The Park, Tyler Explore Arena Collaboration
By JACQUE HILBURN-SIMMONS
As Tyler officials try to piece together a plan to build a conference center and an event arena, The Park of East Texas officials are trying to figure out if they will be part of the puzzle.
ast week Tyler city leaders announced the results of two studies that indicate the city needs. The studies show the city could support a conference center with a private hotel, plus a separate event
Some aspects of their plans appear similar to a dream regional entertainment and conference campus project unveiled months ago by The Park, home of the East Texas State Fair.
Observers are left wondering -- is there an opportunity to work together for the good of all?
"We are talking," The Park President John E. Sykes said Tuesday. "It's a matter of harnessing the energy and doing something terrific for the community."
As a point of clarification, a conference center is used for meetings and gatherings; an event center is geared more toward activities, such as minor league hockey and arena football, officials said.
City Manager Mark McDaniel said the proposed municipal projects are very different from one another, but both are designed to boost tourism by offering a sizeable venture to accommodate large gatherings.
The city's projects, which must be market driven and supported also by public-private partnerships, are expected to cost about $130 million for both, the city manager said, citing results from the study.
PRK Consulting USA conducted the site analysis and market study; while consulting firm Garfield Traub examined a proposed building program and preliminary financing plan, officials said.
Sykes said the fair initiated an earlier philanthropic study that also gives positive prospects for the entity's $66 million entertainment project, which could be built on 240 acres of land purchased by the entity in 2005.
The Park officials hope for a project with year-round appeal, featuring a hotel, amphitheater, a 10-acre promenade, a recreational vehicle park and arboretum, and capable of holding national tours, conventions, tradeshows, large equestrian events and the fair.
The design for The Park's master plan came from a collaborative effort between Ron Mabry Architects, of Tyler, and GH2 Archi-tects of Oklahoma City, Okla.
Sykes said the fair generates about a $7.5 million economic impact for Tyler during its 10-day run, and predicts a first-rate facility could make it even more productive.
"We've been working on a plan for years," he said. "Ours was more of a campus, with lakes and trails, but it was going to take 15 years to build. We've got to start doing something about the buildings on Front Street. They are getting into such a shape that we can't fix them."
Talks about moving the East Texas State Fair from its cramped, dilapidated location on Front Street date to the 1970s.
Sykes said the study revealed between $15 million and $20 million in philanthropic support was available to help get the project off the ground.
Still, he added, "We need a partnership to make it happen ... if there was ever a time to hold hands and agree, it is now. If not, that's OK too ... we just need to figure out how to put more heads in beds."
Discussions are under way between The Park and Tyler officials to find common ground.
"We have talked to the Park of East Texas about being a partner and anchor tenant for the arena," McDaniel said. "However, this project is still in the very early stages and further discussion will still need to take place."
Tyler has its hotel-motel tax to help fund the convention center, but it will take significant buy-in from the community and likely a bond election to fund the event center, officials said.
The city's vision for the conference center calls for a 27,000 square foot, dual-service facility and attached hotel, costing between $57.5 million and $70 million.
The proposed event center, likely costing between $44 million and $66 million, could be a privately managed, 159,500-square foot facility on a 20-acre site that offers seating for 8,000 with 1,850 parking spaces, officials said.
There are many aspects left that must be discussed, including best practices for attracting conventions and big name performers, officials said.
"We have envisioned the city owning the facility and, thus far, our consultants have recommended using an arena management corporation that manages arenas all over the country," McDaniel said. "These groups typically also manage major talent and sporting teams. This would help ensure we get the best possible programming here in Tyler and also help us to get other anchor tenants -- such as a minor league hockey team or some other sporting team."
Sykes seems more focused on construction.
"With an arena, we could put on an event that's first class," he said. "We'd be able to use it to create a phenomenal experience."
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking and events that could be booked in Tyler are landing elsewhere.
Last year alone, the city lost out on 21,000 room bookings and 35 large events, Tyler Convention and Visitors Bureau officials said.
"We're losing between a $5 (million) and $6 million economic impact," Shari Rickman, Convention and Visitors Bureau general manager, said. "That's on the conservative side."
According to the survey, Tyler ranked no higher than fifth on amenities such as accommodations, arts and entertainment compared to 12 other Texas cities that included Abilene, Amarillo, Beaumont/Port Arthur, Killeen-Temple-Fort Hood, Longview, Midland, San Angelo, Sherman Denison, Texarkana, Victoria and Waco.
"If you talk to anyone in Tyler, they don't understand why we don't have a meeting facility, and why we haven't addressed it," Ms. Rickman said. "The average person knows conventions will bring big money to Tyler. Our city should have a convention center ... there's a real demand."
The Tyler City Council authorized the city manager last week to move forward on phase two, which includes closer study on site selection, design and financing options.
If Tyler builds a venue, people will come, Garfield Traub Hospitality Division President Stephen D. Moffett said.
Sykes agreed, saying the time is right to carry out a plan.
"We feel confident the people are ready," he said.