Below lay a field in Frisco, one of many. Strapped into a helicopter, the then-mayor of Frisco, Maher Maso, pressed his face up to the window. In a vast field, the cattle below looked like ants. It was 2017, Maso’s last year as mayor before his term limit hit. Next to him sat Jerry Jones. The two scouted those fields for possible locations for what might have been, but never was, a family-friendly destination theme park — an unrealized forerunner to the recently approved Universal Studios park.
“Of course, it then tanked right in the middle of our negotiation,” Maso tells me, dipping a chunk of pita bread in tzatziki. But the city was prepared to venture forward with other opportunities, and Maso had a birds-eye view of what Frisco offered.
One thing most Frisco residents don’t know is that long before Universal Studios began looking at Frisco, another major theme park was close to moving in. It was to be a destination park that would have drawn in tourists, hotels and other revenue streams — similar to what we expect to see with Universal Studios. But it all went pear-shaped.
The future of Frisco may seem hard to predict, but it’s not. The city began planning for what’s next over 30 years ago. Tourism was always the plan. And that plan started with a baseball team.
Rewind to 2003. Mandalay Baseball moved from Shreveport, Louisiana, to Frisco and changed its name to the RoughRiders. The team began playing at Dr Pepper Ballpark, a newly constructed stadium for the team, and was the Double-A affiliate of the Texas Rangers. “The first one was the RoughRiders,” Maso says. “It all started from there.”
The debut game on April 3, 2003, proved just how successfully Frisco could draw a crowd — the game was a sellout with over 10,000 fans in attendance. The city could fill a ballpark, but could it fill hotels?
Frisco. Tourism. Baseball. I am expecting to talk about the first at a lunch at a local Mediterranean bistro with Maso, but not the last two. Lunch begins with a lighthearted chat about Frisco’s hidden past with the town’s rowdy figures, but it quickly flips to a discussion about where the city is going, with the simple question, “What’s your thought on Universal?”
Maso laughs and says that he isn’t surprised in the slightest, despite the fact many residents have appeared shocked by the news. Again, tourism was always the plan. This was decided back in the 1990s.
“Cities only have two revenue streams — property tax and sales tax, that’s it,” Maso says, leaning in as the restaurant grows louder with the lunch rush. “Once we decided we needed strong tourism, we invested a lot. We didn’t care what it cost. The city is forever; what was important was what will it do for us in 20, 30 or 40 years.”
Maso takes a drink of his iced tea before continuing. “Think of the tax dollars, cities all go through the same cycle.” Maso pulls out his phone to draw a graph with his pointer finger. He starts at the bottom left side of the screen and drags his finger up to the right before flattening the line and bringing it back down again.
“You grow, revenue grows and then it levels off, but expenses keep going up,” Maso says. “You have to think really hard about how to keep revenue strong. Anytime you can bring outside dollars in, it’s going to help the city.”
Frisco’s growth has been vertical, he explains, but one day that line will flatten. He adds, “What happens if services drop, quality of life drops and people move?” If the city provides a well-executed tourist location, like Universal, and continues to do so, the growth will continue — creating additional opportunities for visitors and residents.
August 2005. FC Dallas moved into Pizza Hut Park, a 19,096-seat-capacity soccer stadium in Frisco. Pizza Hut left as the primary sponsor and the stadium was renamed Toyota Stadium in Sept. 2013. The stadium is now part of a complex with 17 soccer fields and books more than 350 days every year with 1.8 million people visiting annually, raking in $82 million per year. Not bad at all.
“Cities want sustainability — a quality of life that is sustainable,” Maso says. “To achieve that, you need financial sustainability, that’s where tourism comes in. Structural sustainability is how you build your community, the things that withstand the test of time.”
With the use of tourism to bring in revenue for the city, the growth will continue instead of dropping off. It’s Maso’s finger-drawn smartphone graph in real life. People, especially families, always look for places with high-end entertainment for vacations or day trips. A city such as Frisco has the opportunity to be a one-stop destination for all types of entertainment. Local tourism perfected.
After 34 years of public service, George Purefoy understands what makes Frisco thrive — and tick. Purefoy should know. He was Frisco’s city manager between 1987 and 2022. And he reiterates the same mantra: tourism keeps the city alive.
“You looked at what Frisco could be — industrial was obviously not the way to go,” Purefoy tells me by phone. “You start looking at other ways to bring wealth to the city, and tourism was a way to do that. Tourism was a goal we had from the very beginning.”
Purefoy explains that residents especially experience these opportunities. A city such as Frisco programmed itself to be a one-stop shop for residents to live, work and play. “People like the idea of not having to leave Frisco to get anything they need,” Purefoy says. He believes that a full-service city like Frisco will prove successful even when other cities see a decline in revenue.
The PGA is the first real test to see if Frisco can handle destination tourism on such a large scale.
In 2018, the Professional Golfers’ Association of America announced the relocation of its headquarters from its longtime location in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, to Frisco, Texas. The PGA looked at golf-friendly communities nationwide, including Charlotte, Atlanta and Phoenix. But Frisco won out.
