Fort Worth plans to use $52 million it receives from the federal government in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic to restart the expansion of its five-decade-old convention center.
Expansion is necessary because it cannot meet pent up demand for larger conventions and convention planners become frustrated when they must book rooms for attendees at multiple hotels rather than one nearby, Visit Fort Worth President and CEO Bob Jameson said.
Specifically, the city’s consultant on this project, Hunden Strategic Partners, found Fort Worth’s convention center ranks 47th in the country in terms of its convention center exhibit space despite being the 12th most populous city in the country. Hunden also found the convention center isn’t in the top 25 convention centers in terms of walkable hotel rooms or hotel room capacity.
“Our peer cities, our competitor cities are moving ahead with these kinds of projects, and we need to make sure we’re staying current with that. It is a powerful tool for raising awareness of the city,” Jameson said.
The expansion is expected to start in the spring of 2023, when the city would renovate the convention center’s kitchen, demolish the south and north annex and straighten Commerce Street.
During this time, the convention center could continue to operate.
The much more expensive and time-consuming part of the renovation calls for the demolition of the saucer-shaped arena and expansion of the center. City staff hope to expand the exhibit space by 97,387 square feet, ballroom space by 60,000 square feet and meeting space by 48,039 square feet. This would not only increase the convention center’s square footage by about 40%, but it would change how it is used. Conventions increasingly require more meeting and ballroom space rather than exhibit space, Deputy City Manager Jesus “Jay” Chapa said.
“Because we participated in creating Dickie’s Arena, we don’t have use for the old arena any longer. It was always part of the plan when we went forward with the Dickie’s deal to get rid of this arena because it was obsolete,” he said.
Funding for the first part of the construction comes from the American Rescue Plan Act. The city expects to receive more than $173.7 million in ARPA funds total.
The cost of the second part of the construction is expected to be between $400-500 million. The city plans to pay for that by issuing certificates of obligation bonds and servicing that debt with its portion of hotel occupancy tax collections, said Mike Crum, director of the city’s public events department. These bonds do not require voter approval.
Breaking the project into two parts gives the hotel tax collections time to return to pre-pandemic levels, he said.
Chapa said hotel tax collections in fiscal year 2021 were 30% less than in fiscal year 2019.
The center was built in 1966. The city purchased it from the county in 1997 and expanded it twice before. City Council approved this third expansion in 2019, but it was suspended because of the pandemic in 2020.
Expanding the convention center is expected to allow for twice as many bookings there over the next decade. Right now, there are about 151 annually.
Straightening Commerce Street will create three new blocks downtown between the convention center and a transportation hub that connects to DFW airport, putting Fort Worth at “a distinct advantage,” said Andy Taft, president of Downtown Fort Worth Inc.
The city wants to add a 1,000-room hotel there. Currently, the Omni, one of the closest hotels to the convention center, has 614 rooms.
“The convention center expansion is extraordinarily important to the economy of downtown Fort Worth and COVID underscored just how important our convention visitors are to downtown. We need more of them bringing their new ideas and maybe more importantly the money in their wallets to Fort Worth,” Taft said.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on Friday, Nov. 5 to correct the year construction will begin.
Jessica Priest is an investigative journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.