Road Show: City leaders prepare campaign to corral votes for $450 million arena

Scott Nishimura

Fort Worth’s biggest backers of a new arena at the Will Rogers Memorial Center are leaving little to the chance of a “no” vote in a citywide election Nov. 4 to decide on new fees that would fund 15 percent of the $450 million project.

“There really does not seem to be any apparent opposition,” Ed Bass, the Fort Worth financier and philanthropist who has advanced the idea of the arena for years, said in an interview with The Business Press. “But there’s a lot of work to do between now and Nov. 4. Nothing’s going to be taken for granted.”

Supporters have set up a committee, Forward Fort Worth Partnership, with former Mayor Mike Moncrief and wife Rosie Moncrief as co-treasurers and the Kelly Hart & Hallman law firm handling the formation.

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Forward Fort Worth Partnership is legally required only to have a treasurer, but the campaign committee will have 30-40 “co-chairs,” Bass, one of them, said.

The Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce has hosted a series of invitation-only presentations for business people, with Bass, Mayor Betsy Price, West Side City Councilman Dennis Shingleton and others making the pitch for the arena.

The meetings have included members of Price’s Steer Fort Worth emerging leaders group of 20-40-year-olds, who campaign leaders view as an important voting block because of the appeal of concerts, sporting events, and other entertainment the arena could host. The campaign is expected to have a significant social media component aimed at younger voters.

Price, who has completed a TV spot promoting the arena, is expected to be a prominent face of the campaign.

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In October, Fort Worth officials expect to launch a series of six to nine public meetings across the city. The Eppstein Group political consulting firm in Fort Worth, paid to help manage the successful Fort Worth city and school bond elections last year, is working on various components of the publicity and marketing plans.

“I promise you this,” Bass said. “You’re going to get a letter in the mail. You may get a phone call. You may have someone knock on your door. You’re going to hear something on the radio. You may hear something on TV.”

City and business leaders say they’re confident voters will approve the taxes on the Nov. 4 ballot, because Event Facilities Fort Worth – a nonprofit chaired by Bass that’s raised money for improvements at Will Rogers for nearly 15 years – has agreed to raise at least half the project cost and cap the city’s share at $225 million. In addition to the user fees on the ballot, the city’s share would come from incremental growth in hotel occupancy, hotel sales, and mixed-beverage taxes in a three-mile radius around Will Rogers.

Officials also say the arena, which would be at the southeast corner of Montgomery and Harley streets, would fill an important hole for events in the DFW area. The facility would be configured differently for concerts, basketball and hockey games, circuses, ice shows, rodeo, high school graduations and a variety of other events.

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“We don’t have anything this size,” Price said in an interview. Seating capacity would range from 9.300 to 14,000, depending on the event.

As for the privately funded half of the project cost, Bass said the sources would include “a limited number of foundations, organizations and individuals that have been focused on this arena project for two decades.”

“There are no other cities that could pull this off,” Price said.

“This is a game-changer for the city of Fort Worth,” said Shingleton, the City Council representative for District 7, which includes the arena site and surrounding neighborhoods.

On the Nov. 4 ballot, voters will be asked to approve three taxes or “user fees” in separate propositions: a tax on tickets to events held at the arena, capped at 10 percent of the ticket price; a tax on parking in a new garage, capped at $5 of the total parking charge at the time of the arena’s first public event; and a tax on each stall or pen used by livestock during events at the arena, capped at $1 a day and up to $20 per event.

The ticket tax would apply only to the new arena. The parking and livestock taxes, if approved, would be applied across the Will Rogers campus. It’s not clear yet how the parking tax would fit into Will Rogers’ existing variable rate structure, and how the parking charges would look, Susan Alanis, assistant city manager, said in an interview.

Those taxes make up an estimated 15 percent of the project cost.

Voters must approve at least one of the three measures for Fort Worth to be able to tap into the incremental growth in hotel and mixed-beverage taxes around Will Rogers. Eighteen percent of the project cost would come from the state’s share of that money starting in 2014, a source the Legislature approved in the most recent session. The state has already put $861,000 in escrow for the project this year, significantly better than projected, Alanis said.

Sometime after the election, the City Council would vote on setting aside the city share of the incremental growth in hotel and mixed-beverage taxes. That money would make up 14 percent of the project cost.

The city must still come up with three percent of its half the cost under current estimates, but Alanis said it’s possible the strong hotel taxes could fill that hole.

Voter turnout is expected to be strong, due to high interest in the Texas governor’s race featuring Republican Greg Abbott and Fort Worth Democrat Wendy Davis, and the state Senate District 10 race featuring Republican Konni Burton and Democrat Libby Willis.

“Fort Worth will have a good presence (on the ballot) because of Wendy’s candidacy,” Mike Groomer, president of Event Facilities, said in an interview. “It should be a good turnout.”

Bass, Price and other backers of the arena proposal say they feel confident about the prospects of passage, but they acknowledged some voters will say no.

“In the most recent city bond election, 20 percent of the people voted against money to repair and build streets,” Bass noted. “Now, this is the most popular thing to the voters there is. But there’s still 20 percent of the people that are just going to say no.”

The new arena, he said, “is going to service every walk of life, every part of the community.”

Don Woodard Sr., a Fort Worth businessman and longtime critic of the Trinity River Vision plan he calls a “boondoggle,” predicted some people will vote “No” on the arena out of anger.

“I suspect there are a lot of people who are going to be questioning the arena on the basis on how they’ve handled the boondoggle,” Woodard said, adding he hasn’t decided how he will vote on the arena. “And they’re going to vote against it.

Business leaders did not say how much money is expected to be raised for the election campaign, but Bass said it will likely be similar to what political action committees raised for the city and school district bond elections. The Citizens Supporting Classroom Excellence PAC raised $108,050 for the Fort Worth ISD school bond election, and Voters Supporting Fort Worth’s Future PAC raised $79,588.32.

The Chamber of Commerce will play a central role in raising money for the campaign, Bass said. Bill Thornton, president of the chamber, said “those details are being worked out.”

“We are going to be a strong advocate for the multipurpose arena,” he said.

Bass said he expects major donors will meet Event Facilities’ commitment to the project cost, and he doesn’t expect a broad and deep funding campaign similar to the one that built the $60 million-plus Bass Performance Hall downtown – which Bass said would cost $180-$200 million to build in today’s dollars.

Event Facilities expects to finance the private share through the debt market, possibly through tax-exempt bonds to be repaid over time by the donors, Bass said.

That would allow the private cost to be spread over 15-20 years, instead of paid up front, Bass said.

“It will not be sucked out of our economy,” he said.

City and business leaders said it’s likely that Event Facilities will end up managing the new arena for the city, which would own it.

Planners also expect to market the naming rights and have worked with consultants to examine the possibilities, Bass said. There will also be ample sponsorship opportunities inside the arena, he said.

Operationally, Bass said, industry standards indicate that the 14-16 concerts a year the arena is projected to host would cover operating costs.

The goal is to operate on a break-even basis, with revenue providing enough reserves for replacement, maintenance and upgrades over time. The likely opening date for the arena is expected to be the third or fourth quarter of 2019, Bass said.