City Hall

New Convention Center Might be "the Bridge to South Dallas" that Brings More Business to Town

The Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center will look a whole lot different in 2029.
The Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center will look a whole lot different in 2029. Dallas Visitor Bureau
There were plenty of close contests on the midterm ballot in November, but Proposition A in Dallas wasn’t one of them. Dallas voters overwhelmingly approved the $1.5 billion plan to build a new and expanded Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center and to pay for a major refurbishment of the historic buildings in Fair Park.

The convention center expansion will take up to six years to complete, while many of Fair Park’s most notable buildings, including a refurbished bandshell and Cotton Bowl, will likely be complete much sooner. The positive business effects of the vote are already rippling, according to VisitDallas CEO Craig Davis.

“We’ve already sold space in a new convention center that doesn’t exist yet over 10 times,” says Davis. “From 2030 and beyond, we have contracts being worked up. People are based on our word that we’re going to deliver it.”

That type of demand from meeting planners for convention space in Dallas is one of the reasons Davis feels that Prop. A was a must for the city. The convention center, as it currently stands, does so with many leaky roofs and over “$700 million of deferred maintenance,” Davis says. “... Our customers kept telling us, ‘We love Dallas, but we don’t love your convention center.’”

Even with the bond election’s 67 percent “yes” vote, there are going to be skeptics and opponents. In April, D Magazine reported City Council member Cara Mendelsohn “was the lone vote against sending a ballot measure to voters who will choose whether they want issue bonds to pay for improvements to Fair Park and a new convention center.”

Mendelsohn declined to comment through a representative, but according to the D article, she objected to moving forward based on the uncertainty of the travel industry's future and whether enough revenue will be generated from the 2% hotel tax increase to repay the bonds. She also questioned whether the city was capable of handling such a massive undertaking.

Given that from a national perspective convention business has continued its decline over the years, and especially following the pandemic, questions of what happens to the taxpayers should the bonds not be repaid only through the hotel tax increase are legitimate. But Davis says that Dallas has been bucking the tanking convention business trends seen in other parts of the country.

Even with the Hutchison Convention Center in the relatively poor shape it has been in, Davis says that in 2022 Dallas will hit 95 percent of the convention center revenue it generated in 2019. Next year is already predicted to top this year's revenue.

“Dallas is easy to sell in January, February, March and April,” Davis says. “Those are our best months because that’s when the northeast is under snow but conventions of all kinds are still happening. We have incredible demand.”

Davis says that for him and his team, battling “misinformation and misunderstandings” was more prevalent than fending off any of the typical opposition involved with elections and politics.

“We would get questions about why we were building a new convention center instead of investing in the city’s infrastructure and things like that,” he says. “And that’s a reasonable question, but the answer is that the money from an increase in hotel tax can only be spent on tourism-related matters. When people understood we were not choosing this over that, the clarity made it more simple to understand.”

“We’ve set the organization straight and we’ve made things transparent.” – VisitDallas CEO Craig Davis

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There’s also the matter of VisitDallas’s own reputation. In 2019 former VisitDallas CEO Phillip Jones resigned following a months-long drama ignited by a city audit that shed light on possible financial mismanagement and an array of dealings that were not being watched. Davis became CEO of VisitDallas in late 2019 and knows his team will be watched closely.

“We’ve set the organization straight and we’ve made things transparent,” he says. “We’ve reimagined our board, cutting its size by half. Knowing what happened in the past, everything we do now is with transparency. When I joined, I had a mandate to run this with accountability, and I think it’s a brand new day here.”

The current convention center setup has 725,000 square feet of exhibit space, but barely any breakout space — the smaller, separate spaces off main exhibit areas that big-spending industries such as pharmaceutical, medical, engineering and law require. The new plan calls for 800,000 square feet of exhibit space to go along with 400,000 of breakout space. That configuration will allow the center to host more than one large conference at a time, something the current center does not.

A key to how the new convention center will be more appealing to major meeting planners and provide greater potential isn’t just in the exponentially larger amount of space. The development that will go on outside of the north-south aligned building will serve as “a literal bridge to south Dallas,” Davis says.

While Memorial Auditorium will remain, it will do so as a stand-alone building. What is currently between the only place in Dallas the Beatles ever performed and the Omni Dallas Hotel will be demolished. As of now, only the convention center’s loading docks face south Dallas. In a few years, development including restaurants and other hotels will connect downtown to the Cedars neighborhood.

That key part of the plan looks to be a pivotal factor for meeting planners who, right now at least, have the perception that there’s little for their thousands of travelers to do during convention downtime in that part of downtown. Instead of an “albatross,” as Davis says, the convention center will make Dallas more competitive for major business against other large cities than it’s ever been.

“This will be the first time Dallas has a convention center worthy of Dallas,” Davis says.
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Kelly Dearmore

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