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Eckhardt hopes city will pare down convention center plans for sake of Expo Center

Friday, November 15, 2019 by Jack Craver

Travis County voters gave county government the go-ahead last week to rebuild the aging exposition center on Decker Lane, but it could be a decade before the project breaks ground.

County Proposition A, which passed with 63 percent of the vote, authorized the county to levy up to a 2 percent hotel tax to fund a renovation of the Travis County Expo Center.

However, the county won’t be able to levy the tax immediately because Travis County already has the maximum Hotel Occupancy Tax rate allowed by state law: 17 percent. In addition to the 6 percent state hotel tax, there is a general 7 percent city hotel tax, a 2 percent tax voters approved in 1998 to expand the Austin Convention Center, and another 2 percent tax City Council approved earlier this year to fund another convention center expansion.

Under current plans, the tax rate won’t drop again until 2029, when the city is scheduled to pay off its debt for the 1998 expansion. County Judge Sarah Eckhardt is hoping she can convince the city to expedite its debt payment and end the tax sooner – ideally “within the next two years,” she told the Austin Monitor on Wednesday.

Eckhardt believes the only way that will be possible is if the city pursues an expansion that is less expensive and ambitious than the $1.2 billion vision Council endorsed earlier this year.

Eckhardt and others on the Commissioners Court pleaded with Council earlier this year not to implement the tax for the expansion, arguing that downtown did not need the investment as badly as eastern Travis County. The Commissioners Court lost that battle, but Eckhardt is now making a similarly populist argument in favor of a pared-down convention center project that will allow the county to more quickly invest in a traditionally underserved and overlooked part of the Austin area.

“I’m going to try because I do think it would be a benefit to my city as well to put some of the (hotel) tax towards the eastern crescent rather than all of the HOT towards these limited number of downtown city blocks,” she said.

The economic indicators in the area around the expo center suggest “that it just needs a nudge and then it busts wide open for really good economic vitality,” said Eckhardt.

The tax authority isn’t the only thing Travis County needs to get its new expo center. It also needs assurance that it will be able to indefinitely use city land that the facility sits on. Although the county owns the building itself, the property is city parkland that the county has a lease on through 2033.

In order to secure long-term access to the future expo center, the county will have to either buy the property from the city or secure a longer-term lease – Eckhardt suggested 100 years.

Eckhardt said she had a meeting planned on Wednesday to discuss the deal with City Manager Spencer Cronk. As for the politics on Council, she said, “I think there is great appetite at City Council, including from the mayor, to do something important and lasting for the economic vitality of the eastern crescent. If the city chooses not to … it would be a clear indication that they would like to do some other major economic investment in the eastern crescent.”

In an email, Mayor Steve Adler, who has been the main backer of the convention center expansion, did not directly respond to Eckhardt’s suggestion that the city opt for a smaller convention center project. However, he said, “I’m a strong supporter of the expo center. We have our staff now looking at the best paths to both a convention center expansion and the improvement of the expo center and we need that information. The whole community will be able to engage as we get back that information.”

Council Member Kathie Tovo, who authored the May resolution that identified the $1.2 billion plan as the preferred convention center expansion option, could not be reached for comment.

Photo by Stacey Huggins made available through a Creative Commons license.

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