in Houston, Texas
New option for Astrodome at $400 million the priciest to date
Tuesday, Jun 26, 2012, 08:51PM CST
By Mike Cronin
astrodome

Harris County taxpayers learned on Tuesday that a fourth, even more expensive Reliant Astrodome redevelopment plan now exists.

This one would cost about $400 million, County Judge Ed Emmett said after Tuesday morning’s County Commissioners Court meeting. And it would entail demolishing the existing Reliant Arena and building a new one within the Astrodome, said Edgardo E. Colon, board chairman of the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation.

No official study has yet been done on that idea because it came from public feedback to a May report on Astrodome options that the county commissioners formally received today.

But the $500,000 Astrodome redevelopment analysis -- to which taxpayers contributed $50,000 -- outlined three options that would produce 18, 153 and 2,221 total jobs, respectively. That’s roughly $3.6 million, $1.8 million and $122,000 per job, respectively. The projections are meant to capture both public- and private-sector jobs, said Willie Loston, executive director of the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation, which oversees Reliant Park facilities and manages its debt.

Conventions, Sports & Leisure International, a consulting firm with offices in Minneapolis and Plano, conducted the study.

“This body has to come up with a solution and present it to the public” in the form of a referendum, Emmett said. A vote in May 2013 probably would be the earliest that would take place, he said.

Yet some such as Houston’s Sorrell Warren, 58, argue that county commissioners should make the decision.

“If this was put to a vote, it’s going to be a very tiny percentage of the people voting on it,” said Warren, a vice president of Vacations to Go in Houston. “And even the people voting are going to be voting with limited actual knowledge of the situation. They’re going to be voting on emotion. Emotion isn’t something we should be spending taxpayer dollars on.”

Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense in Washington, D.C., agreed.

“There are lots of decisions that elected leaders make without putting it to a vote,” Ellis said. “There are other ways to solicit public input in the decision-making process such as public meetings or a referendum that is not binding to gauge public opinion.”

Warren is among those who harbor no sentimental attachments to the 47-year-old former home of the Houston Astros baseball and Houston Oilers football teams.

“It should be torn down,” he said. “You could add 2,500 parking spaces there and increase revenues by $2 million a year.”

Like Warren and Ellis, County Commissioner Steve Radack believes he and his colleagues should decide the Astrodome’s fate.

“Any of the options presented would cause a tax increase, which I would not support,” Radack said. “All options are too cost-prohibitive.”

But simply leaving the Astrodome there, unused “for infinity is a very, very expensive option with absolutely no return,” Loston said.

Annual maintenance already costs Harris County taxpayers up to $2 million of public funding a year. “It’s not an option,” Loston said.

Leaving the dome as is prevents pedestrians from moving about with ease at Reliant Park, Loston said. Worse, the park’s physical deterioration hurts the park’s marketability in attracting new tenants and events.

“Ultimately it becomes an eyesore,” Loston said.

He supports the consultants’ $270.3 million recommendation of transforming the Astrodome into a facility that could host many types of events including exhibitions, and act as additional space for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

“That provides the opportunity for an improved (local) economy,” Loston said.

CSL International estimates that project would generate $10.8 million more a year in regional industries such as tourism, hospitality and grocery, and an extra $800,000 annually in tax revenue.

Jack CagleJack Cagle

A self-sustaining Astrodome is County Commissioner Jack Cagle’s wish -- regardless of what form it takes in the future.

“I don’t think taxpayers should pay for the operations expenses of the Astrodome,” Cagle said. “My preference is for the Astrodome to support itself.”

At the very least, Emmett said he “would like to find a way to keep the Astrodome.” Preserving it would enable a future buyer to snatch it up. Until then, it could be used to host festivals and provide additional space for the rodeo.

Whatever the Astrodome’s outcome, however, Emmett wants Harris County taxpayers to decide. It’s too many millions of dollars to do otherwise, he said.

Candis Carr, 54, who’s lived in Houston for 45 years, concurred.

“It’s a landmark,” said Carr, a Realtor. “So it’d be nice to have a say in what happens to it.”

That is a likely scenario, according to Cagle.

“Any option that would require bond funding would require a public referendum,” he said. “Yes, it’s our responsibility (as county commissioners). But to the extent that it’s a feasible plan, taxpayers would have a choice on which to submit their votes.”

***
Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.

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Photo 'The Astrodome @ Sunset' by flickr user cybertoad, used via a Creative Commons license.

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Comments
Chris Alexander
Wednesday, 06/27/2012 - 06:23PM

If Harris County leaders approve a plan that costs money and they have no private investors, for it to be realized there has to be a bond election. And keep in mind that the need for a bond issue is driven mostly be the need to replace Reliant Arena, so no matter what happens to the Astrodome, they need to have a bond election .

On the other hand, if one or more entrepreneurs can be attracted, the County and HCSCC are in their rights to make contractual agreements to lease and develop the property without voter approval, as long as there is not a substantial taxpayer burden. This is what we would most like to see, both because it protects the taxpayers and because an imaginative entrepreneur opens enormous creative possibilities.

The trickier question is who has a right to decide to tear it down. We don’t expect to have to deal with that issue, but folks who want the Astrodome saved need to think about a recourse path just in case.

Chris Alexander
Wednesday, 06/27/2012 - 08:08PM

I wish to correct an apples-to-oranges cost comparison. A fair cost comparison is with the Astrodome PLUS a separate arena. While the total project cost of the Astrodome Multi-Purpose Facility reconfigured to include the Arena is undetermined, the ballpark figure of $400 million stated by Mr. Colon would be much less than the total of $655.7 million for the two projects separately, as projected in the HCSCC master plan proposal. The total cost of the reconfigured Astrodome Multi-Purpose Facility including the Arena functions is also reduced by optimization of alternative funding sources.

I think it's also confusing to people to describe the new option as "building a new" arena inside the Astrodome. That just sounds goofy, and is not what is contemplated.

FarpointRelay
Monday, 07/02/2012 - 08:16AM

I've always thought it would be neat to turn the astrodome into an indoor skeet range! With the weather too hot and humid for most of the year, having an indoor range like that could bring in big bucks, especially since it would be the only one in Houston (actually probably the only one in Texas)...

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