FORD PARK: Waste of money or worthy investment?
It's been open in Jefferson county for 16 years, with the promise of being a major attraction for the area. Ford Park is an eye-catching, 221-acre event area that sits off of I-10 in Jefferson County.
It boasts ball fields, an arena, exhibit hall, and amphitheater, all used by Southeast Texans along with out-of-town visitors.
In 2018, Ford Park saw more than 360,000 people.
But has Ford Park lived up to expectations, or has it become a money pit taxpayers can't afford?
"Any shortfall is the county's responsibility," says Patrick Swain, auditor for Jefferson County.
Swain explains for many years the county has had to shell out money to fund the entertainment complex.
The original cost was supposed to be $55 million, but it ended up rising to $75 million. Then add on $53.5 million in interest and you're looking at a debt that ballooned to $128.5 million.
Thankfully, in 2012, the debt was refinanced to bring a savings of $11.1 million, due to lower interest rates.
The park was initially under the management of SMG, a national venue management company. But citing the park's low performance, in 2016, county commissioners voted to replace SMG. At the time, the park hadn't hosted a concert since August 2015.
Then came spectra.
"We've already tripled the number of events that was here from the previous management company,” said Jamie Nielsen, Director of Sales and Marketing for Spectra in the Beaumont area. “So, I think we've shown that we are going in the right direction and we're going to continue to increase that number."
Nielsen says the management company saved the county more than $328,000 during its first 6 months from April to September 2017 by staying under the operations budget.
Then, in the company’s most recent fiscal year of October 2017 through September 2018, it stayed under operating budget by $146,600.
But outside of financial concerns, another point of interest is attractions; particularly at the amphitheater, which Swain believes doesn't see as much activity as it should.
"If there's one, you kind of go back to one item, maybe is the amphitheater that shouldn't have been built or delayed," says Swain.
For the people who feel like there's nothing going on at Ford Park, we asked for the company’s response to them.
"I respond with just showing them what we had in the last year,” says Nielsen. “We had an R&B concert, a rap concert, we had a country concert, we had religious concerts, we had family shows. we've had just about anything that we could bring through."
Another concern: Maintenance.
Both Swain and Nielsen admit, the buildings at Ford Park needed some work and will need even more in the future.
"A lot of these buildings are 12-years-old,” says Swain. “Doesn't sound old, but when you talk about the technology for energy efficiency, there's ways to try to improve that.”
“There's definitely things that have to be replaced when it's a 15-year-old building,” says Nielsen. “Fifteen years in, the pavilion needed to be updated and cleaned and taken care of."
But one challenge not so easily conquered: competing with Houston.
"A lot of events that come through will have what they call a radius clause,” says Nielsen. “So, if they're doing an event in Houston, we're close enough that we may fall within that radius clause, where they can't play an event here within 30, 60, or maybe even sometimes 90 days."
With all the challenges the park faces going forward, both the county and park management hope to see improvement during the remainder of the five-year-contract.
If not, Swain says that will be a time to reconsider the plans for the park.
Nielsen and Swain agree on the biggest success, which is the ball field area.
They're committed to expanding the concession stand area, a huge money maker.
For a list of upcoming events at Ford Park, click here.