Round Rock’s Kalahari Project: The Letter that Started the Deal

by: Nicole Barrios / Austin Community Papers

Ben White wanted to find the “next big thing” for Round Rock.

White, one of the head dealmakers at the Round Rock Chamber, found just that in a $350 million development deal with Kalahari Resorts. And it all came together through a proverbial cold call — a letter to Kalahari about Round Rock and a few localized gifts.

While news on the deal to build an Africa-themed resort, indoor and outdoor water park and convention center in Round Rock broke in June, White said negotiations on the project had been occurring for the past two years.

White is vice president of economic development at the chamber. As the one responsible for the chamber’s economic development efforts, he plays a leading role in attracting new business to the city.

“The city council had always challenged city staff to find out what the next big thing is for Round Rock and, even though I’m not city staff, I would attend staff retreats and listen to that and knew they wanted to know what the next big thing was,” he said.

With that in mind, White reached out to a familiar name in the Texas resort field. The company — which White chose not to disclose — told him Round Rock is too close to another resort.

White said he took it as a challenge.

“We got turned down from this group, (so) let’s go find somebody that will be really exciting to the community,” he said.

White began researching several resorts and convention centers, which eventually led him to Kalahari. He sent a cover letter, information on the city and some localized gifts in a package to Kalahari before the 2014 Labor Day holiday.

Within days of sending the package, White received an email from Kalahari’s site saying founder and CEO Todd Nelson had passed along White’s info to the resort’s selection manager. Kalahari’s site manager was in Round Rock just a week after that, White said, and the project continued to develop from there.

Today, Kalahari stands with Dell Inc. as one of the top economic development deals in the city’s history, White said. While Kalahari will likely never surpass Dell in job creation, he said, it could surpass the tech giant in capital investment and incentives.

“Kalahari is our answer to the next big thing,” he said.

Susan Morgan, city chief financial officer, said Kalahari will be the largest single-entity taxpayer by net assessed value in the city once it opens with its $350 million minimum investment.

Currently, the top taxpayer is Dell Computer Holdings at about $298 million in value, she said. The third biggest taxpayer is Dell Computer Corp. at $91 million in value, she said.

White said in 2014 the chamber was just beginning to conduct cold calls and reach out to businesses. “For the chamber, not many cold calls are not a success,” he said. “You get turned down a whole lot more than you are successful. You have to have pretty thick skin.”

Most economic development leads come through the Great Austin Chamber of Commerce or the economic development arm of the Texas governor’s office, he said. Now he said the chamber takes the lead in targeting companies to start or relocate in Round Rock.

“When we talk about economic development, it’s not sitting back and waiting for it to happen,” Mayor Alan McGraw said after the city penned a memorandum of understanding with Kalahari in June. “It really is a proactive approach.”