Ford Park gets more money from tax dollars

Ford Pavilion

Roughly two million Jefferson County tax dollars are annually allotted to support the initiatives of the Ford Park Entertainment Complex, but that isn’t the only public funding used to subsidize the privately run county venue. According to information from the county, Ford Park also receives the lion’s share of Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) funds as well.

Records of the HOT fund show Ford Park receives an additional subsidy usually amounting to tens of thousands – sometimes hundreds of thousands – of dollars each year. But this HOT grant award cycle, Ford Park management was seeking in excess of $1 million. Cut a little short, on Sept. 21, the HOT committee agreed to give the venue more than $900,000 of their request.

The HOT money is meant to be used to attract tourism dollars.

The franchise

Ford Park, which boasts an arena, exhibit hall, ball fields and pavilion, just to name a few of its amenities, was sold to Jefferson County taxpayers as a premier event facility adding quality of life value to the area. Owned by the county, the facility now serves as the fairgrounds for the South Texas State Fair, and is the largest venue in Southeast Texas that can accommodate people by the thousands, concerts and conventions. But more than a decade has passed since its opening, and the venue cannot attract the public support (and revenue) needed to make the facility profitable.

Operated by the SMG management firm for its entire existence, the facility has yet to break even. Jefferson County Commissioners, tasked with overseeing the expenditure of tax dollars, have had to allot upwards of $2 million annually to subsidize the privately run public facility.

But that’s still not enough. According to HOT records, since 2003 Ford Park has received $3.9 million in additional tax money not generated by property taxes but rather through fees paid on hotel stays. Much of that amount has been recently awarded.

In 2010, Ford Park asked for $131,050 for marketing; it received $79,665.72. In the beginning of 2011, the venue’s management asked for money to purchase 50 round tables that cost $32,793. That amount was approved and provided. Ford Park and its SMG management firm then went back to the county’s HOT committee to request additional funds at the end of the year – this time looking for $475,000 to repair ball fields. Again, the amount was awarded.

Two months later, in January 2012, according to HOT data, Ford Park was again the recipient of hotel tax money in the amount of $72,400 to pay for advertising. The amount awarded to Ford Park was more than any other grant allotment recipient, except for the Port Arthur Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, which also receives heavy HOT financing, but not near what was requested – an advertising assistance check for $572,400. Before the end of 2012, Ford Park was again a big beneficiary of HOT money, receiving an additional $80,900 for “FY 2012-2013.” 

The FY 2012-2013 tag on the Ford Park payout at the end of the calendar year in 2012 (the county fiscal year begins Oct. 1) seemed to denote an all-encompassing award for the fiscal year, but that would be a mistaken impression. By May 2013, Ford Park was again getting HOT money – this time $24,684 for pesticides and ball field maintenance. For the 2013-2014 fiscal year, Ford Park and SMG received $72,800 with no specific purpose noted on the monetary award – but, again, that is not an all-encompassing figure, because before the 2013-2014 fiscal year was over, Ford Park was the recipient of additional funds from the hotel tax. Added to the initial award was $46,385 for “renovation of fields,” and $35,914 for “emergency” light maintenance.

Which brought the venue into the next year’s grant calendar.

For fiscal year 2014-15, Ford Park was given its routine annual award, noted in HOT records this time for advertising and promotion, in an amount of $76,350. The complex management was also given an additional $160,567 for the “ball field turfing project.” Before the end of the fiscal year, Ford Park also requested (and received) another $27,168 for maintenance and repairs of field lighting.

In the 2015-16 fiscal year, which will end at the end of September, Ford Park received $81,150 for promotion and advertising, and $90,970 for “outfield conditioning, tables, chairs, and canopies.” But that’s not all. The complex was also awarded $250,000 for expansion of the concession stand at the ball fields. According to County Auditor Patrick Swain, the $250,000 award has yet to be made, however, as Ford Park management is awaiting more HOT funding to cover the $325,000 the concession stand will actually cost. Which, Swain said, is part of the reason Ford Park requested another $1 million before this fiscal year comes to a close.

“The requested $1 million Ford Park is currently seeking,” Swain said, is for use on capital project needs the county has refused to pay for. Among some of the requests Ford Park management asked the county to fund are new chillers, air controls, lighting and scoreboard repairs.

With the county saying no, the venue made its request in the form of another tax-based subsidy. All but the $75,000 needed to fund the rest of the concession stand was awarded. But those funds will never appear as actual revenue for the facility, so the money will not offset the shortfall the county makes up each year.

“They’re not recognizing it as revenue at Ford Park,” Swain said. “When the check comes over, they set it up as a liability account, and they pay out of their liability account.

“They run a separate accounting system for the checks that they write.”

And the checks made out to Ford Park from HOT money are not the only HOT funds expended on the facility’s behalf. As shown in HOT records, funds are regularly expended on behalf of Ford Park. Such is the case with multiple payments made by the HOT account to Field Turf USA – in excess of $127,000 for “abrasives” in the beginning of 2015. In fact, the HOT department recently opened a special capital line item called “Ball fields” to account for payouts made on behalf of Ford Park.

Since 2015, when the account was opened, $252,000 has been spent directly from HOT funds just for ball field work not awarded through the regular grant process. According to account notations, the fund anticipates $419,700 in estimated expenditures, and reports an additional $126, 186 in already encumbered expenditures.

After the last 15 years, with Ford Park’s managers SMG under public scrutiny for its dependence on tax dollars to subsidize operations while the management firm collects corporate fees, and benefits from concession and ticketing contracts, competitor Spectra entertainment management firm executives  have told county officials they can do a better job.

After presentations by both national entertainment management firms, the Jefferson County Commissioners Court will select one to run the Ford Park Entertainment Complex no later than Oct. 1, purchasing director Deborah Clark told The Examiner last week.