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Expo Center revitalization could be city’s next bond election

Thursday, April 28, 2016 by Eva Ruth Moravec

The Travis County Expo Center – situated on the city of Austin’s largest park – is in need of a $620 million facelift, and City Council members hinted Wednesday that the renovation could be funded by a bond election.

News came in the form of Hunden Strategic Partners’ draft report on a market study of the Expo Center, which was presented to Council’s Open Space, Environment and Sustainability Committee.

Brian Block, a development administrator for the Parks and Recreation Department, told Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Council members Leslie Pool and Delia Garza – Council Member Don Zimmerman had to leave early – that the facility is “aging, it’s becoming obsolete.”

Home to Rodeo Austin, the center has been owned and operated by Travis County since it was constructed in 1983, when voters authorized a 50-year lease that ends in 2033. Block told the committee that the rodeo is the facility’s largest tenant; other annual events on the 128-acre site include the Republic of Texas Biker Rally; numerous livestock, auto and craft shows; and daylong expos that draw a large number of vehicles.

After completing the market study, consultants recommended replacing the existing buildings with a modern arena, expo halls, a ballroom, meeting rooms, and a rodeo and equestrian facility.

Phase one of the project – consisting of the arena, expo, ballroom and meeting rooms – would cost an estimated $25.4 million per year for 30 years, Block said. Future phases carry a $150 million price tag, according to Block, and operation of the center would cost between $2.9 million and $5.3 million each year.

“Right now, the facility serves the low end” of tenants, Block said, answering a question from Tovo regarding who would rent space in the new center. “The new facility would meet the middle- to upper-middle event needs.”

Events that pay top dollar will likely stay downtown or at Circuit of the Americas, Block said, but the study revealed that midlevel events like trade shows and consumer shows currently skip over Austin because it lacks the venues to house them. Although the existing Expo Center has the space, it is in “poor condition,” Block said.

Tovo said that a group she belongs to rents space in the Expo Center for cheaper rates than at a previous space, and she asked if current tenants would be able to remain. “It’s great to have those more affordable opportunities out there at the Expo Center,” she said.

Block said that it is likely that, should the new center be constructed, discounted rates would be available for tenants.

Outside of the committee meeting, Joe Straub, a member of Rodeo Austin’s board of directors, said that the organization owns 40 acres next door to the center, so staying put would be ideal.

Eddie Ledesma, Rodeo Austin’s president-elect, said that a larger facility would allow the event to expand and “continue our current use” of educating youth about Western heritage. The event also raises money. This year, the event raised $2.3 million for scholarships.

When asked if Rodeo Austin would be able to afford rent at a new and improved center, Straub said, “That’s the plan.”

Although many details still need to be worked out, Block has already undertaken some of the work that would be required for a bond election, Pool said, complimenting his diligence.

“It’s good to have this work done before,” she said.

If the redevelopment takes place, it would have an economic impact of $3.3 billion over 30 years and would generate $110 million in new taxes from spending over 30 years, Block said. Some 5,205 construction workers would be employed during the construction phase, and another 1,200 full-time jobs would be created.

Hunden Strategic Partners is set to present the findings of the market study to the full Council on June 7, Block said.

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