By AMANDA KIMBLE
STEPHENVILLE (January 11, 2017) – Area stakeholders and community members gathered Tuesday to discuss a potential future for a multi-purpose center. The Stephenville Events Center Summit was an almost one-sided discussion and future meetings will likely be held to continue to explore the issue.
A number of individuals at the meeting were not affiliated with the stakeholder groups – Stephenville Economic Development Authority (SEDA), the city of Stephenville, Erath County, Tarleton State University, Stephenville ISD, Stephenville Chamber of Commerce and Stephenville Economic Development Foundation (STEDCO) – but attendance from the general public was limited.
Attendance from younger, working adults – 20 to 40 years old – was even less, which one audience member noted was disappointing. The development and construction of an events center, a process that could span a decade, would have a greater impact on younger generations.
A number of individuals representing the 40+ crowd were in attendance and several said the event center discussion was something that had been discussed for 25 to 30 years or longer and now is the time for action.
Meanwhile community members on the other side of the discussion, those most concerned with the fiscal impact on taxpayers, would have gone unrepresented if not for the comments of one man.
John Hubbard, SEDA executive director, opened the informational forum by presenting information on spending habits related to travel.
While the true impact of a local events center is yet to be seen, Hubbard said the tourism industry in Texas added up to $68.7 billion in Texas in 2015, supporting 648,000 jobs and generating $6.2 billion in state and local tax revenue. He also said an estimated 76 percent of travelers did so for leisure, and Texas hotels collected $9.9 billion in revenue in 2015 with average statewide occupancy of about 65 percent.
“When people come to the city of Stephenville, they stay in hotels, generating sales tax and hotel occupancy tax (HOT),” Hubbard said, explaining the revenue filters back to area taxing entities and helps boost local businesses.
He also said a facility that accommodates groups of 500 or more people would be another tool for attracting new businesses and industry partners to the area since an events center could be used for corporate trainings, gatherings and other business related events.
Hubbard said public events centers are difficult to operate and generally require supplemental funding from local governments. He also explained the negative impact on tax funds is paid back by the positive impact on sales and jobs.
“It’s an investment,” he said.
Speaking from Experience
Interim City Administrator Wayne McKethan, former Granbury city manager, said he participated in the building of the Granbury Resort Conference Center. He said the issue was community decision, not one that should be left up to a single entity such as the city of Stephenville and its voters.
McKethan said Granbury – the city had a population of about 5,000 at the time, whereas the county was home to about 50,000 at that time – needed the financial boost tourism and associated sales tax offered.
He also said while it’s easy to find cities that are losing money, it’s also easy to find the positive side of investing in an events center. According to McKethan, Granbury officials conducted a marketing survey to determine what attracted new residents to the city, and 25 to 35 percent of the surveys he reviewed referenced a positive experience at a conference or event.
Meanwhile, McKethan spoke of an issue facing many small towns, noting Stephenville could be somewhat different due to the presence Tarleton State University.
“I grew up in Midway and as soon as I graduated, I went to the big city of Dallas,” he said, adding he decided later in life to return to a small-town atmosphere and moved to Granbury due to the things the city had to offer. “Those people who come back usually have a higher disposable income, make large investments in their residences and have the time and energy to participate in community events.”
While discussions prior to Tuesday’s meeting – across the community and through comments to local media reports – revealed a large number of citizens concerned about the expense of planning, constructing and maintaining an events center, only one of them offered an opinion to the assembled crowd.
Mark Wallace, who is not only a regular attendee at council meetings and work sessions, but is also a member of the Planning and Zoning Committee, offered his opinion, saying an event center should not be a priority.
“Our priorities should be addressing basic needs of water, an aging sewer system, a long-term funding solution of city employee retirement, police and fire protection and decreasing our long-term debt,” Wallace said.
Mayor Kenny Weldon later said the city council is “very aware” of and focused on the city’s infrastructure needs.
“We have completed the city’s first (ever) pavement management plan and, based on the priorities in this plan, we are spending in two years over $1.8 million for street repairs,” Weldon said.
He also said the council is currently working to obtain a grant from the Texas Water Development Board, another first for the city, for the East Side Sewer Project that will address serious problems with the downtown sewer system.
Meanwhile Wallace mentioned SEDA, saying officials should consider that the entity has only recently organized and taxpayers have yet to see an increase in revenue or the number of businesses.
“We should wait until industry has provided revenue through property tax, sales tax and jobs for our community residents,” Wallace said. “That’s why the citizens voted for Prop. 1, since they were told by the mayor at the pre-SEDA meetings that businesses, retail, restaurants and entertainment were a by-product of economic development.”
He also mentioned the potential for future financial concerns, referencing the ongoing expense related to the “unpopular” Proctor pipeline and other projects that exceeded projected expenses, including Splashville and the Bosque River Trail.
Finally, Wallace suggested that stakeholders find events centers in comparable cities that are not losing money.
“I looked and was unable to find any at all,” he said. “Every center I researched was hemorrhaging dollars. If there truly is a need and desire for an events center, and you want your taxes to likely increase, then the city should have a bond election and let the registered voters decide instead of putting us so eagerly in debt.”
While the greatest benefit of an events center may be realized through HOT and sales tax allocations, area stakeholders presented information about how a facility could benefit local educators, students and other community members.
Stephenville ISD Superintendent Matt Underwood said there are a number of events hosted by the school district and joint ventures with other entities that could benefit from a facility large enough to accommodate high levels of attendance.
