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City takes a look at Expo Center plans

Tuesday, April 12, 2016 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

Amid talk of the potential pluses of an expanded Austin Convention Center, some City Council members Monday heard for the first time publicly about a recent consultant review of the Travis County Exposition Center.

Brian Block, the development administrator for the Parks and Recreation Department, summed up the consultants’ findings, starting with a count of the separate pieces that make up the Expo Center as it stands today.

“An arena, a 210,000-square-foot show barn with a dirt floor really geared towards livestock and animals, a banquet hall and also a skyline club that’s part of the arena,” Block said.

Consultants hired by the city, Travis County and Rodeo Austin – which is held at the Expo Center – argue in the report that these facilities are aging and obsolete. They propose creation of a 15,000-seat arena, an exhibit hall, a ballroom and meeting space and have recommended tacking on additional parking space.

Council members didn’t flinch much at the roughly $630 million sticker price. Instead, the potential opportunity for a bigger Expo Center was met with anticipation – particularly from Council Member Ora Houston, in whose District 1 the center is located.

“I’ve been excited about the possibilities for this for some time,” said Houston. “It’s a lot of money. So we need to really look carefully at how it can be funded.”

Block said his department was meeting with city legal to determine if the hotel occupancy tax (known as the HOT tax) could be used to fund an expansion.

Consultants estimate that visitors to a new and expanded Expo Center would spend $3.3 billion over 30 years and that the additional space would add 1,200 full-time jobs plus 5,205 temporary construction jobs.

With talk of expanding the city’s downtown convention center also flying around, Houston emphasized making clear how the uses of each facility would differ – and hopefully finding a way to fill what she called a “missing middle” among Austin’s large event spaces.

“One seems to be more high-level, classy. One maybe is not as classy,” she said. “And then we’re missing that middle part that’s kind of in between.” Houston said she could imagine the center being useful for RV shows as well as University of Texas events. “There are a lot of creative things that could happen in that area, so how do we piece it all together?” she asked.

A final presentation (with consultants present) of an expanded Expo Center will go in front of the full Council in early June.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

Photo by Miguel Gutierrez Jr./KUT News.

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