New Convention Center and Fair Park Funding Endorsed by Dallas City Council

Voters would have final say in November

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The plan for a new Dallas convention center and new funding for Dallas Fair Park received a big endorsement from the city council Wednesday.

The woman whose name is on the convention center went to Dallas City Hall Wednesday to show her support for replacing it.

Former U.S. Senator and NATO Ambassador Kay Bailey Hutchison was honored by the city with the convention center naming.

She said a new one is needed to keep visitors coming to Dallas.

“I'm for this expansion because I know what the competition is like. I know that the competition for conventions is heavy from other coasts and as well as even from Texas. And we need to be competitive. And if Dallas is anything, we are competitive. We want to be the best. We want more visitors to come to our city. And when we have conventions, then people come back and bring their families because we have so much to do and we’re such a great city,” Hutchison said.

Renderings of a proposed replacement show a shiny new building that would bridge over I-30. Boosters say it would spread prosperity to southern Dallas.

“I'm not going to be able to sell it if it's just about what it is going to do just for downtown,” said southern Dallas Councilmember Carolyn Arnold.

Wednesday’s city council vote sends the issue to the Texas Comptroller for certification of the funding scheme so it can be placed on a November referendum for Dallas voters to decide.

The $2 billion new convention center and another $300 million worth of upgrades for 6 Dallas Fair Park buildings would be paid for by visitors with state hotel taxes and an increase of city hotel taxes, but not by Dallas residents.

“What I really like about this is other people's money, the HOT tax, hotel occupancy tax,” Councilmember Gay Donnell Willis said.

Dallas State Representative Rafael Anchia helped craft state legislation to accommodate the plan.

He said it was not an example of state government interfering with local control.

“This is one where Dallas gets to set a course on its destiny and that’s really exciting,” Anchia said.  

During the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the convention center was mostly empty.

An aviation convention has the place very busy this week and tourism boosters say downtown hotels are also full.

Craig Davis, CEO of tourism agency Visit Dallas, said convention planners have indicated long-term support for a better facility.

“Everything is right-sizing quickly in Dallas and our biggest challenge right now is finding staff to staff up our hotels," Davis said.

A long-sought funding plan for old buildings at Fair Park is another lure for voters.

“This will be the single largest investment in the fairgrounds, Fair Park since it was constructed in 1936,” Fair Park Councilman Adam Bazaldua said.

Councilmember Jaynie Schultz said both measures are about bringing people together, which she said is something people want after two years of being kept apart.

“Just the energy in this room today, because we’re back together, the pain we’ve all felt over the last couple of years of not being together, is palpable,” Schultz said.

City Councilmember Cara Mendelsohn was the only vote against the plan.

“I think there's a strong resident feeling different from the very nice happy words that are being spoken today,” Mendelsohn said.

Among a dozen problems she listed, Mendelsohn said the true cost of the convention center plan is unknown and could leave taxpayers on the hook if things don’t work out.

She said convention center income has not been enough to pay for proper maintenance of the current building and there is no reason to believe a larger one would not face the same repair issues.

“I’m concerned about staff’s ability to deliver this big of a project when we have significant challenges in senior leadership, staffing challenges in many departments which aren’t currently able to deliver day to day services at the level we expect,” Mendelsohn said.

The vote was 14 to 1 to move the plan forward to the Texas Comptroller.

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