Austin at Large: Drop Your Ballot Like It's HOT
And then, someday, we'll make serious policy about our venues
I ranted a bit in this space a while back about how most Austinites do not and really should not care about the Neal Kocurek Memorial Austin Convention Center – not enough to merit a special election, at least. If we want to have up-or-down votes on every big project as a matter of routine, that's one thing, but making up controversies on the spot and then forcing elections to resolve them is a pretty dumb way to use the power of the people. But at least on Nov. 5, voters can bring some finality to this imbroglio, right? We can all go back to what we were doing before this became a thing? Maybe? Eh, probably not.
Mind you, if you haven't already, y'all must still do your civic duty and cast your ballots the way we told you to – because the outcomes (e.g., extensive litigation) won't get any less dumb if you don't. But the ill-formed questions being asked Tuesday, and the gratuitous campaigns that seek to influence your answers, belie some real policy choices that Austin (and Travis County) will need to make and should not make badly, regardless of the results on all three of these weirdly overlapping ballot measures.
Let's start with the city's Prop A, the headless zombie anti-soccer initiative once intended to harm Austin FC and Steve Adler. Yes, it needs to be defeated lest it now harm innocent bystanders. Yes, its clumsy stumble onto your ballot highlights numerous flaws in Austin's citizen initiative process. Defeating it leaves our timeline unchanged, with Major League Soccer hoopla reaching its fever pitch in 2021. But hey, get this! In some Alt-Austin scenario, the McKalla Place stadium's operations could be financed once it opens with ... hotel occupancy tax revenue.
I Know. Heads Are Exploding.
I have not done one bit of number-crunching on this, but yes, we could vote to make McKalla Place a "venue project" where we could spend HOT revenue. That might be more amenable to the folks who were peeved enough to get Prop A onto the ballot, whose major gripe is with the de facto property tax break embedded in the MLS deal. As we all know by now, HOT revenue is other people's money, collected specifically to pay for tourist-friendly things. It's how Round Rock built Dell Diamond – an effort that, given the politics of the time, would have fallen completely flat if it had asked anything of the Williamson County taxpayer.
In this reality, that very same HOT revenue is instead being sought via the other Prop A to reinvent the Travis County Expo Center. Many communities own a facility like the Expo Center – something that's bigger and more "venue"-like than a multipurpose community center (or high school gym) while still being utilitarian and "public" – and feeding such places with local HOT revenue is not a stretch, though voting to make that possible (as we have recommended) does not make it mandatory.
When built, the Expo Center was way out in the country, which is no longer the case, although its biggest event is still Rodeo Austin, which is bankrolling the campaign. It would like to "energize the Expo" with a public-private partnership deal, like Dell Diamond, or McKalla Place, or H-E-B Center at Cedar Park (the private player there being the owner of the hockey team), or – never forget! – Circuit of the Americas. All of these places are funded with some bit of public investment; the policy question is whether they can deliver acceptable returns on that investment (over the long term, simultaneously, and in at least partial competition with each other).
And Now We're Back to the Convention Center
As it happens, the Expo Center may be left out of this VIP club, because the city of Austin has also grabbed that very same revenue stream to help pay for an expensive new Convention Center. Where we last left that HOT mess, the mayor and the county judge were both very cross, but with the understanding that they'd hug it out eventually.
Prop B, if passed, might resolve this situation, or make it more complicated, or do nothing. A better question is whether, even if all three propositions fail and the city vacuums up every last stray dime of HOT revenue, Austin can truly afford the $1 billion-plus Convention Center of its dreams. Despite Prop B's detailed reallocation scheme for HOT funding, its proponents' best and strongest case is that a big-bang expansion – of a facility that we already know is a loss leader – is too risky and comes with unacceptably high opportunity costs.
To wit! Earlier this week, the Austin Business Journal reported that a Los Angeles firm is ready to buy out all the owners of Downtown's Railyard condos, for a price that would double the previous record for Downtown real estate per square foot, with skyscrapers (unencumbered by Capitol view corridors) in the offing. Now, the Convention Center expansion scenarios are still indefinite, but this deal could sure put a hitch in that giddyup. At the very least, it suggests the market is not sold on a convention-centric future for Downtown's southeast quadrant, not waiting for Austin to finalize its plans, and not willing to settle for the land-cost assumptions that undergird that $1 billion estimate.
Again, if we were actually voting up or down on a Convention Center project, this information would be relevant to this election. As it is, it's one more data point to keep in mind when we finally get around to making serious policy about Austin's economic drivers, destinations, and urban spaces. We haven't even started yet.