“Palm Beach County and Florida stood up and made an attractive offer, but Frisco’s jumped off the page for a couple of reasons,” PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh previously told Local Profile. “One is the financial incentives of Texas, a very business-forward place. They get the entire state behind it.”
Frisco offered not only bigger office space but also the opportunity to create a destination. The PGA’s move to Frisco grew to a level many didn’t think possible — jobs, hotels, neighborhoods and golf courses are only the beginning of what a company like the PGA can bring. “Texas’ economic development office projects that PGA Frisco will drive $2.5 billion in economic impact over the next 20 years,” a PGA spokesperson told Local Profile.
But Frisco is not the only North Texas city relying on tourism for revenue — and it won’t be the last. Take North Richland Hills, for example, and its upcoming Peppa Pig theme park. “This is the location of a former family entertainment center, and the zoning for outdoor entertainment was already in place for this property,” explains Mary Peters, communications director of North Richland Hills. With zoning already in place and the possibility of many tourists, the decision was easy.
But the decision to bring Universal to Frisco was not as simple. The city and its officials faced significant backlash from residents, citing concerns about traffic and safety despite studies being done on both. “The people of Frisco are being exploited for money,” one resident told the city council during a meeting on March 7, 2023. “We are growing fast enough.”
Even though the majority of Frisco residents were opposed to the theme park, it was approved by the Frisco City Council during that same March 7 meeting, after the vote was delayed twice earlier this year.
“I would have loved to have something like this when my kids were little,” Frisco Mayor Jeff Cheney said during the council meeting. “This will bring other assets to it. The work doesn’t end on voting night.”
In fact, Maso believes the work is just beginning. Universal may be just one of many tourist hotspots to lay claim to the city in upcoming years. “I give you 50-50 someone will come here in the next seven to 10 years,” says Maso, discussing the possibility of another major sports team moving to Frisco. “It could be the Cowboys, maybe the Stars.”
But how big will Frisco get? Purefoy doesn’t think Frisco will ever have the same major draws as Dallas or Arlington.
“We will get close, but I don’t know if something like the AT&T Stadium would fit here,” Purefoy says. “It would stretch the limits as to what the transportation department could handle.”
It also raises the question of whether residents would approve of the city allowing even larger attractions, like a stadium, especially when Universal caused such an uproar, with citizens lamenting the loss of cow pastures and the inevitable increased traffic. The controversy that came with Universal won’t be the last, and Maso believes Frisco City Council is just starting to see real pushback from residents. But that can’t stop the council from looking to the city’s future.
“The problem is, if you don’t do anything, they won’t wait — they’ll leave,” Maso says. “We’re going to see how much the current council understands that. They have some big decisions coming up.”
In a large conference room on the fifth floor of the city hall, Frisco Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Angelia Pelham sits in the chair across from me. We are in the building where the Frisco City Council voted to approve Universal just one week prior — the building that connects the city’s generations of public servants, old and new, with a similar set of goals.
Pelham was elected to the city council in June 2021 with the idea that she wanted to not only make the city sustainable but also use her fresh ideas to explore what the city offered.
“Unlike many politicians, I didn’t come in with one focus,” Pelham explains. “I wanted to make an impact across all areas of the city. I was focused on Frisco as a whole and the idea of sustainability — tourism is a sustainable revenue generator.”
Pelham’s background in major corporations, including working for Disney, gives her a special insight into what tourism will look like in Frisco. Having lived in Orlando, a far bigger city, she knows that is not what Frisco is.
“We want to be a destination city, but we are specific in what we want,” Pelham says. “We know through our studies, affluent families with school-age children are the demographic that is attracted to Frisco. We want tourism to come from those profiles. We aren’t just growing for the sake of growing.”
Pelham explains that once the council received the news that Universal was interested in possibly building a resort, they initially were skeptical. “We all kind of sat back a little bit,” Pelham laughs. “Because of my time working for Disney, I was probably the furthest to sit back and go, ‘Woah, do we even want this?’”
But once the company explained it would be a new kind of park, the council began to get more curious. A kid-only park was different from anything Universal had done in the past. Having the ages range from three to 11 would fit the demographic Frisco was looking to fill.
“They really worked with us to show what they could offer,” Pelham says. “Their age requirements and height requirements made us realize it did have the potential for Frisco — it fits that profile of school-age children.”
Frisco is already known as Sports City, USA — adding Universal to the mix, the city becomes a well-rounded funding machine, according to all three local leaders. A destination. Tourist Town, Texas. But after Universal, what’s next?
“A vast majority of Frisco is already built out, so there is only so much more room for growth, as far as physical land,” says Pelham. “But I see us continuing to grow as a city; we will make smart and strategic decisions as to what else we will bring.”
Pelham explains that a performing arts center is something she would like to see in the city. She also expects to see a Fortune 50 company move to Frisco in the near future. As for Maso’s prediction about the Cowboys, it’s a real possibility — then again, in Frisco, anything is. She explains that the city is attractive to all sorts of businesses and other ventures and believes Frisco will have its pick.
“We have a lot to offer.” Pelham smiles before shrugging. “The sky is the limit for Frisco.”