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Dallas Will Put New Convention Center, Fair Park Improvements on November Ballot

The Dallas City Council voted 14-1 to ask voters in November to decide if the city should raise the hotel occupancy tax by 2 percent to fund a new convention center and improvements to Fair Park.
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Courtesy Ruben Landa Texas Business Leader

Councilwoman Cara Mendelsohn was the lone vote against sending a ballot measure to voters who will choose whether they want issue bonds to pay for improvements to Fair Park and a new convention center. Those bonds will be repaid through a 2 percent increase in hotel occupancy taxes, which gave the council cover: the money would come from out-of-towners.

But Mendelsohn, who represents the portion of Far North Dallas that touches Denton and Collin counties, had some questions.

And for those who have been following the discussion, her questions may have even sounded familiar; they’re the exact same questions she had in February when the City Council voted on a plan to build the new convention center.

“We don’t know the future of the convention industry,” she said, pointing out that COVID has changed the way industries look at conventions, and the full impact of what that might mean hasn’t been addressed. 

“We don’t know the economic development benefit,” she added. “We have not seen examples where this type of transaction has actually paid off in visitors and economic impact. What we do know is only a tiny portion of the hotel room nights in Dallas are associated with conventions.”

And indeed, the true economic impact of convention centers versus the costs associated with building and maintaining them is something cities across the country find themselves weighing regularly—even pre-pandemic, as Alex Macon wrote last summer when the city was still fleshing out its plan for the convention center, and Peter Simek explored in January.

Mendelsohn further questioned whether city of Dallas staff is even capable of taking on the project, citing changes in leadership, staffing challenges “and many departments that aren’t currently able to deliver day-to-day service at the level we expect.

“These presentations haven’t answered the question: Does city management believe this a priority for the city? Do we, as representatives of our districts really think it is? And do our residents think this is a priority?” she asked.

Supporters of the proposal say it’s a great way to pay for a new convention center and improvements at Fair Park that include restoring six buildings—the Cotton Bowl, the Automotive Building, the Centennial Building, the music hall, and the Coliseum—without burdening taxpayers.

 The convention center project would get about $1.5 billion and Fair Park would get about $100 million—roughly an 80/20 split.

Senate Bill 2181, which passed with bipartisan support during the last legislative session, provided the mechanism for the ballot measure. The bill, which was shepherded through the statehouse by North Texas-area state representatives Rafael Anchia and Angie Chen Button as well as state Sen. Royce West, addressed the portion of the so-called “Brimer Bill” that didn’t allow municipal parks to be eligible for hotel occupancy tax revenue. 

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This is similar to the way the city funded the American Airlines Center.

Before Wednesday’s council meeting, more than 60 prominent Dallasites signed a letter endorsing the project, including your usual suspects (Fair Park First, VisitDallas, Dallas Citizens Council, various chambers of commerce, and Downtown Dallas Inc.), arts organizations, and state legislators like West, Chen Button, Anchia, and Jasmine Crockett.

During the meeting, several of those signers also spoke in favor of the project, including former U.S. senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson, the namesake of the convention center.

Because of the nature of the revenue stream—an increase on the city’s 15-to-17 percent hotel occupancy tax—proponents of the measure have been wont to call it “free money.”

“We’re always talking about free money,” councilwoman Carolyn King Arnold said, “but nothing is really free—it always has a price tag to it.”

And it’s fair to say that, as Mendelsohn also noted, should something happen to tank hotel occupancy in the city, the taxpayers could be on the hook for the bill—most likely in their property taxes, where the interest and sinking rate that services the city’s debt could increase to accommodate repaying the bonds.

“The people of Dallas will be on the hook if it fails,” Mendelsohn said, adding that the city’s debt currently sits at about $5.5 billion, not counting police and fire pensions.

But all-in-all, the majority her colleagues around the horseshoe were all in favor of the project. 

“The convention center is going to be an enormous change to our central business district,” said councilman Adam Bazaldua, whose district includes Fair Park. He also called it an opportunity for the city to start “righting a wrong” when it comes to the genesis of Fair Park by reclaiming land taken from Black residents by imminent domain “for parking lots that are used 28 days out of the year.” The money from this measure will go toward improving buildings and give Fair Park’s operator relief in fundraising.

Councilman Chad West said he sees economic opportunity in the improvements to Fair Park, too.

“These improvements are needed to bring the World Cup to Dallas,” he said. “We have a chance to bring it here in 2026.”

Other council members also insisted that the project had the potential to link parts of southern Dallas with downtown.

“This is about us being true Dallasites, true welcoming people,” said North Dallas councilwoman Jaynie Schultz. 

Before winding up his comments with a quote from … Hamilton—“I’m not giving away my shot … I’m —my convention center—is young, scrappy, and hungry …”— West Dallas councilman Omar Narvaez agreed.

“This is about connectivity, this is about joining the southern part of town to downtown,” he said.


Bethany Erickson

Bethany Erickson

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Bethany Erickson is the senior digital editor for D Magazine. She's written about real estate, education policy, the stock market, and crime throughout her career, and sometimes all at the same time. She hates lima beans and 5 a.m. and takes SAT practice tests for fun.

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