Underwood mentioned the iChampion Summit, a partnership with Tarleton State University that welcomed almost 300 educators and more than two dozen presenters last summer, as well as professional training for teachers across the county that has outgrown the school district’s Bond Auditorium.
Underwood said an aptly sized venue could also host an array of athletic tournaments and high school graduation ceremonies. He also mentioned the fact that Stephenville ISD lost the Effective Schools Project to Granbury ISD when the district could no longer accommodate the event.
Meanwhile, Dr. Kyle McGregor, vice president for advancement and external relations at Tarleton State University, said the campus, which is home to $1.5 million in active construction and has experienced growth of 34 percent since 2010 could also utilize the added community space in a number of ways.
McGregor said with as many as eight separate graduation ceremonies each semester, the convocation of about 2,250 new freshmen in fall, homecoming activities, lack of an indoor track facility, the hosting of about 20,000 FFA students each year, as well as various camps, conferences and other activities, space is always – and will continue to be – an issue for a university that expects growth to persist.
He said the university could bring to the community more indoor sports, including conference and regional tournaments, additional summer camps for area youth and even larger activities for university students who are turned away from participating when events – like the annual yell contest – reach capacity.
Finally, July Danley, president and CEO of the Stephenville Chamber of Commerce, who has advocated for a multi-use facility for some time, said while the city park and Lone Star Arena continue to host a number of sporting events that bring visitors to town, there’s still a need and opportunity for indoor events for 500 people or more.
Danley recalled several years ago when the Christian Athletic League wanted to host an event in Stephenville, but the community and organization couldn’t find a suitable weekend when all gyms – across the city, school and university – were available. She also said there have been occasions when conference organizers wanted to hold their event in the city but the ballroom at Tarleton, the largest meeting space in the city, was not available.
“The potential to bring outside visitors is endless,” Danley said, adding when her office receives a request for proposal (RFP) for conferences she cringes.
She said Stephenville has hotels, services and the manpower to make events successful, but the area doesn’t have a facility that can accommodate them.
Meanwhile, Danley said an events center could also benefit area nonprofit organizations that host sold out events annually.
“They could be more successful with more space,” she said.
Addressing the “elephant in the room,” Danley brought up the multi-million-dollar question. “How will the community pay for an events center?
Danley said she and other stakeholders are not advocating for a bond election and leaving taxpayers to foot the bill.
“That’s not what we are saying, we are saying there is a need,” she said, adding the real question is if community representatives, local entities and business leaders wanted to put their time and energy into researching options like grant opportunities and seeking support from philanthropists.
Providing his personal perspective, Erath County Commissioner Scot Jackson said he has lived in Stephenville since 1973 and recalled the same issue almost making it to the ballot about 30 years ago.
“Because of the shortsightedness of a few people, we don’t have the facility,” Jackson said. “If you’re going to bury your head in the and ground and say you don’t want growth, move somewhere else. “
He called Stephenville a vibrant community and encouraged meeting attendees to look toward the future and ask themselves what they wanted to see.
“We want to be a live, we want to grow,” Jackson said.
Janet Whitely said she came to town about 25 years ago and a similar facility discussion was the first community meeting she attended. She agreed with the idea that some things, like an events center, could facilitate growth.
“If you don’t grow, you’ll end up like Hamilton or Mineral Wells,” she said, adding continuing discussions on a potential events center would allow people to make a better decision on the issue. “There is a lot we don’t know, like the where, when, why and how. We need to get more information.”
Examples of Financing Options
According to John Hubbard, there are many ways to fund an events center. He provided examples such as the Allen Event Center.
The $58 million project in the city of Allen was constructed on a 380 agreement between the developer and city, according to Hubbard. He said 34 percent of the project was funded by community development corporation and economic development corporation loans.
The Brazos County Expo Center in Bryan was a three-phase project, according to Hubbard. He said the first phase was completed with $20 million in general obligation (GO) bonds. He said phases 2 and 3 each relied on an additional two percent hotel occupancy tax allocation.
Meanwhile, Hubbard said $10 million in GO bonds tied to the Decatur Conference Center are paid by the area’s economic development corporation, and the multi-purpose center in Wichita Falls is primarily financed with HOT funds with the city’s general fund covering the deficit.
Word from the Mayor
“Economic development is not more people, it is more money,” Mayor Kenny Weldon said as he offered closing remarks at the community forum. “An events center is the perfect tool to not increase the number of residents but provide the revenue we need to fix things across the community.”
He said the benefits of an events center would include allowing the community to address infrastructure issues, increase revenue and “celebrate who we are as a community.”
Weldon also said an events center is not an issue for the city or its elected officials alone.
“None of the entities can do it alone,” he said. “Together we can, united we will.”
Weldon called on Hubbard and McKethan to reach out to stakeholders to determine if they want to participate in future planning discussions and organize the next summit meeting.
“This task going forward is not going to be easy,” Weldon said. “It’s going to require a lot of time and include some uncertainty.”
He said the Decatur Conference Center project spanned eight years from inception to ribbon cutting, calling the effort a “labor of love that produced a phenomenal facility.”
Weldon also reference a similar project in El Campo for which the Rotary Club raised $300,000 and other grants and community fundraisers carried the project along a six-year journey.
“It’s about finding solutions, not seeking problems,” Weldon said.
More to Come
The Flash will continue to follow this story as it develops.