Fort Worth’s ‘flying saucer,’ where Elvis, Rolling Stones played, will be torn down

January 17,2020

See full Fort Worth Star-Telegram article by Luke Ranker here.

The flying-saucer shaped arena of the Fort Worth Convention Center won’t survive a nearly $500 million plan to expand exhibit space and add hotel rooms, but the project would be an economic boon to the city, proponents say.

The City Council took a major step forward with the project this week, approving a committee that will design a significantly expanded convention center before a potential ground breaking in 2022 or 2023.

The expansion is vital to the city’s tourism industry, said Bob Jameson, president and CEO of Visit Fort Worth. While a modern convention center may not seem like a benefit to Fort Worth residents, he said it increases city’s national exposure.

“When people come in for a business trip or a convention, they start to think about what it would be like to live here or do business here,” Jameson said, adding that the exposure helps market the city to companies looking to relocate.

Visit Fort Worth estimates 9.4 million people visit the city each year with a $2.6 billion economic impact. But over the last four years, Fort Worth lost out on about $500 million from conventions that could have come to the city, but wouldn’t fit in the center, Jameson said.

The expansion calls for demolishing the arena, straightening Commerce Street, building a 1,000-room hotel and adding more than 50,000-square feet of exhibit hall space. Public art would also be a feature.

Fort Worth taxpayers would not be on the hook for the convention center, assistant city manager Jay Chapa said during a council briefing, since the project is supported through hotel taxes. The city estimates the 9% tax on hotel stays will bring about $670 million over the next 30 years.

Projections show the revamped convention center would grow attendance to 1.2 million a year, up from about 780,000 and increase hotel visits by 85% over 10 years.

“That’s a lot of people walking around with money in their pockets to spend,” said Andy Taft, president of Downtown Fort Worth Inc.

Those visitors play a major role in making downtown livable, he said.

The influx of business to downtown is hard to imagine, said restaurateur Dain “Adam” Jones, owner of Grace and Little Red Wasp.

Jones has operated restaurants on Main Street for nearly 30 years. When he first opened Del Frisco’s Double Eagle, locals made up about 80% of his business with visitors making up the rest. Now, depending on the day, that ratio is flipped, he said.

Locals have more options now, like the Shops at Clearfork and the burgeoning restaurant scene in the Near Southside. While downtown will always be a hub, the convention center has become crucial to the vibrancy of the district’s restaurants and shops, said Jones, who employs 110 between the two restaurants.

“All of my people will make more and go spend that money in the community,” he said. “It’s a nice circle the way it works.”

Beyond the expected economic impact, the expansion gives Fort Worth a chance to re-imagine the south end of downtown.

Since 1968 the saucer-shaped arena has been a landmark on the south side of downtown. People who remember the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Elvis Presley’s record crowds at nine shows in three visits will feel nostalgia for the venue.

But the reality is that the arena no longer fits the convention center, Jameson said. Its unique shape makes it too rigid for most convention needs and has not been significantly modernized. The 14,500-seat Dickies Arena will be the spot for performers now.

The curve Commerce Street takes around the convention center creates a disconnect on the southeast side of downtown, Taft said.

Removing the curve would open about three city blocks for redevelopment, likely as the 1,000 room convention center hotel. That development could reinvigorate the blocks between the convention center and Fort Worth Central Station, most of which are surface parking lots.

“We have an opportunity to tie this part of downtown to the rest of the city center,” Taft said.

That could come in the form of a major piece of public art where the saucer is now.

The view north up Main Street offers a picturesque view of the historic Tarrant County Courthouse. Whatever comes to the south end of the street should be just as iconic, said Martha Peters, director of public art for the Arts Council of Fort Worth.

The city, through the Arts Council, has committed to significant public art installations in the coming years funded through both public and private dollars. It’s too early to know what that would look like at the convention center, but Peters said it’s likely the best location in downtown for a large piece.

“We would want it to be a piece of architecture that has a mirror effect to the courthouse,” she said.