McLennan County voters could decide whether to approve a $34.4 million overhaul — paid for by out- of-towners — of the Extraco Events Center by enacting a venue tax.

The added tax would affect only visitors staying in hotels or renting vehicles in the county and would fund the project aimed at attracting larger tournaments and exhibits to the Extraco Events Center. The boost in turnout would help with economic development and create a self-sustaining model, leaders say.

“It creates a sustainable model that has the opportunity to be funded through a venue tax that would not tax residents in any way, but those who stay in hotel or motels or might rent cars,” said Wes Allison, president and CEO of the Extraco Events Center. “The neat thing about this for me is this does not cost the citizens of McLennan County a penny. It’s something that will fund itself.”

County commissioners passed a resolution Tuesday in support of fairground organizers’ master plan for the overhaul.

County, city of Waco and Waco Independent School District leaders now await approval from the Texas Comptroller’s Office to ask residents to vote on implementing a 2 percent hotel and motel occupancy tax and a 5 percent rental car tax. Revenue from the tax could be used only to pay for sporting- or competition-related purposes.

The project would bring in new events and visitors, spur spinoff development and allow for destination branding and marketing, Allison said.

The project is estimated to cost $34.37 million and include redevelopment of the entire 60-acre fairground site. Plans include an additional $6.88 million for future phases.

Commissioner Lester Gibson abstained from the otherwise unanimous vote.

The property off Bosque Boulevard includes the coliseum, a climate-controlled show pavilion and adjacent 700-stall barn, a general exhibit building and a creative arts building.

Waco High School is adjacent to the events center, and Waco Independent School District owns other property in the area, including Paul Tyson Field and a practice field for soccer and football, which are surrounded by county-owned land.

The plan would improve critical deficiencies of the Extraco Events Center for a number of key existing and potential new equestrian and livestock events, addressing limitations in stalls, warm-up areas and logistics, Allison said.

Under the proposed plan, the creative arts building and the general exhibit building would be removed and replaced with a multipurpose building that would connect to the existing coliseum. The 80,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art multipurpose center would have 55,000 to 65,000 square feet of rental floor, or exhibit space, including ancillary space for meeting rooms, pre-function space, restrooms and concessions.

The proposed equestrian and livestock facility additions would add about 300 stalls to the campus, bringing the total to more than 1,000 stalls.

The coliseum remains untouched in the proposal, but a new arena would be added on to the property where Paul Tyson Field sits. The stadium would be relocated to the north side of the school.

The multipurpose center could host tournaments for volleyball, basketball, gymnastics, cheer, tumbling and more, Allison said.

The plan also calls for new Little League baseball and softball fields to replace Lake Air Little League’s existing facilities between Waco High and Cobbs Drive.

The Heart of Texas Fairgrounds host horse shows about 48 weeks out of the year, he said.

“The thing it allows us to do when you add these facilities, it allows us to double up on weekends and bring two shows at one time,” he said. “There’s plenty to go get.”

With the coliseum connected to the proposed multipurpose facility, there could be 20 volleyball courts in the new facility and six in the existing one, allowing for a very large tournament, he said.

Of the total proposed project, more than $25.4 million would go toward the event facilities, $4.5 million toward recreation facilities and $4.3 million toward the rest of the site, including street improvements, landscape and lighting.

Part of the redesign would include better security at the facility and would create a secure way to shut down the entire campus.

In 2015, there were 79 events at the Heart of Texas Fairgrounds, and the expansion could help organizers push that to an estimated 162 events, Allison said.

Events drew 123,273 people from out of town to the fairgrounds in 2015, with the Heart O’ Texas Fair leading in draw, followed by equestrian events. Officials think they can almost double that amount and draw 201,297 nonlocals to the fairgrounds.

“This is very conservative,” Allison said.

Almost 33,400 hotel rooms were rented in 2015 as well, and plans anticipate that number to rise to almost 52,700.

> MORE: Hotel developers look to catch up with Waco tourism boom

Economic impact

The fairgrounds have a $47 million economic impact on the county, and a Baylor University study projects that could jump to $60 million with the proposal fully built out and booked, Allison said.

County Judge Scott Felton said a lot of the larger equine shows bypass Waco because of the limited number of horse stalls. This plan would not only increase the amount of horse stalls but add an additional area and warm-up facilities, he said.

“The great thing for the community here is we’ll be able to add multiple facilities to the community that aren’t paid for out of the property tax,” Felton said. “It’ll be paid by people who come to utilize the many venues we have in Central Texas.”

This project would put the Extraco Events Center at a competitive advantage, allowing multiple venues to operate at the same time, he said.

Felton said county leaders have worked to place a heavier impact on economic development in recent years to help generate tourism dollars for the area.

“One of the great things is the collaboration between the three entities to be able to work toward a single plan that helps all three and does a tremendous lot for the community,” Felton said.

There is a huge untapped market for youth sports in the Waco area, said Will Phipps, Greater Waco Sports Commission executive director. Certain sporting events are bypassing the area because of a lack of available facilities, taking their tourism dollars to Round Rock and College Station, among other cities, Phipps said.

Since the sports commission started up more than a year ago, Phipps has been out actively recruiting youth sporting events to the area. For the first time ever, Waco is hosting an AAU Volleyball tournament in February, which will draw more than 40 teams, he said.

“What’s great about youth sports: They always bring their parents and grandparents and siblings,” Phipps said.

Youth sports have a much greater return on investment than, for example, a semiprofessional golf tournament that draws older males who tend to travel solo, he said.

“Youth girls, there’s normally five to six people in those travel parties,” he said.

The same way the Magnolia Market at the Silos draws thousands from all across the state, youth tournaments and sporting events can draw massive numbers of visitors to the area, pumping money into the economy, he said.

The Extraco Events Center directly competes with Abilene and Amarillo for events, Allison said.

Residents in the city of Abilene just approved a $60 million bond for a new facility and an overhaul of its current facility, he said. Abilene has had the venue tax in place prior to 2008. Amarillo continues to add stall barns.

“We’ve been able to pull events from them. With the addition, they’ll be able to keep those,” Allison said. “Quite frankly, we’re behind.”

Moving quickly

County Attorney Mike Dixon said the commissioners’ resolution will go to the Texas Comptroller’s Office, which will determine if the project would adversely affect state funds. Once the county receives the OK, the court can call for an election, Dixon said.

“Getting this to the comptroller by this afternoon is important to keep that process moving along,” Dixon told commissioners Tuesday.

Felton said he expects to hear back from the Comptroller’s Office fairly quickly.

“We’re not aware of anything that they may find that’s not up to snuff on it,” he said.

If everything goes as planned, the venue tax makes it onto the May ballot and voters sign off, a venue board would be organized, Allison said.

That group would be tasked with determining the funding mechanisms under the direction of the county, he said. It is likely the group would take out a loan to start work on the fairground project. As funding comes in from the venue tax, that loan can be repaid, Allison said.

The city, county and school district, meanwhile, will work to determine a course of action to handle the projects and outline how many phases are needed to complete the work.

“I can’t be building a new multipurpose building and trying to have the fair going on in the middle of it,” Allison said. “It would be nice if we could just shut down, but that’s now how our biz works. We need to still be operating.”

Ideally, the first signs of construction would be in 2018 or 2019, he said. Bid and architecture work would all go through the county.

Fairgrounds staff first contracted with architectural design firm Populus in 2010 to develop a master plan for the fairgrounds.

Cassie L. Smith has covered county government for the Tribune-Herald since June 2014. She previously worked as a reporter for the Beaumont Enterprise and The Eagle in Bryan-College Station. Smith graduated from the University of Texas at Arlington.

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