned.

How fortuitous for officials, then, that a recent change in state law has presented the city with an opportunity to press ahead with plans for a state of the art arena in the Cultural District – an arena that has been discussed and coveted for many years by the various interests that utilize the city’s Will Rogers facilities, notably the annual Stock Show and Rodeo. Under the law, the city can undertake development of an arena and finance it through a public-private partnership, defraying much of the public portion of the cost with taxes on ticket sales, parking and/or the use of related facilities. The specific tax mechanisms would have to be approved by voters in a referendum.

A state-required resolution setting the stage for the arena project is on the agenda for tonight’s City Council meeting. And the resolution states, in part, that construction of the arena “will allow for the Phase III expansion of the Fort Worth Convention Center …”

In fact, the arena will do no such thing. There is no provision in the law for linking the new arena to demolition of an old arena at a separate facility in another part of town. The connection is just a fabrication by the city to give a project that could be hard to sell to the public a free ride on the back of a project that will be easy to sell. It would appear to be a perfectly legal political strategy but as public policy it’s subterfuge, pure and simple. It’s City Hall trying, again, to mislead and take advantage of its constituents.

The arena resolution will no doubt receive council approval but if council members have a shred of integrity, they will remove the reference to the convention center before voting. And they will stop trying to market the arena and convention center projects as related and dependent on each other; they aren’t.

Certainly, both projects deserve fair consideration by the public. But they should be considered and evaluated separately, on their own merits. If city officials insist on linking them, voters and taxpayers would be well-justified in saying no to both.  

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