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County hears ambitious proposal for Expo Center

Friday, March 11, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

As South by Southwest once again tests the limits of the Austin Convention Center, Travis County Commissioners Court is considering a new proposal that could not only bring the facility some relief but also attract the attention of a major league sports owner.

Those were just two of the many enticing details embedded in a sprawling report delivered at a special Thursday work session by Robin Hunden of Hunden Strategic Partners. The firm was commissioned over a year ago by Travis County, the city of Austin and Rodeo Austin to take a close look at the Expo Center and make recommendations for its future.

Situated on 128 acres of city-owned land at Walter E. Long Park in Northeast Austin, the Expo Center was originally built by Rodeo Austin in 1983. Operational and maintenance costs quickly proved to be too much for that group, so the county stepped in and now owns the facility through a ground lease with the city of Austin.

In addition to several large parking lots, three buildings make up the Expo Center: The 6,400-seat Luedecke Arena, the 21,000-square-foot Show Barn and the 15,000-square-foot Banquet Hall.

Hunden urged the court to tear them all down.

He explained that there is extremely high demand in Austin for a midlevel center that can attract the sorts of events that don’t necessarily need to be held at the Convention Center. Such events would include consumer shows, trade shows and regional events whose patrons would not heavily rely on hotels.

Hunden said that a shortage of space to meet the demand for those events is pushing them out to Williamson County’s Cedar Park Center and even down to San Antonio. “We call that leakage,” Hunden told the court.

To plug that leakage, Hunden recommended replacing the current facilities with a 15,000-seat arena, an expanded show barn area with dressage arenas, a 200,000-square-foot exhibit hall, a 30,000-square-foot ballroom and a 25,000-square-foot meeting space. Hunden also suggested expanding the current parking capacity from 4,000 spaces to more than 6,000.

The proposed arena alone would be the second largest in Austin behind the University of Texas’ Frank Erwin Center, a nearly 40-year-old building that could have a date with a wrecking ball not too far in the future.

Hunden also told the court that Spurs Sports & Entertainment, the parent company of the National Basketball Association’s San Antonio Spurs, is interested in exploring opportunities for new events in the region.

Hunden also claimed that a newer, larger Expo Center could attract many events away from the Convention Center and the Palmer Events Center and therefore help unclog traffic in the urban core.

“We’d be heroes if we could do that,” Commissioner Brigid Shea told him.

Of course, the long-term project carries with it a significant cost. According to Hunden’s report, the low-end estimate on carrying out the proposal in three separate phases is just under $554 million. A second estimate tops $627 million.

Those numbers caught the attention of Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who pointed out that voters in November rejected a $287 million bond to build a new civil courthouse. “It’s just such a choking number,” said Daugherty.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt tried to assuage Daugherty by declaring that she has no intention of having taxpayers bear the cost of revamping what is essentially a revenue generator for private groups such as Rodeo Austin. Instead, the county could explore what she termed a “public-public-private” partnership with the city and Rodeo Austin to solicit proposals from developers interested in the project.

Rodeo Austin CEO Bucky Lamb was on hand at the meeting and cowboyed up to the dais to voice his support for the report.

“We want to call Austin home. We want to call Travis County home for a long, long time,” said Lamb. “We’re not going anywhere. We want a seat at the table to help find a solution.”

Aside from its price tag, there are other hurdles facing the project, including the 2033 expiration date of the county’s lease on the Expo Center. Because the facility is on city-owned parkland, renewal of the lease will require a popular referendum.

While providing an exposition center is not one of the core services explicitly required of the county by the Texas Legislature, Eckhardt said that economic development is. She noted that redeveloping the Expo Center could help transform Walter E. Long Park into what she called  “Zilker Park East.”

At the end of Hunden’s proposal, Eckhardt pledged to bring several related action items to Commissioners Court agendas later this year. In the meantime, the next big step for the project will be the still-undetermined day when Hunden delivers his report to City Council.

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