Cash cow

Will the proposed convention center be a cash cow for Greenville? It's hard to tell.

Editor’s note: This is the third in a five-part series examining the potential impact of a convention center that has been proposed for Greenville.

Someday in the future, Greenville may be home to a new, state-of-the-art $40 million arena which would host everything from concerts and conventions to minor league hockey.

It sounds good, but there is another question which would be attached to the project.

What else?

What sort of impact would such a center have on the local economy, and what kind of developments might arrive in conjunction with the facility?

The short answer, from members of a committee of local business and government leaders investigating the proposal, is, “We don’t know ... yet.”

Similar projects which have taken shape in other cities have brought promises of new retail and hotel developments and a major economic boom. In the case of at least one arena, however, there have also been significant revenue shortfalls.

One of the committee’s organizers wanted to clear up what he believed is an apparent misconception about the local project, that it would be a proposed combination convention center and arena.

“To me that’s a misnomer,” said local Realtor Charlie Patterson, the committee’s co-chair. “That’s not the purpose at all. Our concept is more of a multi-purpose event center.”

While the project has been referred to since the beginning as a convention center, Patterson said the whole idea is to create something much more substantial. It would be more than a convention center, Patterson said, and he stressed there are no plans to replace the Fletcher Warren Civic Center.

“It would be used for a wide variety of entertainment and quality of life things,” Patterson said.

It may also draw in additional development.

The committee is investigating the feasibility of the proposal from Global Entertainment, which has helped build projects in several other cities. In Arizona, even though the Prescott Valley Convention and Events Center is still under construction, there are already plans to add “big box” retail stores and an entertainment district nearby.

In Hidalgo, on the Texas/Mexico border, the Dodge Arena has been open for almost three years and routinely hosts sold-out audiences for events such as concerts, arena football and hockey.

Greenville Mayor Tom Oliver, also a member of the committee, recently visited the $21 million arena, which sits on only about half of the property donated by the city for the project.

“They have 50 acres of land and the arena is on 24 acres,” Oliver said. “Their intentions are to attract a hotel as well as retail around it.”

The arena draws crowds from a population of more than 1.2 million residents of the nearby cities of McAllen and Reynosa, Mexico. Off-duty police and Texas Department of Public Safety officers act as the security staff.

The City of Hidalgo recently fired Global Entertainment and has taken over managing the facility on its own, a move which is expected to save about $13,000 per month.

The arena was funded through a combination of city funds and a loan made to the Hidalgo Texas Municipal Facilities Corporation (TMFC). Three years in, however, the facility has yet to come close to breaking even.

Oliver said after paying operating expenses, fees to Global Entertainment and servicing the $10 million TMFC loan, the City of Hidalgo lost approximately $500,000 during each of the first two years and is expected to lose about $200,000 this year.

Oliver noted the Hidalgo City Council is prepared to spend up to $400,000 annually in support of the arena.

Would the retail and commercial development which may come with such a project help make up the difference in Greenville? The committee members say it is still too early to tell.

Hunt County Judge Joe Bobbitt predicts that if the local arena is built, it would be in combination with additional projects.

“A convention center would probably be developed at the same time as another major development is being built in that area,” Bobbitt said.

The committee has looked at the vicinity near the Interstate 30/Wesley Street overpass as one possible location for the multi-purpose center.

Several hotels and retail projects are already completed or are undergoing construction in the area, although Bobbitt feels there would be lots more if the arena is built.

“It will be a public/private partnership of some kind,” Bobbitt said. “With that, I think it has a very high possibility of being done.”

Ben White, Interim Executive Director of the Greenville Board of Development, said the idea of additional development is one of the items which the committee is still investigating.

“There’s been nothing firm mentioned,” White said. “That’s part of the due diligence we all need to do.”

Patterson said the committee has not yet reached the point of thinking about what may be developed in our near the center. Right now, there is still the concept of the center itself to explore.

“We have to determine if it is an economically viable development,” Patterson said, adding there is no timetable which has been set as to when the committee needs to reach any conclusions.

“We’re fortunate to have a group of people thinking together, talking together and working together,” Patterson said. “We’re just having to think and work together as we go. The last thing we want to do is put the cart before the horse.”

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