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County sets up new committee to put pressure on city leaders over Expo Center

Wednesday, January 8, 2020 by Jack Craver

Travis County leaders want to put pressure on the city of Austin to help them rebuild the aging exposition center.

On Tuesday the Commissioners Court voted unanimously to set up a nine-member committee tasked with “engaging and educating Travis County residents and community leaders about the value of redeveloping” the facility on Decker Lane.

Rob Golding, CEO of Rodeo Austin, by far the most important expo center user, will be the committee chairman. Joining him on the panel are:

  • Jeff Travillion and Brigid Shea, Travis County commissioners
  • Dyana Limon-Mercado, county Democratic Party chair
  • Nelson Linder, president of NAACP Austin
  • Laura Morrison, former Council Member
  • Barbara Scott, president, Colony Park Neighborhood Association
  • Gregory Weaver, executive vice president of real estate company Catellus
  • Alan Graham, founder of Mobile Loaves and Fishes
  • Jack Gullahorn, president of Jack W. Gullahorn PC
  • Kerry Getter, founder of Balcones Resources

The committee will be charged with estimating the cost of an expo center renovation, including the amount of annual hotel tax revenue the county would need in order to complete the project.

Over 62 percent of Travis County voters approved a referendum in November authorizing the county to levy up to a 2 percent hotel tax to fund the project. Yet the county is unable to move forward on the tax (and therefore the project) because the city of Austin essentially beat it to the punch, levying its own hotel tax in order to fund a convention center expansion and bringing the total local hotel tax levy to the maximum allowed by state law.

The commissioners hope that the committee, by promoting the benefits of a new expo center and raising awareness about the roadblocks put up by the city, will put pressure on City Council to reconsider its position.

“We hope the result is (Council) will serve the entire community,” Commissioner Jeff Travillion, who represents the area around the expo center, told reporters Tuesday.

Travillion and others on the court argue it is in the interest of the community to invest hotel tax dollars outside of downtown, particularly in the traditionally underserved parts of eastern Travis County surrounding the expo center.

Supporters of a new expo center say the goal is not simply to create a better events center. Travillion described the new facility as anchoring a revitalization of a marginalized area that lacks many of the cultural amenities – libraries, museums, parks – that help shape a community.

“We’re trying to serve a community and this is a centerpiece of that community,” said Travillion. “The expo center provides a really important space for a whole lot of programming. It’s not the expo center by itself, it is the area that the expo center serves. It is the fact that most of those people have been displaced from a city they can’t afford – from a place with public transit, from a place with libraries, from a place with community centers, to a place with none of those things.”

The county’s goal is not necessarily for the city to abandon the convention center project altogether. Rather, the county hopes that the city will opt to fast-track paying off the debt associated with the previous convention center expansion, which voters approved in 1998.

While the debt is not scheduled to be paid off until 2028, the city likely could pay it off sooner. Once the debt is paid off, the 2 percent hotel tax the city is using to fund the debt would go away, leaving the county free to levy its own tax.

However, if the city gives up part of its taxing authority now, it may not be able to pursue as ambitious a convention center project as some members of Council hope.

This article has been changed since publication to correct a name. Photo by Larry D. Moore [CC BY-SA 4.0].

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