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Fort Worth study recommends 1,400 more Convention Center-area hotel rooms

By Scott Nishimura
snishimura@bizpress.net

Fort Worth should remodel and expand the aging north end of its Convention Center, add a 1,000-room headquarters hotel on the north end of the facility, and carefully manage scarce public incentive dollars for downtown hotel projects to make sure the city is enhancing its meeting draw, a new study says.

The city should also encourage Omni Hotels to expand its popular 614-room Convention Center hotel by another 400 rooms, the study says. If the Omni does not expand, the city should look to add a “third large hotel adjacent” to the Convention Center, the study, by Hunden Strategic Partners, says.

The city could augment the amount of real estate available for hotels by razing the little-used Annex on the northeast side of the old arena and straightening Commerce Street, the study says. The arena, rarely used for its original purpose, should be demolished or remodeled with modern ballroom, exhibit, and meeting space, the study says. In redesigning the north end of the Convention Center, the city should create a welcoming “front door” and put in spaces for restaurants, the study says.

The study found that Fort Worth’s remodeling of the Convention Center more than 10 years ago and opening of the Omni in 2009 paid off in strong downtown hotel rates and occupancies that prompted other hotels to upgrade and have raised the industry’s interest in investing more in the city, Rob Hunden, the city’s consultant, said in an interview Tuesday. Fort Worth’s increasing image as a “fun, walkable” city has added to the draw, he said.

“Have the investments paid off?” Hunden said. “The short answer is yes, in spades.”

The study findings bear out the sentiment of city business leaders who say the city is losing out on larger convention business and needs to replace the outmoded Convention Center Arena with modern space. A primary goal of the remodeling would be allow the city to host multiple medium-sized meetings simultaneously, thus driving up hotel room nights.

“We’re at a point now where the building can only do so much,” Hunden said.

Fort Worth grabbed more market share with its downtown investments - “we succeeded, wildly, and what this study underscores is we are in position to do that yet again,” Andy Taft, president of the Downtown Fort Worth, Inc. economic development nonprofit, said in an interview.

Hunden was presenting the study to Mayor Betsy Price and City Council members this afternoon.

In remodeling and expanding the north end of the Convention Center, the study recommends the city:

  • Expand exhibit space to 280,000-300,000 square feet from the current 182,000, 45,000 of which is “not prime” and rarely used;
  • Add a 50,000-square-foot ballroom, which could be used for plenaries, banquet and reception venues, exhibit halls, and meeting rooms;
  • Add 80 meeting rooms, for a total 80,000 square feet;
  • Add full catering kitchen and mini food court, and allow food trucks to come on site;
  • Tear down the Annex on Commerce Street, allowing the straightening of Commerce, which would turn three partial blocks into three full blocks and “make the development of one or more convention hotels easier;”
  • Turn a new north entry “into a welcoming public access point” with grand lobby and second-level terrace restaurant or reception area “that simultaneously functions as a counterpoint to the courthouse at the other end of Main Street;”
  • Add more restaurant spaces to the east and west sides;
  • Add underground parking.

In augmenting the hotel inventory, the study recommends the city add the premium hotel rooms and encourage “only (hotel) products that enhance Fort Worth’s hotel package in terms of quality, such as a high-end boutique hotel, or (that) fill a service gap (extended stay)."

“Any hotels without full-service amenities and smaller than a size that would induce large events to Fort Worth should be placed on hold until the development of these headquarters properties is underway,” Hunden said.

Several hotel developers are interested in sites downtown, and it remains to be seen whether they represent the kind of product downtown needs, Hunden said.

“We would hate to have a high-end site developed with a hotel that doesn’t maximize the opportunity,” he said.

Besides the 1,000-room Convention Center-area hotel that the study loosely projects could be built by 2020, the study assumes three other hotels will be developed between 2016 and 2018 downtown that total 450 rooms. The study assumes the Omni will expand by 400 rooms by 2023, or some other hotel will add that number of rooms around the Convention Center.

The city will have to find a balance between full-service hotels and limited-service ones, for which “there’s quite a bit of demand,” Taft said.

“If we know we want this larger number of full-service rooms, how do we balance the limited-service hotels with the limited amount of public incentive dollars we can offer anybody, with the needs for full-service rooms?” Taft said. “That’s what this study is digging into.”

The study was scant on details about potential locations for a new convention center hotel; those determinations will come later, Hunden said.

Options include attaching it to the Convention Center and building east of Commerce Street once Commerce is straightened, he said.

The study says the Omni has an adjacent site it could acquire and develop. That is a building to the south owned by Tarrant County College, said Bob Jameson, president of the Fort Worth Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Omni representatives could not immediately be reached to comment on the study’s findings.

Among other hotels being considered for downtown, Sundance Square has said it’s considering a high-end boutique hotel on the east end of its holdings.

Fort Worth leaders have long indicated the city is losing out on some convention business because it doesn’t have the meeting space or enough hotel rooms.

The Texas High Schools Association and Texas Library Association are two examples of large meetings that once rotated into Fort Worth, but have dropped off those groups’ rotations, Jameson said.

The coaches meet in July and bring about 6,000 attendees, he said. The librarians meet in April and draw about 7,000, he said.

Besides total hotel inventory, the ability to book a group into as few hotels as possible increases the chances of landing them, he said. The Texas Future Farmers of America is in town this week, with 8,000 visitors and booked into two dozen hotels, he said.

The study briefly links the Convention Center remodel to a planned new arena at the Will Rogers Memorial Center, which would be built first and enable the city to then begin a Convention Center remodel.

The city should also look to move non-room-generating meetings such as graduations out of the Convention Center and into Will Rogers, preserving the Convention Center for business that generates hotel stays, Hunden said.

The study’s authors interviewed numerous civic leaders, and “many” suggested a redevelopment of the Fort Worth Water Gardens, or medications to that attraction on the south side of the Convention Center, the study’s findings said. But the study made no recommendations about the Water Gardens, other than to note the interviews.

“While many civic and political leaders expressed opinions suggesting the Water Gardens could or should be modified, there was also a significant feeling that the Water Gardens have a somewhat sacred status in downtown,” the study findings said. “Any adjustments would potentially be difficult than moving a street.”

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