McLennan County residents can vote starting Monday on a proposal to raise more than $34.4 million for a complete overhaul of the fairgrounds that would turn its $47 million yearly economic impact to an estimated $60 million impact, according to area leaders.

County commissioners approved a request to put a proposition on the May 6 election for a 2 percent hotel occupancy tax and a 5 percent tax on short-term car rentals that would pay for improvements to the 60-acre Extraco Events Center. Revenue collected from the venue tax would initially only go toward the site off Bosque Boulevard to improve property owned by McLennan County, the city of Waco and the Waco Independent School District. Additional revenue would be restricted to use for sporting-related purposes.

Early voting runs from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through April 28, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. April 29, and from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. May 1 and May 2.

Registered voters can cast their ballot at any of the five early voting locations:

  • McLennan County Records Building, 214 N. Fourth St., suite 300, in Waco
  • Robinson Community Center, 106 W. Lyndale Drive
  • Waco Multi-Purpose Community Center, 1020 Elm Ave.
  • First Assembly of God Church, 6701 Bosque Blvd., in Waco
  • Hewitt Public Safety Facility, 100 Patriot Court.

There are also multiple city and school district races on the ballot for voters who live in those areas.

The Extraco Events Center opened its doors in 1953 after a $2.1 million bond election paid for the Heart of Texas Coliseum, said Wes Allison, Extraco Events Center president and CEO. The last major renovation was completed in 2002, after the county issued $20 million in certificates of obligations, Allison said.

The location stays booked, averaging about 125 events a year, ranging from simple meetings to the Heart of Texas Fair and Rodeo, he said. Horse shows alone take up 48 of the 52 weeks in a year.

“The only weekend we will not rent the facility is the weekend between Christmas and New Years,” Allison said. “That weekend it falls, we typically take off.”

Throughout the year, anywhere from 400,000 to 450,000 people head to the site for various events, he said.

While the fairgrounds already perform well, the potential for more opportunities, events and economic impact is worth pursing, Allison said.

The proposal for the overhaul includes removing the creative arts building and the general exhibit building and replacing them with an 80,000-square-foot multipurpose building connecting to the existing coliseum. The state-of-the-art exhibit building would have 55,000 to 65,000 square feet of rental floor, or exhibit space, plus ancillary space for meeting rooms, pre-function activities, restrooms and concessions.

The proposal includes adding about 300 livestock stalls to the campus, bringing the total to more than 1,000 for the equestrian and livestock facility. The plan also includes replacing Waco ISD’s Paul Tyson Field and the Lake Air Little League facilities in new locations within the 60-acre area.

“Texas High School Finals (Rodeo) had been at Taylor County Expo for more than 20 years,” Allison said. “We made a concerted effort to go get them this year, and because Taylor County promised them there would be a $60 million bond election passed, they stayed in Taylor County.

“That 60 million bond election passed. That competitive advantage continues to move forward every year. Being competitive in the horse show world, it never stops.”

The Extraco Events Center competes with facilities in Abilene, Katy, Amarillo, Tyler and San Angelo for equine-related events, he said. A facility like the one in Fort Worth, which features 2,500 horse stalls and four arenas, competes with the “big dogs” like ones in Oklahoma City; Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Memphis, Tennessee, he said.

McLennan County allocates $100,000 a year for capital improvements for the Extraco Events Center, which typically goes toward roof repairs or air conditioning work, County Judge Scott Felton said. The money gives the events center a hand in gaining the competitive advantage in attracting new events, Felton said. He served on the Heart of Texas Fair Board before becoming county judge.

Felton said it’s easy to be a good landlord when a recent Baylor University study showed that the fairgrounds have a $47 million economic impact on the county, and the improvements from the election could increase that to $60 million.

“We think that’s rent enough, benefit enough, back to the community,” Felton said.

Allison said the nonprofit also tries to give back to the county in other ways. On average, the events center distributes more than $250,000 in student scholarships every year, he said.

Leaders from the city, county and school district first started discussing in 2010 how they could rearrange the 60 acres to create a more logical layout for the fairgrounds and for Waco High’s properties in the section.

Waco Mayor Kyle Deaver said the collaboration between the entities has produced a much better product than if they had tried to make the improvements on their own.

“I think for the city, the swap makes sense. We end up with a new Little League complex that will have all new construction and be modern and hopefully we end up with walking trails and a park through the complex that helps the quality of life for all our citizens over there,” Deaver said. “I think this is an example of collaboration like we haven’t seen in my memory. It’s exciting.”

The 60 is now a patchwork of ownership, and school officials can’t get to the Paul Tyson without crossing county property, Waco ISD Superintendent Bonny Cain said. Cain said she doesn’t know who divided up that property to begin with, but they weren’t thinking clearly.

“On the weekends when we don’t use our facilities, there’s a lot of things the city can do to bring in tournaments,” Cain said. “We’re all trying to bring in people, who buy clothes. They buy food. They spend the night here. They buy gas. They shop. They just inject a lot of money into the community. Anything that’s good for the city of Waco is good for Waco ISD, and anything good for Waco ISD is good for the city and same for the county.”

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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