Commissioners say yes to Ford Park sale

The Ford Park Entertainment Complex could enter the new year with a new owner.

The Jefferson County Commissioners on Tuesday morning unanimously accepted a bid to sell the property to Renaissance Development Group, despite it coming in more than $7 million under the county’s minimum bid.

But with no state statute preventing a government body from accepting a bid below the set minimum, a majority of the commissioners said the benefits from getting taxpayers out of debt service and upkeep far outweighed deciding against the sale.

“What we have right now is a bird in the hand,” said Commissioner Eddie Arnold. “We’ve tried to sell it open market … . I think we’ve done our due diligence in trying to do the best job we can to try and market this facility for sale and save the taxpayers plus or minus $30 million over the next five years.”

Renaissance Group spokesman Kevin Johnson detailed some of the investors’ plans for the facility.

“When we view this bid, it’s a $64 million investment into the county,” Johnson said.

That investment would be made over the course of the first two years and include $18 million in capital improvements to make the property competitive with surrounding entertainment venues, he said.

Johnson said the investment group projects that work alone carries a “conservative projection” of adding about 400 jobs in the first two years. He did not say how many would be long- or short-term jobs and did not return a request for clarification Tuesday afternoon.

Phase 2 would be to construct a $34 million horse racing track, a project that Johnson said was “moving rapidly.” Phase 3 would involve a 140- to 160-room hotel with a focus on outdoor activities for children and families at Ford Park for various sports tournaments

Johnson didn’t specifically answer a question from Commissioner Brent Weaver regarding planned demolitions, but he said the group has no plans to interrupt the South Texas State Fair. He also pledged to uphold all of the county’s existing contracts with various groups that use the facility and would work with the county to continue to use the property for emergency response in the event of a hurricane.

“This property, we’re looking at building a relationship with this community to add youth venues there,” Johnson said.

“We’re wanting Ford Park to not change,” he added, explaining that the goal is to “let the people of the county know that our ears are open.”

Auditor Patrick Swain, when asked, noted that should the deal fall apart before closing, the county would keep the $440,000 in earnest money put down by the Renaissance Group and both parties can walk away.

Otherwise, no keys would be handed over until the county has been paid in full, and the county has first right of refusal should Renaissance Group attempt to sell the facility in the future.

“It’s going to lift a burden off of the taxpayers definitely for the interest payment and principal payment we’ll have to make through 2025,” he said as part of his answer to questioning from Weaver about any potential risk to the county for the property’s sale.

“It also frees up $250,000 in hotel occupancy tax we’ve been pushing over there to keep up the maintenance and operational subsidy — an average of $1.7 million (annually) just to keep operations going.”

The county is set to formally award the high bidder next Tuesday with 10 days for Renaissance Group to provide the county with the 2% earnest money check. The county and the buyers then have 60 days to close the sale and pay the county the remaining balance.

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