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Resolution To Fund $1.5B Worth Of Improvements At Convention Center, Fair Park Gets Dallas Council Nod

Dallas City Council members have approved a resolution supporting a 2% increase of the city’s hotel-motel tax rate to fund improvements at Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center and Fair Park.

Kay Bailey Hutchison, the convention center's namesake, spoke in support of the resolution at the April 27 council meeting.

An increase in the tax rate hinges on voter approval, but the council action advances the resolution to the state comptroller for review. The increase would translate to $1.5B in funding for both projects, which include an expanded convention center and upgrades to six buildings at Fair Park.

Advocates for expansion of the convention center say it will drive economic development, as well as connect downtown to neighborhoods south of Interstate 30. According to Downtown Dallas Inc., the move would create 50,000 new jobs. 

“This is not just about a building,” Council Member Omar Narvaez said. “This is about joining the southern part of Dallas to downtown, about creating walkability and getting streetcars and sidewalks — everything we need but have been missing.”

Kay Bailey Hutchison, the center’s namesake, said Dallas is often passed over for other cities with superior facilities. This expansion would position Dallas to compete with coastal markets as well as other cities in Texas.

“This is going to remake our city, remake our downtown and connect our downtown to a vibrant southern part of our city,” she said. “If Dallas is anything, we are competitive. We want to be the best; we want more visitors to come to our city.”

Carolyn Dent, chair of the Hotel Association of North Texas and managing director of Omni Dallas Hotel, said the funds will support redevelopment and revitalization of the district surrounding the convention center, which will drive more tourism to the city. 

“We believe this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform our city’s convention center and business,” she said. “We can be bigger and better than where we are today.”

Council Member Tennell Atkins, whose District 8 is the furthest south in the city, said the convention center project would bridge the north to the south. Included in the design is a deck park over I-30, which would connect Downtown Dallas to the Cedars neighborhood. The project has not yet been approved by the Texas Department of Transportation, Council Member Cara Mendelsohn said.

“The convention center is the door to southern Dallas,” Atkins said. “This is going to open the southern gateway.” 

The project would make downtown more walkable and improve future mobility, which is an area of focus for the city, Council Member Gay Donnell Willis said. 

“Our built environment is kind of divisive … we are not super-linked,” she said. “There is no better way to show our intentionality of linking our community than this physical manifestation of linking our city together and allowing everyone to move more freely.”

Centennial Exhibit Hall is among the facilities slated for improvements.

Approval of the proposition would represent the single largest capital investment made at Fair Park to date. If approved by voters, the council would dedicate 20% of the total, or $300M, to renovate the Music Hall, the Band Shell, the Cotton Bowl, the Coliseum, and the Automobile and Centennial Exhibit Halls. 

Kimberly Shaw, a member of the board of directors at Fair Park First, said the money would resolve a number of issues at these buildings, which drive the majority of attendance and revenue for the park. 

“These facilities are crumbling,” she said. 

The Hall of State is noticeably missing among facilities named in the resolution, Atkins said, and Fair Park First CEO Brian Luallen acknowledged that while the money will not cover every need at the park, it will help tremendously. He said his organization is working with the city to find alternative sources of funding for roof repairs at the Hall of State.

“Unfortunately, this isn't a magic bullet,” he said. “It won’t cure every need that we have.”

Mendelsohn said an independent analysis has not been performed to determine the true cost of the proposed improvements at either location. She was also not convinced that convention center business would return in full post-pandemic.

“We don’t know the future of conventions,” she said. 

The resolution ultimately passed 14-1, with Mendelsohn opposed. Once the review by the comptroller is complete, council will vote on whether to call an election in November. After that, a campaign to educate voters about the potential 2% HOT tax rate increase will get underway, with help from Downtown Dallas Inc.

“We recognize that passage of this agenda item must be followed by a robust campaign leading to the Nov. 8 election,” an April 26 letter signed by DDI board members and staff said. “We pledge to work with you to educate and inform voters to ensure passage of this critical ballot initiative.”