Officials Lobby for Hotel Measure

AUSTIN – Dallas’ political heavyweights descended on the Capitol on Wednesday, seeking support for legislation that would fund a convention center hotel.

Mayor Laura Miller, seven City Council members and other local officials told members of the House Economic Development Committee that building a hotel adjacent to the newly expanded convention center is the key to making Dallas a destination for conventioneers.

“The question remains: If we build it, will they come?” Rep. Steve Wolens told the committee.

Groups that don’t give Dallas a second look could be coaxed to come to North Texas if the convention center had an adjoining hotel, the Dallas Democrat said. And spillover from large conventions would benefit other downtown hotels, he said.

The committee is considering a bill that would allow the city to build a hotel and use the new occupancy taxes to finance construction. City officials have discussed building a $ 265 million hotel and hiring a private company to manage it.

Opponents argued that the project would be a bad deal for taxpayers and that the city should stay out of the hotel business. The project would siphon travelers from existing hotels, they said.

After hearing four hours of testimony, the committee took no action on the legislation.

Mr. Wolens, who wrote the hotel bill, and his wife, Ms. Miller, who testified in support of the legislation, provided the city’s one-two punch at the hearing.

Officials from Fort Worth, San Antonio and Houston, as well as Hilton and Marriott executives, also lobbied for the bill.

Houston officials successfully sought similar legislation a decade ago. The city’s new hotel is scheduled to open in November.

Mr. Wolens’ legislation would have permitted only Dallas to use occupancy taxes to pay for a convention hotel. But a substitute bill would include any city with a population of at least 250,000.

Jordy Tollett, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the hotel has given the city a leg up in luring conventions. Fourteen groups signed on with Houston the day the city broke ground for the hotel, he said.

A convention center hotel has become a necessity for a number of organizations, said Greg Elam, senior vice president of the Dallas Convention & Visitors Bureau. At least 60 groups won’t even consider coming to Dallas simply because conventioneers must trek from the center to hotels scattered across downtown, he said.

“This is the most important single step we can take for the viability of Dallas for some conventions,” Mr. Elam said.

But some committee members questioned whether Dallas would really be on equal footing with cities such as Las Vegas and New Orleans by virtue of having a hotel.

“I’m wondering what other attractions besides the hotel are going to be able to bring people to Dallas,” said Rep. Martha Wong, R-Houston.

That’s a familiar refrain in Dallas, Ms. Miller said after the hearing.

“We understand that we’ve got to provide more things for people to do in Dallas,” she said.

The planned Trinity River project is evidence that city leaders are thinking big, Ms. Miller said.

Opponents of the hotel bill argued that it’s bad business to build a hotel on the backs of taxpayers.

If a convention center hotel were likely to make money, “for-profit hotel chains would be beating down the doors at City Hall,” said Peggy Venable, director of Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy.

She said the state should not submit to pressure to keep pace with other cities’ tax-subsidized projects.

“If Las Vegas builds the Taj Mahal, do we have to do the same to compete?” she said.

Bruce Walker, president of Source Strategies Inc., presented lawmakers a study that he said shows definitively that convention center hotels do not attract more travelers.

“Convention center hotels do not create their own demand,” he said

In Dallas, there’s no evidence of need for additional hotel rooms, Mr. Walker said. “A new hotel is going to steal from other hotels,” he said.

Mr. Walker, who has also worked for Holiday Inn, studied 16 large Texas hotels.

Proponents of the bill disputed his findings because he examined hotels that were simply near – and not necessarily adjacent to – convention centers. Hotels attached to convention centers have been more successful than those even a block or two away, they said.