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Sugar Land And Fort Bend County Built A Major Entertainment Hub, And The Party Is Far From Over

Hundreds of thousands of people last year attended comedy shows, concerts and minor league sporting events in the Houston metropolitan area without ever stepping foot in Harris County. That is because the event venues were in Sugar Land.

Between the Smart Financial Centre, Constellation Field and the Crown Festival Park, the latter of which can host 30,000 or more people, the region's entertainment industry is buzzing. Meanwhile, the 10,000-plus-seat Fort Bend EpiCenter is set to open in August, bringing with it more than 14,000 filled hotel rooms the first year it is open and upward of 26,000 additional occupied rooms by its 10th year, according to Fort Bend County Auditor Ed Sturdivant. 

The numbers don’t lie. Building off a task force Sugar Land formed in 2007 to identify opportunities with high potential to increase the city’s standing as a premier entertainment destination, the Fort Bend County region has delivered. And its momentum is building. 

A concert at Smart Financial Centre in Sugar Land.

“Look for big things to come in that area in the upcoming years,” Sugar Land Assistant Economic Development Director Danny Cornelius said, referring to the area around Smart Financial Centre, the 6,400-seat performance venue that opened in 2017.

“There's going to be night-and-day difference from what it's like now to where it's going to be,” he said. 

While developers are still working on filling the land around it, the venue doesn’t have any trouble booking up, Cornelius said. Sugar Land data shows that the Smart Financial Centre sold 300,565 tickets and saw 303,520 attendees at shows in 2022. More than half of the events were concerts, and 2022 performers included names like Alicia Keys and Chris Rock.

About 4 miles north, Constellation Field opened in 2012 to host the Sugar Land Skeeters. In 2021, the team became the Houston Astros' Triple-A affiliate, and in 2022, it was renamed the Sugar Land Space Cowboys.

The move from independent to Triple-A affiliate is expected to generate over $10M in economic impact annually as baseball fans utilize Sugar Land restaurants, hotels and retail, according to Sugar Land Economic Development. The total economic impact should hit $403.7M over 30 years, Cornelius said. 

Constellation Field has become a major draw, as exemplified by the Savannah Bananas' appearance during their World Tour in March, Cornelius said. The baseball and entertainment team based in Savannah, Georgia, is known for performing choreographed dances at each game and bringing along a senior citizen dance team and “dad bod” cheerleading squad. 

“They initially were set to do one game, but it sold out so fast that they wound up doing three games, and all the games sold out,” Cornelius said.

The Sugar Land Space Cowboys' opening day at Constellation Field in 2022.

Smart Financial Centre and Constellation Field are both in areas being developed or slotted for future development, he said.

“The overall goal within the city is to bring those dining options, but we're also looking at that work-life balance and having walkability,” Cornelius said.

Cornelius envisions built-up, walkable districts with dining and leisure options around both venues. There is developer interest, he said, citing Puma Development’s plans to repurpose the char house of the Imperial Sugar complex. That development is in the early stages of planning but could eventually include hundreds of apartments and homes, 150K SF of retail and 300K SF of office.

Last month, Sugar Land City Council approved a $110K economic and urban study of Tract 5, the land around Smart Financial Centre, Community Impact reported. The study focuses on 83 acres, including two tracts owned by Sugar Land itself and another owned by developer Newland, with a goal of gleaning information on the types of buildings and uses the site could support.

"We know this is going to be a high-impact site," Mayor Joe Zimmerman said at a May 16 meeting, per Community Impact. "The market study will serve to provide some direction to not only the developer — it will help staff understand what the potential is before it comes to council and we have some of the discussions that we’ve had before."

MD Anderson, which also owns some of the land, already plans to develop 500K SF.

About 12 miles south down Highway 59, adjacent to the Rosenberg Fairgrounds, stands the almost complete Fort Bend EpiCenter, built through a public-private partnership between Fort Bend County and Stonehenge Cos. 

Fort Bend County Commissioner Vincent Morales said the interest in a center like this has been percolating since he was the mayor of Rosenberg from 2011 to 2015. Developers approached the city with the idea then, but it wasn’t doable at the time, he said. 

More recently, a feasibility study showed that Fort Bend County is finally primed for this type of facility, Morales said. Fort Bend County’s population is close to 1 million and could grow to 2 million by 2050. The facility will give local school districts a place to hold graduation ceremonies — those are now typically being held at larger venues in Harris County, like the Toyota Center — and act as a natural disaster shelter, holding 1,000-plus cots.

It is also expected to draw tens of thousands through sports tourism, Stonehenge Holdings principal Kevin Matocha said. Stonehenge is developing the project.

“One of the biggest drivers we found and a huge growing industry in lots of markets is sports tourism,” Matocha said at a CREW Houston luncheon June 7. “A lot of you have kids who are involved in athletics, dance and all kinds of things. There’s lots of events that are put on throughout the country. You probably travel all over the place bringing your kids to these types of events. It’s a huge industry.” 

A rendering of the Fort Bend EpiCenter

The EpiCenter will be capable of holding those events, offering amenities like eight indoor basketball courts and an outdoor pavilion set up to accommodate people, things and even livestock. 

“From a sports tourism standpoint, we will bring in numerous events,” Matocha said. “That brings people in from typically out of state. That’s heads in beds in hotels, it drives [hotel occupancy tax], it drives retail and all of that type of stuff. It’s an emerging, growing business.” 

Stonehenge has partnered with Florida-based The Sports Facilities Cos. to program some events, he said, including a wrestling event that will be broadcast on ESPN.

The site adjacent to the fairgrounds means there will be plenty of room for overflow parking, he said.

For even larger events, Sugar Land also offers the Crown Festival Park across from Smart Financial, which can accommodate 30,000 or more people, Cornelius said. That site hasn’t been utilized much, but booking more events there is a priority going forward, he said. 

In November, it will be the venue for Honeyland, a two-day festival showcasing Black food, music and culture. 

Sugar Land isn't concerned about competition with the Fort Bend EpiCenter, Cornelius said, adding it will complement the city by offering a venue for different types of events than typically held at Smart Financial.

“Things are coming that are fun for the residents and great for the economy,” he said.

The EpiCenter is expected to have an $11M impact to the area its first year, Sturdivant said at the luncheon. After a decade, that should double to $22M, he said. About 77,000 nonlocal market day visitors are expected to pass through its doors the first year, a number also projected to double by its 10th, he said.

“Those visitors, they’re buying, they’re attending other things,” Sturdivant said. “They’re eating in restaurants, they’re going to movies. They’re exercising that consumer trade that we all are heavily dependent on in government. It’s what drives the dynamics of our communities.”