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New Rodeo Austin chief calls Expo Center expansion ‘a no-brainer’

Wednesday, January 18, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki

With a deep banking and private investment background as well as an extensive business network throughout Texas, new Rodeo Austin CEO Rob Golding could be an important dealmaker in the long-brewing effort to conduct a grand revamp of the Travis County Expo Center.

Golding, who has lived and worked in Austin for more than 30 years, is quick to say he won’t be leading the efforts to execute a proposed $620 million redevelopment of the vast property in Northeast Austin. But with Rodeo Austin being the largest tenant of the Expo Center for its entire existence, he’ll have an important seat at the table, and he speaks enthusiastically about the 20-year future of the site.

“I see Rodeo Austin and my role as being the impetus and getting the ball rolling,” Golding, who accepted the new job in September, told the Austin Monitor on Tuesday. “It’s not just about the rodeo, and hopefully we can be the most profitable, but I want to see it pull the community together.”

The last significant governmental activity regarding the expansion came last spring and summer, when the Chicago firm Hunden Strategic Partners delivered the results of a yearlong study on the Expo Center and the roughly 3,000 acres of city-owned property that includes Walter E. Long Lake. That report presented options for a midlevel arena and event center and other enhancements – with demolition of the existing structures on the property – at a cost of between $550 million and $620 million.

County commissioners nearly ran screaming from that number when it was first presented, but all backers of the Expo Center project have said it would be funded primarily through a public/private partnership with a for-profit developer or consortium.

Golding, who most recently served as CEO of the Austin-based real estate development firm Live Oak-Gottesman before joining Rodeo Austin, could be one of the most well-positioned people to put those kinds of deals together.

Doing so, he said, would have a transformative effect on a fast-growing section of Austin.

“Expansion and redevelopment of this 3,000 acres and the Expo Center is a no-brainer, because it serves the city as well as visitors,” he said. “This is the perfect place for public/private partnership capital investment. We’ve got the scarcest commodity – land – in the hands of the city. You’ve got exactly the right ingredients to come up with the perfect place for what can go on out here.”

Any deal to reimagine the Expo Center would involve at least two public entities because the city of Austin owns the land and Travis County owns and maintains the Expo Center, which was opened in 1983.

Austin officials last considered the expansion over the summer, with government spending trackers intrigued at the possibility of another large capital expenditure coming out of Austin, even if only a portion of it would be public money. Currently the city is committed to a $720 million transportation bond approved by voters in November, and it appears that backers of the Austin Convention Center are preparing to soon seek approval to expand that facility, which is expected to cost between $400 million and $600 million.

Golding is careful not to pit the Expo Center and convention center projects as an either/or proposition, but said the activities possible at the eventual new Expo Center would be targeted predominantly at Austin residents instead of tourists, which he sees as a distinct benefit.

“They are not mutually exclusive,” he said before emphasizing the local benefits of an Expo Center expansion. “We have to galvanize around this, and I hope Rodeo Austin can do that. One of my top priorities long-term is to see a new facility out here at the Expo Center.”

Video still courtesy of Travis County.

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