The murky future of Epicenter League City: Gilley's inbound; remaining development unclear

(Nathan Colbert/Community Impact Newspaper)
(Nathan Colbert/Community Impact Newspaper)

(Nathan Colbert/Community Impact Newspaper)

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In late 2018, League City officials expressed excitement for a project that would have added a convention center, a sports arena, an amphitheater and more at the site of the existing Chester L. Davis Sportsplex near I-45.

One year later, the predevelopment agreement the city had with Western Spherical Developers to build what was dubbed Epicenter League City has expired, and no construction has occurred. The project is not going to happen as originally thought, city officials said.

However, the city is confident plans for the site are not dead. Officials are working with other developers to drum up interest and build something similar to Epicenter in the same location. The plan is still to one day replace the sportsplex with a large entertainment hub, but the fields remain for now, League City Planning and Development Director David Hoover said.

“We’re still working on it,” he said. “It’s just becoming something a little bit different than the way it started.”

Meanwhile, Western Spherical is planning to build a smaller version of Epicenter League City on land near the sportsplex. The development’s anchor will be Gilley’s Entertainment, a family-friendly restaurant and venue based on the famous bar that was once located in Pasadena and featured in the 1980 movie “Urban Cowboy.”

At the same time, the city is planning to build new sports fields farther south in preparation for the day a developer will build over the existing sportsplex.

Epicenter League City

Western Spherical expressed interest in the sportsplex about two years ago due to its proximity to I-45 and other factors, and the city worked with the business to come up with a site map.

However, plans for the $460 million project never went much further than a predevelopment agreement that expired at the end of January 2019. Around mid-2019, city officials took another look at the development and decided the city would benefit more if Epicenter League City had one large hotel rather than three or four small ones, and the project changed.

As part of the original plan, the developer would be required to pay to create new sports fields to replace the ones that would be destroyed by the development at the sportsplex. However, Western Spherical never fronted the money for the new sports fields nor the new single-hotel plan, and the project fizzled out, city officials said.

“It was clear the other deal wasn’t going to work out as originally discussed,” Hoover said. “I still believe they have good intentions, but I’m also to the point where we at the city can’t keep waiting on good intentions. We’ve been doing that for two years now.”

The situation was a bit more complicated than that, said Linda Merritt, director of public relations and marketing for Western Spherical Developers. The developer had financiers in place to pay for the project, but certain city and state incentives that would have helped reimburse them for the project disappeared or were never made clear, increasing the risk, she said.

Mayor Pat Hallisey said he was disappointed to see the deal die.

“I’m pretty frustrated. It’s been going on for 2 1/2, three years, and nothing has happened,” he said. “The important thing is we just didn’t quit.”

The city has since begun talking to other developers to create Epicenter League City, though its name and design elements would likely change by the time work began. Western Spherical Developers could still be involved when plans begin taking shape, but they will not be the sole developer as originally planned, Hoover said.

“Deals like this and developments like this always take longer than everybody wants them to take,” he said. “In the end, it may very well turn out to be better than had it started on time.”

Gilley’s and more

Western Spherical Developers may not be creating the lofty project originally planned, but the business will build nearby what it is calling Phase 1 of Epicenter League City.

On a 16-acre parcel across League City Parkway from the sportsplex, adjacent to where the large Epicenter League City development would have been built, Western Spherical will build Gilley’s Entertainment and other attractions, including a convention center, hotel, performing arts center and more.

To Western Spherical, this development is a small version of the original Epicenter League City plan, which is why the company is calling the project “Epicenter League City Phase 1.”

“In a sense, the 16-acre site at Calder [Road] and Link [Road] will be a version of what had originally had been proposed. Obviously you can’t fit everything into that space that was originally talked about,” Merritt said.

To the city, calling the development Epicenter League City Phase 1 is misleading because it is not the original full-blown development that was planned to overtake the sportsplex.

Gilley’s Entertainment will not be like the Pasadena nightclub that gained fame in “Urban Cowboy.” Instead, it will be a destination for families with a restaurant, museum and other attractions, much like the Gilley’s in Dallas, Merritt said.

Gilley’s Club was created by famous country artist Mickey Gilley. As part of the construction of Gilley’s Entertainment in League City, the developers expect Gilley to visit the club once or twice a year, Merritt said.

“Epicenter League City will create a community gathering place for League City residents and businesses in addition to attracting visitors locally and beyond,” Western Spherical Developers President David Miles wrote in an email to Community Impact Newspaper. “WSD stands firmly in the commitment to working with the city’s leadership enhancing League City as a great place to live and work.”Hallisey agreed that Gilley’s will attract people to League City. The city is growing and trying to tap into new markets, and Gilley’s will help draw in more people, he said.

“It’ll be a great deal for the city,” Hallisey said.

Bay Colony Park

Just because Epicenter League City is not happening does not mean the city’s need for new athletic fields has gone away. As such, the city plans to build Phase 1 of Bay Colony Park, which will include five new softball fields, at the expense of the city instead of a developer.

League City’s youth sports organizations sometimes have to turn away children interested in playing because there are not enough fields to accommodate the number of teams that need to practice and compete. The sportsplex has 10 fields split between baseball and softball players, and organizations said that is not enough.

“We probably turned away anywhere from 40 to 50 kids ... we couldn’t accommodate [this past season],” said Philicia Stem, League City Little League president. “In my heart, I hate turning away any kids.”

After talking with youth sports organizations, the city determined it would be best to create five new softball fields at Bay Colony Park along Ervin Avenue near Calder Road. The softball fields at the existing sportsplex will be turned into baseball fields, said Chien Wei, director of parks and cultural services.

Design for the five fields will take place throughout 2020, and construction is planned to begin in 2021. Original plans for the park included 15 baseball fields, 15 soccer fields and 10 volleyball courts. The park will include land farther south of Phase 1 that could eventually house those additional fields, though officials are unsure how many will eventually be in the park, Wei said.

When a developer eventually does turn the existing sportsplex into an entertainment hub, part of the deal will include the developer reimbursing the city for the cost of Bay Colony Park. For now, the money is coming out of the city’s 4B funds, which is money already set aside specifically for amateur sports facilities. The city has applied for a Texas Parks & Wildlife Department grant to pay for half of the up to $8.3 million project.

In the worst-case scenario that the sportsplex is never turned into an entertainment hub, the city needs new athletic fields regardless. That is why the city is willing to pay for them now, Hoover said.

“We’re just trying to get the job done one way or another,” Hallisey said.
By Jake Magee

Editor, Bay Area & Pearland/Friendswood

Jake has been a print journalist for several years, covering numerous beats including city government, education, business and more. Starting off at a daily newspaper in southern Wisconsin, Magee covered two small cities before being promoted to covering city government in the heart of newspaper's coverage area. He moved to Houston in mid-2018 to be the editor for and launch the Bay Area edition of Community Impact Newspaper. Today, he covers everything from aerospace to transportation to flood mitigation.