The residents of Fort Bend County, Texas longed for more.
Tired of traveling across the county and into Houston and the populous Harris County for everything from youth sports to graduation ceremonies, residents made their voices heard, and more importantly, the Fort Bend County Commissioners Court listened.
In 2017, County Commissioners Vincent Morales (Precinct 1) and Grady Prestage (Precinct 2) proposed the court engage with a consulting firm to validate the community’s concerns and establish what sort of facility could be built, where it would be located, and how much it would cost.
And thus, the Fort Bend Epicenter was born.
Image courtesy of Fort Bend Epicenter
“The Epicenter is a new focal point that the court, as well as councils across the county, is looking for to move the county into the future — thinking 30, 50 years from now, well beyond their own terms,” Fort Bend County Auditor Ed Sturdivant said.
The Fort Bend Epicenter is a 230,000-square-foot multipurpose facility located in the county’s geographic center — hence the name “epicenter” — and will serve as a one-stop shop for the local and regional community.
Located adjacent to the Fort Bend County Fairgrounds, the county commissioners expect both attractions to boost and further develop the surrounding area. The Fort Bend Epicenter is also expected to complement the offerings of nearby venues, like the Smart Financial Centre in nearby Sugar Land, which is more of an arts, performance, and concert venue. The $100 million Fort Bend Epicenter in Rosenberg features a 17,000-square-foot multipurpose area and an outdoor open-air pavilion for livestock and other special events. The venue also features five versatile and unique event spaces, six basketball courts, 12 volleyball courts, and seating for over 10,000 guests.
As the site for the annual Fort Bend County Fair, first hosted in 1933, this property is part of a growing trend of fairgrounds that are either being enhanced or repurposed to meet the needs of their surrounding communities.
“The Fairgrounds has been an asset to the county for many years — a needed asset,” said Kevin Matocha, whose Stonehenge Companies was brought in to support and expedite the development process. “It houses our annual County Fair, but the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo uses it as well.”
Matocha noted that the new venue will be a hybrid of sorts, fulfilling its traditional role while offering the capacity for many more events. “When we look at a lot of the cattle, horse, and livestock breeders that bring in large groups for a weekend or a week-long event, yes, they need the pen space and all the stuff that typical fairgrounds can offer, but they also need meeting space, and they need large gathering spaces, and they would like to keep them around the site.”
Matocha went on to say, “We can bring dirt in the middle of the facility to show livestock at noon and that evening, I can have seats on the floor for a speaker or a concert.”
The facility will not only host events year-round and be an asset to the community, but because it’s located at the county’s highest elevation, it will also provide a nearby safe haven during any natural disasters. Unfortunately, the county struggled with this in August 2017 as Hurricane Harvey became the first Category 4 hurricane to make landfall along the Middle Texas coast since 1970.
“We all know what happened back in 2017 with all the flooding we got from Harvey,” said Sturdivant. “We didn’t have a good place to shelter large numbers of people when they were getting pushed out of their homes due to the flooding. This center will be prioritized in those circumstances to be a mass shelter for the community.
That’s really what drove this thing home, to make sure we moved on it now rather than waiting until later.”
Image courtesy of Fort Bend Epicenter
With discussions for the project beginning as early as 2017, the Fort Bend County Commissioners Court enlisted the assistance of Stonehenge Companies, rather than waiting for the upcoming November bond election where it would go up against other projects and priorities, potentially delaying the process, according to Sturdivant.
The firm, which has experience developing and managing various projects throughout the state from medical buildings to student housing and town squares, determined a public-private partnership, or P3, would be the most effective and efficient scenario to get the project up and running as soon as possible.
“The market clearly showed that interest rates were going to go up in the future so the quicker we could deliver the project due to interest rate creep as well as supply chain issues, the better,” said Matocha. “We demonstrated that if the county did this process under the standard procurement process, it would take them 19 months longer to deliver the building than it would through our delivery method. And in fact, we put our money where our mouth was at the end of the day.”
While P3 is helping finance the project, the county is taking on the burden of operations at Fort Bend Epicenter by approving advance funding of up to $27 million over 10 years. While Sturdivant estimates the costs will be approximately $1 million through year three and will be repaid by year four, the $27 million in funding is a worst-case scenario if the facility “didn’t collect a penny.” With such high goals, the county made the strategic move to hire The Sports Facilities Companies, a company that partners with communities to plan, develop, and manage sports, recreation, and events facilities, to operate the venue.
The pricing structure of the facility is expected to cover its operating costs, while Sturdivant said that the facility’s revenue stream will grow through naming rights on the building and concessions, among other items.
The Fort Bend Epicenter officially opened its doors on Saturday, August 19, 2023, and is already making an economic splash, driving over $800,000 in sponsorship revenue. Sponsorship partners include Southwest Mitsubishi, Energy Texas, GFL Environmental, Bud Light, PepsiCo, Inc., and Chick-fil-A.
With the finances in place to support the facility for at least a decade, now is the time for Fort Bend Epicenter to elevate and improve the community.
Sturdivant said the Commissioners Court authorized unissued mobility bonds of approximately $400 million to promote mobility and road infrastructure throughout the county, with the next potential mobility bond authorization, in the neighborhood of $500 million, taking place in November.
There are also initiatives to potentially build a full-service hotel, convention center, and parking structure adjacent to the Epicenter, with the city of Rosenberg already approved to receive a rebate on sales tax, hotel occupancy tax, and mixed-beverage tax generated within 1,000 feet of the facility to funnel money back into the community for further development and improvements.
“What this facility’s going to do is breed trade for consumers and it’s going to breed commerce amongst our businesses,” Sturdivant said. “The Commissioners Court as well as cities across our county are fully engaged to make sure this development occurs — not just the Epicenter, but the development of the county through the unincorporated and undeveloped areas of the county — in a way that will make people 30 years from now proud to still be living here.”