Following more than two years of controversy, plans for a proposed Heritage Center event facility at the Richard M. Borchard Regional Fairgrounds were officially discarded by a split vote of the Nueces County Commissioners Court last week.
The Heritage Center, which at one time was proposed to cost more than $30 million, was initially planned to be a focal point at the fairgrounds. Construction on the facility was postponed, however, to allow for the construction of other facilities needed to accommodate the Nueces County Junior Livestock Show.
On Feb. 4, the Nueces County Commissioners Court met to discuss and reassign $26 million in unspent funds from $34.5 million in Certificates of Obligation passed in 2007. That $26 million included $22.43 million allocated for the construction of the Heritage Center.
Before introducing a motion to deny funding for the Heritage Center, Commissioner Mike Pusley said it was time for the county to face "cold, hard facts" regarding the fairgrounds. With the American Bank Center, Concrete Street Amphitheater and Memorial Coliseum already available, Pusley said the Nueces County market is already "saturated" with event centers. That fact, combined with the current economic climate and a lower than expected number of events already held at the fairgrounds, led Pusley to his decision, he said.
"In maybe 4 or 5 years this will be the right decision for us," Pusley said. "I can't support the building of the Heritage Center at this time."
Commissioner Oscar Ortiz, a longtime supporter of construction of the Heritage Center, disagreed with Pusley's reasoning.
"We have a lot of facilities throughout the city. A 'saturation,' you say. We keep talking about building new ones. As long as they are in the City of Corpus Christi, that's OK, but we don't give anything to the western part of Nueces County," Ortiz said.
Ortiz also noted that the Certificates of Obligation funding the center have already been approved and sold.
"The debt service is already included in our budget and projected out for 20 years. This will not involve an increase in taxes," Ortiz said. "It's not going to cost the residents of this county any more money."
Commissioner Betty Jean Longoria agreed with Ortiz, and said the center would benefit the entire county.
"It's not Robstown, its our county," Longoria said.
Commissioner Chuck Cazalas said he agreed with Pusley that the current economic climate made building the center now a bad idea. Citing severe revenue losses for the American Bank Center, Cazalas said the Heritage Center may have been a feasible idea two or three years ago, but not now.
"The Heritage Center, I think, eventually should be built," Cazalas said. "But because of the poor economy, the crooks in Washington and those on Wall Street, I don't think this is the time to do it."
As the intentions of his fellow commissioners became clear, Ortiz said he was disappointed that the vote seemed to be breaking down along party lines, with Democrats Ortiz and Longoria in favor of the center and Republicans Pusley, Cazalas and County Judge Loyd Neal against the construction.
"Robstown has become a target," Ortiz said. "Because this project is in a geographical area that is frowned upon, and because they vote Democratic, predominantly in that area, all the sudden that becomes a bad project."
Ortiz said the claims of fiscal responsibility by the three Republicans did not match other actions they have taken recently.
"The rest of these commissioners are very conservative, but they have put a lot of lard on their sandwiches. Just look at all the stimulus package they have asked for," Ortiz said, referring to a $1.3 billion economic stimulus package sent to Washington D.C. by the county earlier this month. "They're conservative when it comes to public relations, but look at all the projects they have asked for. It's a lot of pork.
"I think this is a Republican agenda, and I guess we'll have to see about it in the next election."
Longoria agreed. "This has turned very much into a Republican issue," she said. "It's not about helping people."
Judge Neal denied that party affiliation had anything to do with the decision, and said he had never supported building new facilities at the fairgrounds while the fairgrounds was losing money.
"It was just not a good economic decision, in my opinion," Neal said. "We need to move on and do other things."
Neal also took issue with Ortiz's claim that Robstown was being targeted by commissioners court members.
"No one on this court hates Robstown," Neal said. "In the last 8 years, this commissioners court has invested $50 million in Robstown.
"No other area of this county has had anywhere near that investment in the last 8 years. We are not trying to penalize Robstown."
Following the county judge's statements, the court voted 3-2 to not build the Heritage Center, with Neal, Pusley and Cazales voting for canceling the funding, and commissioners Longoria and Ortiz voting against the motion.
Following that vote, the court discussed and approved $5.1 million in other improvements to the fairgrounds, including additional parking, extending a canopy from the roof of the Equestrian Center, adding a covering to walkways, building a $1.05 million storage facility, adding air conditioning to one animal exhibit barn, creating 75 to 100 hook ups for recreation vehicles and constructing additional fencing.