Commissioners hammer out Ford Park hotel, waterpark

Commissioners hammer out Ford Park hotel, waterpark

 

Monday, Oct. 14, in a vote of 4-1, with only Commissioner “Bo” Alfred in opposition, Jefferson County commissioners decided in favor of issuing specifications for a request for development proposals for a Ford Park convention hotel and water park as published by Jefferson County Purchasing Agent Deborah Clark.

Regarding the convention hotel, the RFP specifies that the proposed general contractor “must have built, at minimum, five hotels with 120 plus rooms and 4,000 square feet of conference space.”

Ford Park general manager John Hughes said having a hotel on site at the event center could attract state-associated conventions such as the State Firemen’s and Fire Marshals’ Association convention, county judge association conventions and teacher-associated conventions, to name a few.

“I can’t even count how many associations there are in the state of Texas,” Hughes said. “When we go to Austin to meet with all these associations, we want to be able to say, ‘Come to Ford Park … come to Beaumont. We’ve got a hotel on site, we’ve got plenty of square footage, we’ve got a great catering business, and we’ve got something for your people to do when they’re out of session.”

Hughes said that these are staples when convention planners look at possible locations for events.

“Those associations, by nature, try to visit as many host locations in the state that fit their needs as possible … but their criteria is onsite hotels, certain amount of square footage, etc. to make it convenient for those attendees, particularly the planners of those events,” he said.

Hughes added that planners usually stay a week on site to prepare and plan for events.

“To get in your car and drive off site for a planner is just not feasible,” he said. “I go to two or three conferences a year. Every single conference that I go to, the conference is at the convention hotel — it’s attached to whatever facility is being used for the conference. It’s just the trend in the industry.”

Air service is also important to convention planners, Hughes said, adding that whether attendees can easily fly in and fly out of a location is a key issue. With American Airlines service returning to the Jack Brooks Regional Airport (BPT) and with air traffic now coming back and forth from Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW), Hughes said timing couldn’t be better to construct a convention hotel and generate a significant amount of revenue to help lower the facility’s debt.

“Each one of those conferences … would probably mean somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000 in income to the facility through rental, food and beverage, catering etc.,” said Hughes, who explained that the annual operating budget for Ford Park is about $2 million. “If we just attracted four of those a year … that would be $200,000 a year in incremental revenue that we are not getting right now.”

Hughes said that part of what convention planners look for is leisure activities for attendees while they are in town.

“We think that a water park on property will probably be one of the more unique convention attractions that’s out there,” Hughes said. “There’s not too many convention facilities that I can think of that have a hotel and … an entertainment attraction for conventioneers.”

According to the Jefferson County RFP, the water park must consist of at least 20 acres and include the following:

• Wave pool

• Lazy river

• Slide complexes

• Children’s play area

• Ample food and beverage

locations

• Gift shop

• Change rooms

• First aid facility

• Park will have nationally certified safety program and life guard training in place

• Park will be built to industry-recognized standards

• Adequate parking will be designated

Hughes said that the water park would most likely follow a new trend in water park design — microparks.

“We don’t have enough acreage for it to be the size of a Schlitterbahn,” Hughes said. “(The park) would be like Splashtown or Pirate’s Cove … things like what you see in Baton Rouge or … Gulf Shores, Ala. They’re a little bit more scaled down but enough to make tourists want to come in town and spend a full day’s worth of activities.”

The park’s ball field business is booming as well, Hughes added, and could mesh well with a new onsite hotel and water park.

“This past season alone we (had) in the neighborhood of 1,800 teams coming through our ball fields,” he said. “When you are talking about (Little League) World Series teams where people travel from out of state and have a choice as to which World Series events they can go to … if there is a water park right next to the ball park, what kid wouldn’t want to go there?”

Worth noting is that when Phelan Investments gifted some land to Jefferson County and sold the county land at a discounted price for the total acreage for Ford Park in 1999, the county included a clause that said it would not build a restaurant or a hotel within a specified time period, an unnamed source close to the agreement said.

Calls to Phelan Investments were not returned as of press time.

Fred Jackson, assistant to County Judge Jeff Branick, said, “There were some deed restrictions about building hotels, etc., and they (Phelan Investements) would have to agree to waive that. That prohibition, I believe, remains in effect until 2015.”

Jackson said he couldn’t predict the future as far as whether Phelan Investments would be willing to work with the county, but Commissioner “Bo” Alfred said he believed the company would.

“I think the Phelans are going to work with anybody that presents an idea or plan,” Alfred said.

Project proposals are due Nov. 19 no later than 11 a.m., the RFP states. With the vote to issue request for proposals on Oct. 14, that leaves barely a month window for proposals.

“That’s the normal timeframe,” said Jefferson County Purchasing Agent Deborah Clark. “This is an RFP … this is a proposal. This is not a bid. We’re asking people to propose to us.”

Clark added that the county has no specific blueprint in mind.

“We want them to tell us what their floor plan would be and what their plans are,” she said.

“The Commissioners Court will consider any responses and decide whether to accept it or not,” added Jackson, who insisted that the county had no specific offeror in mind. “It would be against the law for us to have a deal with someone and then come and issue a request for proposal. There is no specific agreement with anyone. If three, four or five people submit proposals, that would be great.”

Taxpayer money would not be used in the construction effort, he said.

“The county does not want to spend the taxpayers money to do this,” Jackson said. “It was made clear that county budget money, tax money would not be used.”

Alfred said that he voted against issuing the RFP because he did not get a chance to read the specifications, adding that when he clicked on the agenda attachment on the website, the specifications said “pending.”

“I’m never going to vote for something I haven’t read,” said Alfred, who said he believed the RFP was scheduled to be discussed in December and that he was surprised to see it on the agenda.

“Some concerns to me would be … what happens if this goes belly-up with all the hotels we have around?” he said. “Who owns it? Does the county own it?”

When asked this same question, Jackson replied that the project would be “a private investment. The people that build it will own it. We’ll have to lease that ground or make some arrangements for them to use that ground. I’m sure the court would require them to operate a certain amount of years. There are a number of things that need to be considered, but right now we are not dealing with specifics. We are waiting to receive proposals. At that time, the court will investigate all these issues.”

According to the RFP, proposals must meet certain requirements and will be evaluated on a scale of 100 by an evaluation committee, with a recommendation for award tentatively scheduled for Dec. 16.

For more information, contact Jefferson County Purchasing Department at (409) 835-8593.

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