Forum draws crowd

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Denton Assistant City Manager Jon Fortune speaks to concerned residents packed into the Commissioners Courtroom at the Courthouse on the Square on Wednesday. The residents attended a forum about the proposed convention center and hotel to be located near the University of North Texas' Apogee Stadium.

Residents voice concerns over proposed convention center, hotel

A neighborhood meeting on the city’s proposed convention center woke a sleeping giant Wednesday night, as residents poured into the Denton County Courthouse on the Square to learn more.

More than 100 residents turned out for the two-hour meeting that included a question-and-answer session on the public-private partnership that would bring a 100,000-square-foot convention center and upscale, full-service hotel to Denton.

The meeting was organized by the Denton Neighborhood Alliance, a group perhaps better known for its annual city candidate forum each spring. The group organized the meeting after the Denton City Council agreed June 17 to create a tax-increment reinvestment zone to help pay for a convention center on University of North Texas land next to Apogee Stadium.

Members of the Denton Chamber of Commerce and the Denton Convention and Visitors Bureau also attended the meeting. Both groups have long championed the project. City and bureau representatives told the crowd that Denton has lost or turned down millions of dollars of convention business in recent years because there is no facility in the city large enough to accommodate groups that want to come here.

Many residents were concerned about the deal and whether taxpayers would be on the hook if something went wrong.

Larry Luce said he didn’t like that the project sought tax money, not just from the city but the school district and county to contribute property tax income to help pay the debt.

“Almost all the taxes would stay with the property and they don’t go to pay for the fire department, police department and [other public services],” Luce said.

The city has estimated the convention center would cost about $25 million to build. O’Reilly Hospitality Management and its investment partners, O’Reilly Hospitality Partners Denton, have estimated the hotel and restaurant they would build next to the convention center will cost about $60 million.

A tax-increment reinvestment zone would allow the city to capture the increased value of the property taxes after the convention center and accompanying hotel and restaurant are built. Currently, there is nothing of taxable value on the 13 acres of UNT land where the project would go.

The city would pay for the construction with certificates of obligation, a kind of tax-backed bond that does not require voter approval. The city anticipates repaying the bonds will cost about $2 million per year.

The city would contribute all of the $7.4 million it expects to collect in the zone over the next 25 years to help repay the bonds. Through the zone, the city has asked Denton County and the Denton school district to contribute some of their new tax revenue, too.

The city has asked the county to contribute about $2.3 million and the school district about $4 million. Neither entity has yet agreed to contribute.

To make up the balance, the city would cobble together money from several other sources, including sales tax and hotel occupancy tax from the project, another $100,000 of hotel occupancy tax collected elsewhere in the city, and, if needed, rent payments from the developer.

The city released a video on YouTube on Monday describing the project. Council member Kevin Roden posted a long post on his blog (http://rodenfordenton.com) on “how to think” about the convention center on Monday and included the video.

Assistant City Manager Jon Fortune told the crowd there was information posted on the city’s website (www.cityofdenton.com) and more to come in the near future. The neighborhood alliance pointed to information published at http://preservedenton.com.

The meeting was moderated by former City Council member Mike Cochran, who made opening remarks, as did Fortune, who answered residents’ questions for about an hour. Kim Phillips, with the Denton Convention and Visitors Bureau, answered others.

Only the newest members of the City Council attended the meeting: Mayor Chris Watts and council members John Ryan and Greg Johnson. Roden tweeted that the other members would have been present had the meeting been properly posted as a possible quorum of the council.

Toward the end of the meeting, about a dozen residents also offered their comments on the project.

Kathleen Wazny echoed a call made by Cochran for an election on the matter. She cautioned council members not to be dismissive of people’s concerns.

“Do the math and take a vote,” Wazny said. “We are all weighing in tonight.”

The city is in the final days of a feasibility period with the project. Both the city and O’Reilly Hospitality Management and its investment partners are looking at construction bids to see whether they can afford the project.

The City Council is expected to take up the matter again during its regular meeting Tuesday.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.


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