EXCLUSIVE: Group plans to replace Expo Center with arena, stadium


A small local group with a big vision and political backing has unveiled plans for a wide-ranging project called the East Austin District, highlighted by a large arena and a multipurpose stadium.

Austin Sports & Entertainment, co-founded by former University of Texas swimming star Sean Foley and New England sports entrepreneur Andrew Nestor, partnering with Rodeo Austin, intends to work with the city of Austin and Travis County governments to replace the Travis County Exposition Center with a 15,000-seat arena adjacent to a 40,000-seat open-air facility.

“The natural growth of the city is east, but that area has been neglected far too long,” Foley told the American-Statesman. “Right now, it might be several miles from downtown; tomorrow, it won’t be.”

The complex, designed to include office space, a convention area, medical facilities, retail and eight courtyards, could house a wide variety of sports events, concerts, trade shows and festivals.

“We have private land and private money, and our goal is to build a world-class sports and entertainment hub in East Austin,” Nestor said.

Austin Sports & Entertainment did not disclose the project’s price tag, which they say will be a high bar to hurdle.

A 15,000-seat arena opened in Wichita, Kan., in 2010 at a cost of $205 million, according to the Wichita Eagle. It was funded by a voter-approved additional 1 percent sales tax in Sedgwick County. The University of Houston opened 40,000-seat TDECU Stadium in 2014 for $128 million after it was originally budgeted at $105 million. The Austin facility could far exceed the cost of constructing TDECU Stadium. If the project breaks ground in 2018, it could be completed by 2021, Nestor said.

“We feel comfortable we can raise the money,” said Foley, who estimates as many as 5,000 jobs could be created, including temporary construction and full-time on-site employment.

He said investors already have been lined up.

The arena would be the new home of an expanded Rodeo Austin, which owns 40 acres adjacent to the Expo Center and annually pulls approximately 260,000 people to the aging facility for its two-week March run. The project is slated to be built on that land, near Lake Walter E. Long.

Several city and county politicians interviewed by the Statesman voiced support for the plan.

“We need to step up and embrace the vision of this project,” Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion said. “This checks all the boxes. Right now there are very few opportunities for recreation and safe places for families in that region.”

Travillion favors a public-private partnership using city-owned land at the Expo Center, which is run by the county.

“There are more than 300 acres on that site,” he said. “The Expo Center is already purposed for hosting events. You could attract significant private capital and create good jobs.

“When you can put a public-private project together that allows us to still own the dirt but brings innovative private resources to play, it generates greater opportunities. We can connect with the region. This will be easily accessible from Pflugerville, Manor, Elgin and Del Valle, which all are growing at a rapid rate.”

Austin Sports & Entertainment hired world renowned Danish architect Bjarke Ingels, whose company is known for 2 World Trade Center in Manhattan and Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., to draw up the Texas-themed plans, in partnership with Austin-based STG Design. The individual buildings are arranged as a checkerboard of different functions, appearing as a latticed roofscape from above.

Austin City Council Member Ora Houston, whose District 1 includes the Expo Center, said she is fully on board.

“When I saw the visual picture of what they wanted, I was so excited,” she said. “The opportunities for sports, music, area youth, health entities could be a generational kind of thing. This would repurpose, renew and refresh an area that needs it.”

Houston said the venues could fill the void for major concerts after the Erwin Center is torn down. University of Texas officials are contemplating building a smaller arena.

“When that goes away, we won’t have any large indoor venue,” she said. “Circuit of the Americas is huge, but it’s outdoors.”

Houston also would consider supporting a Major League Soccer team in a new East Austin stadium.

“This location is at the apex of three major highways — (U.S.) 290, (U.S.) 183 and (Texas) 130 — so it’s easily accessible,” she said. “I think soccer would be a great fit there.”

Precourt Sports Ventures, which operate Columbus Crew SC, is exploring a move to Austin. It has a strong preference for a stadium in the urban core and has had almost no contact with Austin Sports & Entertainment.

RELATED: Could this lakefront parkland become Austin’s soccer stadium?

Nestor said building the stadium is not dependent on luring an MLS team, although he acknowledged it would make sense.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler acknowledged that PSV and ASE are on different tracks. “I’ve advised everybody to talk to one another,” he said. “Early indications from the league and ownership are they want a more centrally located facility.”

Adler does like the notion of a major overhaul of the Expo Center.

“It’s an old facility, and there is a need to update it and expand the breadth of its uses,” he said. “We need to do things on the eastern crescent of the city. We should be investing in that part of town.

“What I’m most concerned about is economic development, good jobs, middle-skill jobs and maintaining affordable housing in that area. If this project can do that, I’m encouraged about it.”

Rob Golding, CEO of Rodeo Austin, said Austin is lagging when it comes to multipurpose venues.

“There are so many events we don’t get now because the Expo Center is outdated and outsized and downtown is too cost-prohibitive,” Golding said.

“We are the only city in the top 15 in the United States without that type of facility. I am fully committed to this project being developed. It can have an impact on our community for the next 50 years.”

But can Austin Sports & Entertainment deliver the financial goods?

“That is the big question,” Golding said. “Yet Austin is attracting capital in ways I’ve not ever seen in my 40 years here. The buzz is unlike it’s ever been before.”



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