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Long road to expo center revamp could begin Thursday

Thursday, November 1, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

Thursday’s City Council meeting is expected to see the first moves toward a long-off ballot initiative that will eventually lead to an ambitious rehabilitation of the Travis County Expo Center.

The resolution, which is expected to pass on consent, will direct the city manager to present Council with options for how the 128-acre facility in Northeast Austin could be redeveloped, likely over a 10-year period, with a new arena and show barn for Rodeo Austin among the likely improvements.

The city’s analysis will work in tandem with a push by Travis County and Rodeo Austin because of the complicated land and property ownership structure for the expo center, which is owned and managed by the county on parkland owned by the city. Because of the parkland status – the expo center is located in Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park – the city will have to put a question to voters on any possible transfer or reclassification of the property.

That ballot measure would likely come next fall, but Council Member Jimmy Flannigan – one of the co-sponsors of the resolution with Council members Ora Houston, Greg Casar and Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo – said it’s long past time for the city to know what steps need to be taken to enact the redevelopment that community leaders have spent years calling for.

“We’ve all been nodding our head in agreement for a number of years, but the biggest impediment to more opportunities for that area of Austin is that the underlying land is parkland,” he said. “The question now is how do we initiate the conversation to get whatever it is we need on the ballot. We said, let’s get the info we need to decide what will happen before we can go to the voters.”

Flannigan said it is possible the analysis of the expo center property could also lead to a larger look at underutilized parkland throughout the city, with the possible goal of identifying the “highest and best use” of excess parkland.

Originally built in 1983, the expo center has served most centrally as the home of Rodeo Austin each spring, along with hosting concerts, athletic events, and in recent years as the site of the Republic of Texas Biker Rally. It has gone a decade or more without improvements to its Luedecke Arena or other facilities, and Rodeo Austin officials have been vocal in recent years about the need to expand and update the buildings.

Rob Golding, CEO of Rodeo Austin, said addressing the city’s ownership of the expo center property is the biggest immediate step to pursuing public-private partnerships to cover the still-unknown cost of the redevelopment effort.

“We hope this is the beginning of the process to work out a deal to swap control of the property,” he said. “The city has lots of other, bigger fish to fry and this has never been a big priority for them, so we say let them deal with the traffic and homelessness issues that are far more important and we’ll take this off their plate.”

The action comes as the city is also moving forward with the creation of a master plan for the 3,600-acre Walter E. Long Park and developing the nearby Colony Park property for a mixture of residential, retail and other uses.

A 2016 report from Strategic Partnerships Inc. said the expected upgrades at the expo center would total $620 million, with a bond election as a possible funding source for some of that money.

Golding said changes would have to come over a 10-year period, with basic safety and cosmetic improvements to the main arena coming first. An additional show barn would follow in the next three to five years and an indoor arena with around 15,000 seats would be the final piece.

Photo by Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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