CONNIE SWINNEY • STAFF WRITER
MARBLE FALLS — While plans for a potential $35 million hotel/conference center near downtown take shape, a city commissioner questions whether economic development leaders have considered the impact on traffic, wages and housing as the project moves forward.
The Marble Falls Economic Development Corp. interviewed three potential developers in October for a proposed hotel/conference center on EDC land adjacent to Lakeside Park on Lake Marble Falls.
Officials believe the proposed venue could be constructed through a private-public partnership.
“Right now, we’re looking at different structures for a hotel/conference center project in the way a private-public partnership would look in terms of what the EDC’s role is versus what the private developer’s role is and where the city (council) comes into play,” EDC Executive Director Christian Fletcher said.
Investors could build the structure using private bonds, and potential tax increment re-investment zone (TIRZ) dollars could be used to pay for adjacent amenities and improvements on EDC and city-owned property.
Officials introduced the hotel/conference center proposal as the anchor of a revitalization effort utilizing the comprehensive downtown and parks master plan tied to business development, amenities and improvements on EDC, private and city property.
Projects include amphitheaters in Lakeside Park, a boardwalk and water features adjacent to the park on Lake Marble Falls, a walking trail on the shoreline connecting to other points in the community, art or sculpture gardens near the hotel venue, an artificial beach area, bridges, additional parking and possibly closing at least one city street leading to the development area.
After recent developer interviews, the EDC board expects to narrow the list to one developer to present to the Marble Falls City Council.
“We had follow-up visits with each one of them,” Fletcher said.
Estimates of the potential 12,000-square-foot conference center and 150-room hotel range from $15 million to $35 million.
In comparison, La Quinta Inn and Suites, one of the larger hotels in Marble Falls, has 74 rooms. Horseshoe Bay Resort has 400 rooms.
“(The proposed Marble Falls venue) would be substantially larger than anything we have in town,” Fletcher said.
To accommodate the new development, EDC officials have proposed relocating public amenities at Lakeside Park, including the swimming pool and tennis and basketball courts, as well as finding a new home for the city skateboard park at the nearby Fall Creek Park.
“There may be some things that are able to stay based on how things are configured. The skate park is a prime example of something that is very near to the property that the EDC owns,” Fletcher said. “There’s just been no determination made on whether it’s better to keep it there or to potentially locate it to a new place and repurpose that property.”
At least one official has expressed concerns about the projects, citing traffic and cost and whether such a venture would benefit the community.
“It looks pretty on paper, but we’ve forgotten about the families who live here. Why do we need another brewery place? Do we need another clothing place?” said Leta Stevenson Smith, a board member on the Marble Falls Parks and Recreation Commission.
“It’s going to create jobs, but you’re bringing all these businesses in, and they’re going to pay minimum wage — not good,” she said. “How’s that going to feed those families that live here?”
Stevenson Smith worked for 13 years at the Marble Falls Independent School District as a para-professional. For three years, she served as program director for the Boys and Girls Club of the Highland Lakes and is currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
She said her experiences have kept her close to the heart of the community.
“The focus is definitely in the wrong place. I think (the planners) are more about the dollar than the families that live here. It’s more about making it pretty, making it visitor-friendly. How friendly is that for (the residents)?” she said. “I live here. The businesses they’re bringing in are just some place where my cousin can go get a $7 or $8 (an hour) job.
“The hotels and the restaurants — the owners are going to profit,” she added. “Everybody else is getting paid minimum wage.”
She said she would like the EDC to consider shifting their priorities.
“The average person is thinking, ‘How is this (hotel/conference center) going to help me?’ We need affordable housing. We need to ask people,” Stevenson Smith said. “We’re very limited on our way in and out. We’re creating a traffic jam.”
She believes EDC officials have raised more questions about the future than provided answers.
“We need to look at the whole picture. Who is going to maintain it? Is the city going to eat the bill for all of the maintenance?” she asked. “Are we going to hire more people who work for the city? Pay them more money?”
EDC officials say they have received an indication of what the community wants during a 2015 survey aimed at updating the city’s Comprehensive Plan.
Fletcher said results showed those who took the survey, available online, supported “increasing access to the lake and adding lake amenities.”
“Hotel/conference center was a specific question, and it was among the things that people were interested in,” he said. “I think the public amenities that we’ve presented like a beach, like a boardwalk, like amphitheaters, those things are the amenities that are more specific to locals as well as tourists.
“When locals respond, they like (the amenities) more than they’re going to like a hotel/conference center because they’re not staying there,” he said.
Contact and interviews with developers have taken place in closed sessions during EDC meetings; however, Fletcher offered insight into where the entity has drawn the line with developers in the past.
“We’ve been approached by potential developers who would love to get into Lakeside Park where the pavilion is today or where the swimming pool is today and put a hotel/conference center there, and we’ve been extremely resistant to that idea just because we want the parks to remain accessible to tourists as well as locals,” he said.
As part of the larger scope of the revitalization effort, proposed amenities would connect with existing ones.
“We feel very strongly that Lakeside Park is not as utilized as it could be, so what we would like to do is keep a lot of those pristine areas where people like to go and sit, but we’d also like to create amenities and destinations and reasons for people to go down there and spend their time,” he said.
“Extension of the hike-and-bike trail as we’ve done from Johnson Park over to Westside. It goes up to Childers Park. The parks master plan calls for the extension of that trail system along the creeks to connect over into Lakeside Park,” he added. “If you look at our concept plan, you see a lot of green, a lot of flexible open space.
Stevenson Smith fears planners are out of touch with the financial means of residents.
“I brought my grand babies down on Main Street. We couldn’t afford to go there and eat. The only thing on Main Street we could do is my babies could climb up on the statue and snap a picture,” she said. “Can the families who live here afford to take your kids down on Main Street to shop and eat? No. They’re not going to spend local, and we try to encourage people to spend local, but it’s too expensive.”
Fletcher contends the projects would benefit the entire community as well as tourists.
“The projections that we’ve been given over the first five years of operation would be just over $700,000 put into the TIF (tax increment financing) in property taxes and $230,000 put into the city’s general fund,” he said. “The improvements that we are envisioning and planning for are not just for hotel guests; it’s something that can be enjoyed by people who live here.”
Attracting lifelong residents should be high on the list of goals as well, Stevenson Smith said.
““I felt like that we have forgotten the people who live here. We’re going to offer some good things to get the visitors here, but what’s going to want to make them move here. It’s not going to be the development on Main Street that’s going to make them want to come and live forever instead of just for the weekend,” she said. “The kids who grew up here are thinking, ‘I’m going to have to move my family out of here just to make a good living wage.’”