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Project could hinge on county

Profile image for By Bj Lewis
By Bj Lewis

The fate of the new Denton-supported hotel and convention center could hinge on county officials.

Following a recent presentation to Denton school board members, Denton city officials were in front of commissioners trying to marshal their support and financial help with the proposed project. If the county signs on, it would return about $2.3 million in property tax income to help the city pay for the construction of the convention center.

“I would like to see more citizen input,” said County Judge Mary Horn, noting her initial thoughts on the presentation. “We will be examining some more information in the future, [getting] some more analysis. I really don’t know when this is coming back to Commissioners Court, but it will at some point in the future for final decision.”

On June 17, the Denton City Council unanimously voted to create a tax-increment reinvestment zone that would support repayment of bonds for a proposed $25 million city-owned convention center.

The tax-increment reinvestment zone district covers 13 acres of vacant and undeveloped land on University of North Texas property near Apogee Stadium, at Interstate 35E and North Texas Boulevard.

Under the proposal, a full-service Embassy Suites hotel, with about 318 rooms, and a Houlihan’s restaurant would be built. Both would be funded by O’Reilly Hotel Partners Denton and represent an investment of about $60 million.

The city would fund and own the convention center, which is estimated to cost $25 million.

The property set for construction is currently tax-exempt.

With the zone, the city also asked the Denton school district to contribute about $4 million to help pay for construction and financing.

Tuesday’s presentation to the county — which included Jon Fortune, assistant Denton city manager, and David Pettit, the city’s consultant on the project — was the 26th public discussion of the project in the past two years and was met with questions from commissioners on a number of points, including job creation and long-term viability of the project.

Horn asked Fortune about the feedback received in these public encounters.

“It’s been a mixed bag,” Fortune said. “A lot of people want more information and to see the benefits. There are always those who will be detractors; our job has been to have an open dialogue on the pros and cons of the project.”

Commissioner Andy Eads noted the failure of the Radisson Hotel at the UNT site and asked Fortune how this new hotel would be different.

Fortune said quality standards and a smaller-sized meeting space were some of the contributing factors to the Radisson failure and that those would not be the case with the new hotel.

Commissioner Hugh Coleman said the money the county would gain annually from the project is a positive point, but he wanted to see what the county has done for other cities when they have brought in investment projects.

“We definitely need to look at all of the figures to see the economic benefits to the county,” Coleman said. “The city has told us it will create a large amount of jobs and put the property on the tax rolls, which is good. However there are a lot of people questioning the long-term sustainability.”

Commissioner Ron Marchant asked what would happen should the county and the school district opt not to participate in the project.

Fortune had noted on the outset of his presentation that the developer’s continued involvement in the project was contingent on support from the city, the school district and the county.

Commissioner Bobbie Mitchell vowed to look at the project on its own merit. This was a stance Eads noted during the Tuesday morning discussion.

“We can’t compare it to what we have done years ago, we have to look at it on how it will benefit Denton County,” Mitchell said. “I think everyone is open to suggestion. We just haven’t made up our mind; this was the first go-round.”

The Denton Neighborhood Association has organized a meeting to discuss the proposed convention center project from 7 to 9 p.m. today in the Commissioners Courtroom, on the second floor of the Denton County Courthouse on the Square.

BJ LEWIS can be reached at 940-566-6875 and via Twitter at @BjLewisDRC.