A Tale of Two Counties (with apologies to Charles Dickens)

Contributed by Mary Stimek
It was the best of times; it was the worst of times in east Texas.  It was the best of times for the city of Beaumont; for they owned a convention center, a theater that hosted Broadway touring companies and the fairgrounds, home of the Southeast Texas State Fair, the second largest fair in the state. It was the worst of times for Jefferson County, for they owned none of this. So the County Judge and County Commission hatched a plan to circumvent the voters of the county and build a Grand Event Center!  It would have a new Convention Center, a new fairgrounds, an amphitheater and a new arena that would host great music acts and would also hold an ice rink for a new hockey team! Does any of this sound familiar? So, you may ask, how did that work out for them?  Despite local country stars Tracy Byrd and Tracy Chestnut shilling as front men for the county’s grand scheme, very badly.  The public was furious, for their taxes went up, and there was no referendum on the use of tax dollars to duplicate facilities already available.  The hockey team, the Wildcatters, folded after four seasons, for the area was unable to support it. The Southeast Texas State Fair did move to the new facilities, at the economic demise of the old area around the former fairgrounds.  The county didn’t entice any big conventions to the area with Houston as close as it is, big music acts preferred to play the Woodlands in Houston, and many local groups preferred the city’s old convention space as it cost half of what the county wanted for rent.  Ford Park was not the gold mine envisioned by the county; in fact it was only a gold mine for those already wealthy residents who made millions selling their formerly useless land to the county for this boondoggle.

Now that I live in Wilson County, I see the same thing happening again.  Yes, the situation isn’t exactly the same, however, it didn’t work when the next available facilities were 3 hours down the road in Houston. What makes our leaders think whatever we build in Lebanon will lure convention goers away from the Opryland Hotel or the new Nashville Music City Center, which are less than 30 minutes from Wilson County, and are far nicer than anything we can hope to build here?  One advantage, that hotel rates might be cheaper, will be erased by the plan to partially fund this grand scheme by raising the Hotel – Motel tax to the highest in the state.

Why do politicians attempt to take it upon themselves to do the work that professional developers know how to do? If such facilities were needed and seen to be profitable, then private developers would already be on top of it. By the way, Wilson County; how’s that Nashville Superspeedway working out for you?

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