By AMANDA KIMBLE
STEPHENVILLE (April 20, 2017) – The issue may be a hot topic as the May 6 election approaches, but one city official says if a public events center is a part of Stephenville’s future, it won’t be any time soon.
“In my opinion, all of the excitement is about three years early,” City Administrator Allen Barnes said.
He provided council members with an events center update on Tuesday and later shared insight and opinions with The Flash.
Barnes has little doubt the community could benefit from a public events center, but he also said it’s far too early to get lost in concerns related to project cost or funding options. Months after the discussion began, Barnes said there are few certainties about the proposed project.
What is known? If the project comes to fruition, Barnes said it will be an expensive endeavor and high construction and operating costs will require an innovative funding approach.
While some council members and a number of citizens have expressed concern over the lack of information shared publicly about ongoing meetings on the issue, Barnes said the process involving a core group of stakeholders – representatives of the city, Tarleton State University, Stephenville ISD, Stephenville Economic Development Authority, Erath County, Stephenville Chamber of Commerce and Stephenville Economic Development Foundation – remains in its infancy, in the brainstorming phase.
Simply put, there’s not a lot to say.
Discussions that began in late 2016 have revealed no true leader, no options for financing and no desire to burden taxpayers with funding a facility that could include an estimated $450 per square foot price tag. But, Barnes said the lack of progress is due to the fact that the scope of the project has not been defined.
Echoing comments from a member of the core group, Barnes likened planning to shopping for a new car online and said the group is far from the tire kicking stage.
“It doesn’t cost anything to look at cars,” he said. “Let’s move forward, look at the facilities we have now, do what we need to do to keep what we have in usable shape and continue looking at cars.”
When the dream car is found, funding will become a more pressing issue.
“None of the partners (area entities) have the finances to build the project,” Barnes said. “The group is sensitive to ‘not put this on the taxpayers’ and recognizes the need for a public/private partnership.”
While some community members are pointing fingers at Tarleton State University, asking why the university won’t carry the funding burden for a facility that could host tournaments and conferences, Barnes explained that state funds can’t be used for ancillary projects like events centers and parking garages.
Meanwhile, a local entrepreneur has expressed interest in partnering with area entities. The local business person recently brought developers to town to discuss options, and Barnes said the core group in interested in including the unnamed entrepreneur in future discussions.
“The public entities would rather be end-users with long-term use agreements than the leader (or owner) of the project,” he said.
Rather than considering tax hikes, Barnes said the city would be more likely to consider dipping into untapped revenue. He believes the current council could support a four-cent increase on the existing hotel occupancy tax (HOT). There are potential increases that would offer a funding option specifically for the construction of a sports or events center.
Barnes said half of the increase would require approval of state legislators, with action not likely to take place prior to the 2019 legislative session. The remaining two cents would require voter approval, with the earliest opportunity being in May 2018.
“That’s about a quarter of a million dollars a year,” Barnes said. “When you’re looking at a $25 million, $50 million or more facility, that’s not a lot of money.”
But, with participation from other public entities and private investors, HOT funding could be one of multiple avenues used to fund the facility.
While there are arguments that justify an events center as both a want and need in Stephenville, Barnes said there are other issues he believes should take priority for the city.
“As needs increase and the city has to raise taxes or increase fees, those funds need to be used for things like streets or air conditioning at the rec hall,” he said. “I would suggest that revenue sources, current and future, should be targeted at city projects such as renovation of Rec. Center, Library, Senior Center or infrastructure needs.”
Looking to future events center discussions, Barnes also made a few recommendations. He suggested that meeting minutes from future planning meetings be published for greater transparency and understanding and said there needs to be a concerted effort to work with private sector partners to determine if the project is feasible.