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Fort Worth's 13 Year Wait for Convention Center Hotel Finally Over;
The $230 million, 614-room Omni Fort Worth Opens
By Andrea Ahles, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, TexasMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

January 11, 2009 - After more than a decade of studies, proposals and a public petition, the city is finally getting its convention-center hotel.

The 614-room Omni Fort Worth, directly across Houston Street from the Fort Worth Convention Center, will open its doors Monday with its first guests expected Saturday.

"We have crafted a beautiful facility that Fort Worth can be very, very proud of, that will be a strong partner to our existing hotels and certainly one more jewel in our crown," Mayor Mike Moncrief said.

With a garden on the roof above its grand ballroom and an outdoor swimming pool on the third floor, the Omni aims to impress meeting planners with its Texas decor and upscale features. There are four restaurants on the first floor, a museum store with merchandise from the Kimbell Art Museum and a $1 million, three-story stone wall with staircases and escalators surrounding it.

Moncrief and other local leaders admit that it wasn't easy to get the Omni built.

An attempt to build a publicly owned hotel, much like the one currently being debated in Dallas, was abandoned after a petition drive to force the issue to a public vote. And once the city struck a tax-abatement deal with Omni Hotels, the Irving-based luxury-hotel chain came back to council members to ask for more money as costs on the hotel skyrocketed.

But with a final tax-incentive deal capped at $89 million and a construction price tag of $230 million, the Omni Fort Worth is now ready for business and, despite the economic downturn, is already bringing new conventions to the city.

"Every day we're looking at conventions that wouldn't have come to Fort Worth without having a headquarters hotel," said Omni Fort Worth General Manager Ed Netzhammer, adding that it wants to welcome locals through its doors, too. "I want this hotel to be the living room for the community."

Back in 1996

Local leaders began looking at the feasibility of a convention center hotel 13 years ago. Amid complaints that conventiongoers were eschewing Fort Worth because it didn't have a convention center hotel, the city began studying whether it needed to build a hotel adjacent to the convention center.

The council eventually decided that a city-owned and operated convention hotel was the best course of action. By 2002, the city had developed a plan to sell $160 million in certificates of obligation, which are similar to bonds, to pay for the hotel's construction. But the plan immediately drew criticism from other hotel operators and from some leaders who feared that the city would not make enough from the hotel to pay for the bonds.

A group formed, Citizens for Taxpayers Rights, partially funded by the then-Radisson Plaza hotel, now the Hilton Fort Worth, and drew enough signatures on a petition to force the issue to a public vote. At that point, the council scrapped the plan and set up a citizens committee to evaluate what the city should do.

After six years, the plan was back to the drawing board.

Deal struck with Omni

After months of hearings, a decision was made to go back to private developers for proposals. Nine different firms approached the city to build a luxury hotel, and within six months, the council had agreed to negotiate a deal with Irving-based Omni Hotels.

A contract was hammered out that gave Omni $48.5 million in tax rebates and refunds from the city, county and state, including $6 million for a parking garage. Less than a year later, the Omni was asking for more incentives as the cost of the project had risen 28 percent to $115 million.

The final deal, made in 2006, gave Omni several tax rebates and incentives that are capped at $89 million. To date, the city has paid Omni a $6.3 million construction grant for an underground garage and will pay the hotel an additional $2.3 million when it opens, all from existing hotel-occupancy tax funds.

The hotel will also receive rebates on its city, state and county sales, hotel and property taxes for various lengths of time up to 18 years or until the cap is reached.

"The general-fund dollars -- none of that has gone into this project," said Kirk Slaughter, director of public facilities and events for the city. "But this project will bring in new spending into this community, which will bring in new sales taxes."

Bringing new business

Although a paying guest has yet to stay overnight at the new Omni Fort Worth, hotel staff has been steadily lining up business for 2009.

Larry Auth, Omni director of sales and marketing, said the hotel has secured 71,000 definite booked-room nights for this year and is closing in on its goal of 100,000.

The first group coming in is VHA, a healthcare management firm in Irving, which will give the hotel its first sold-out night Jan. 21. And the hotel announced last week that the AFC football champions will stay at the Omni Fort Worth during Super Bowl week in 2011.

The addition of the Omni and a renovated Sheraton Fort Worth give the city a more attractive hotel package within walking distance of the convention center, said Fort Worth Convention & Visitors Bureau Chief Executive David Dubois.

"We have booked two national association groups in the last six months based upon our new hotel package," Dubois said, adding that about 75 to 80 percent of the Omni's business consists of new groups that have never been to Fort Worth.

Appeasing the critics

One-time critics of a city-funded hotel are pleased to see the amount of investment that the Omni has put into the project and are glad that new convention bookings are coming into the city. However, they caution that it is still too early to call the hotel a success.

"It's a positive addition to the city, far preferable than having the city own it themselves," said Steve Hollern, the former Tarrant County Republican Party chairman and head of Citizens for Taxpayers Rights. "I have high hopes that it will bring in more convention-center business, but that is something we will just have to wait and see."

Former Fort Worth Councilman Clyde Picht, who had opposed a city-funded hotel, said he, too, will watch and wait before declaring it a success. The current economic straits may hurt efforts to fill rooms for conventions.

"I think the question in everybody's mind right now is how many people are going to come to conventions," Picht said. "How many conventions will be held in the economic times we're facing?"

Looking ahead

If the Omni is successful in bringing new convention business to the area, however, local leaders may consider expanding the convention center by tearing down the 10,000-seat arena, dubbed by some as "The Flying Saucer," on the convention center's north side.

"I think everyone would agree that while the domed arena has hosted everyone from Elvis to Hannah Montana and in between, I think that the time will come in the not-too-distant future where we will need to evaluate how we best use that space," Moncrief said.

When the ribbon is cut Monday afternoon, the city will finally be able to say it has a headquarters hotel to complement the $75 million it spent renovating the convention center.

"They are putting on the ground something that is uniquely Fort Worth without being Cowtown hokey," said state Senator-elect Wendy Davis, who represented the downtown district on the council at the time the deal was passed.

"It is something we are going to be very proud of."

This article includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Omni at a glance

Price range for staying in a hotel room at the Omni Fort Worth Hotel: Weekend Rates begin at $189 for deluxe accommodations and go up to $349.

614 -- Number of rooms

25 -- Number of suites

Two -- Number of ballrooms with 29 meeting rooms; the Texas Ballroom at 18,788 square feet is the second largest in Fort Worth; the convention-center ballroom is 28,000 square feet.

1,200 -- Number of workers who constructed the Omni

$240 million -- Final cost of the project

320 -- Number of parking spaces for the hotel

770,000 -- Number of square feet in the hotel portion

More than 1,000 -- Number of televisions in the hotel

None -- Number of logs that can be placed in the lobby fireplace at one time. (It is gas.)

Source: Omni Fort Worth

ANDREA AHLES, 817-548-5523


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