Thank goodness for Lone Star arena, Cody Johnson, Chad Decker, John Hubbard, and a handful of others who have sparked a much-needed conversation about event facilities. 

In recent days, those gentlemen might be feeling like they bit more public opinion off than they cared (or expected) to chew, but we sure needed their public direction of the community attention to a burgeoning economic and cultural issue.

Who knew so many of us have opinions about an arena?  And passionately held ones, at that.

Oh wait.  Actually, anyone who followed the 2015 back-and-forths about a potential multi-purpose event center probably wasn’t surprised by the flash-bang explosion of social-media opining in the last week.

It’s more like a spark that reignited a discussion that we need to keep having.

Last winter, one of the central objections to a multi-purpose center was the prospect that any ag-related facilities may compete with, and detract from, the single existing private arena. A variety of voices emerged: some arguing against any potential for public competition with private interests; others somewhat discreetly suggesting that existing facilities were already lagging too far behind their competitors in other communities.

Fast forward to this fall and the disclosure of business records evidencing the decline in event bookings over the last five years, and it seems a sizable share of our rodeo tourism traction has, in fact, slipped.

The ‘why’ is hard to pin, likely a combination of administrative, managerial, and private financial factors politely shielded by ten gallons’ worth of cultural deference for the current owners.  We want to dig into the issue at a community level, without digging at any individuals.

So what’s the answer to our community’s need for an events venue? We don’t know yet.  Admittedly, the question presupposes both the need and a desire to meet the need.  But we won’t figure out the answer to any of it if we don’t keep gathering heads together to talk about it.

While social media commentary gives a taste for the situation, it’s missing the component of dialogue with leaders in government, private businesses, the ag industry, and nonprofit entities. Comments that are driven or discouraged by a tally of ‘likes’ provide a window into a segment of the community’s thoughts, but fail to throw wide the doors to a collaborative intersection of creativity, know-how, and elbow-grease.

The conversation about how to address event facilities for the community started years ago—even before the City’s feasibility study over the winter of 15-16, even before the 2015 Leadership Stephenville class assembled as a think-tank for exploring public-private financing options.  And well before the Stephenville Economic Development Authority meeting last week, wherein an agenda item about a potential request for assistance with a private individual to keep the existing arena open fanned the debate flames anew.

Following the SEDA meeting, and after the announcement that the situs of the facility outside the City’s extraterritorial jurisdiction meant SEDA had been unable to initiate action of the type sought, an important question floated: 

“Why was the committee even considering this?”

Because the availability, and vitality, of an event venue is an issue with significant economic impact for Stephenville. The data analyzed this fall makes it clear: those cowboys and cowgirls bring the rain. 

On the conservative end, the four-day PRCA event held this fall is projected to have resulted in at least a $1.9million economic impact for Stephenville.  That’s a lot of rain for four days. 

Extrapolated over several large and small events in a year, that’s a gully washer.

Colloquialisms aside, it’s a complex topic, of significant economic import, and arises as one component of overarching comprehensive questions about how we envision growth for our community.

That’s why the SEDA held a hearing to receive information and consider an economic development request. A statute might draw a bright line defining the boundaries of SEDA’s authority to initiate action, but there is ample ability to educate, collaborate, facilitate.

That’s why, upon their return from a lengthy executive session Tuesday night, the City Council directed the Interim City Administrator to call for an economic development summit, inviting participants from the City, County, STEDCO, SEDA, Chamber, Tarleton, and SISD to convene within the next 45 days to discuss, receive information, and request public input about an event center.

Do we need one?  Do we want one?  Or shall we take our chances with a drought?

That’s why we all need to keep talking about this.

Shelby Slawson - attorney, mom, writer, and ever-aspiring trophy wife - is a member of the E-T’s community columnists. She can be reached at shelby@slawsonlawfirm.com.