Stadium proposal renews talk of hotel taxes for Expo Center revamp
Monday, December 11, 2017 by Chad Swiatecki
Travis County officials appear ready to push for some of Austin’s growing pool of Hotel Occupancy Tax money to be used to pay for an ambitious expansion of the Travis County Exposition Center site, which is also where a group of local sports businesspeople want to build an open-air stadium and an arena.
The announcement earlier this week of the proposed East Austin District project to add large-capacity entertainment and sports facilities to the 300-acre site in Northeast Austin has county leaders saying the Expo Center redevelopment should share HOT funds with a proposed $600 million expansion of the Austin Convention Center downtown.
Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion, whose precinct includes the Expo Center site, told the Austin Monitor the tax dollars paid by tourists using Austin hotels could pay for new meeting and other facilities to support Rodeo Austin and would help jump-start private investment that would likely run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
“If you use the HOT funds to expand the Expo Center and rodeo opportunities then you have the opportunity to improve the infrastructure in that area without any ad valorem taxes,” he said. “Things like attracting a concert venue and a big soccer or basketball team are acceptable uses of those funds, and that could then help attract more private capital.”
Travillion said talks are currently underway with city leaders in economic development and those involved in formulating the city’s annual budget about possibly utilizing HOT funds at the Expo Center site, which is managed and leased by the county on land owned by the city of Austin, with the lease in place for 17 more years.
Such a use would be an about-face from Mayor Steve Adler’s plan to use the downtown convention center expansion as the centerpiece of his “downtown puzzle” policy agenda, which would use a 2 percentage-point increase in the hotel tax to pay for help for the homeless and a variety of other civic improvements.
Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt said there is at least one other group putting together a development proposal for the Expo Center site. She said the best next step for city, county and Rodeo Austin officials will be setting up a process to open up the redevelopment to all interested groups to compete.
Eckhardt said a presentation this week to county commissioners based on a report from Hunden Strategic Partners on the feasibility of redeveloping the property will help frame that process, which she said is still in its very early stages.
“The conversations we’ve had with the city have been super productive but it’s too early to say what direction this takes,” she said. “The Expo Center and the convention center are two separate issues, and they’re only related by the toolbox for (tax) revenues because there is some overlap.”
When Adler unveiled his downtown puzzle plan this summer, he said it was unlikely that the county’s suggested uses for HOT funds would qualify under the state law that allowed the creation of the tax.
Travillion said paying for the Expo Center upgrades with HOT funds would likely only delay any convention center expansion rather than cancel it out.
“We could be able to provide resources and space to take some of the event pressure off of the downtown area and while the (downtown) construction is happening the Expo Center could be an alternative to the convention center,” he said. “I don’t think one project gets in the way of the other. You just have to sequence them properly.”
In September, City Council voted to have staff research the legal framework and procedural steps involved in the various pieces of the downtown puzzle proposal. A report with that information is due on Dec. 15.
The East Austin District proposal is the work of a group known as Austin Sports & Entertainment and enters into the fray of athletic facilities speculation brought about by the possible relocation to Austin of the Major League Soccer franchise based in Columbus, Ohio. That ownership group has its hopes on converting the Butler Park athletic fields into a stadium site by 2019, but AS&E head Sean Foley told the Austin Monitor that his group is having “ongoing conversations” with the MLS owners about possibly hosting the team at the Expo Center stadium.
Rob Golding, CEO of Rodeo Austin, which is the primary tenant of the Expo Center, said the use of HOT funds is one of multiple issues county and city leaders need to work through quickly for the AS&E project to become a reality.
“I think the idea of a bigger convention center is beginning to go away, and the voter will to use HOT money to eat up downtown property to make the convention center bigger is not really there,” he said. “We need to figure out what other development would happen at the Expo Center if we include a new arena, meeting and banquet facilities. I see uses that are broader like farmers markets, FFA and 4-H activities, and soccer fields and other facilities that could serve a lot of East Austin.”
Photo by Stacey Huggins made available through a Creative Commons license.
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