January 24, 2008
No extension for Astrodome Redevelopment

I confess, this is a bit of a surprise to me.

A company's bid to reinvent the Astrodome as a convention hotel suffered a major setback Wednesday when a county board refused to give it more time to negotiate a lease and finalize a loan.

Entrepreneurs from Astrodome Redevelopment Co., aiming to transform the building once known as the Eighth Wonder of the World into a 1,300-room, $450 million hotel, say their quest isn't over.

But the decision made Wednesday by the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp.'s board drops the development company's exclusive right to strike a deal, allowing the county to entertain other proposals to find a second life for the venue.

"It's really up to them whether it is the death knell," said County Judge Ed Emmett, who made a rare appearance before the board to ask it not to give Astrodome Redevelopment more negotiating time. "They still can move forward."

The sports corporation's board refused to extend the negotiating period on a 4-0 vote. Board members declined to discuss the vote in detail, saying there are confidentiality provisions in the letter of intent that limit what they can divulge.

Vice chairman Charles "Sonny" Sowell said: "This (vote) is not to say that nobody is interested in what ARC is trying to do. If ARC has plans that they want to continue, it's their choice."


The sports corporation and Commissioners Court gave preliminary approval to Astrodome Redevelopment's proposal in summer 2006. A letter of intent signed by the sports corporation and the company spelled out that Astrodome Redevelopment had to work out deals with the Texans and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo -- Reliant Park's main tenants -- and secure financing.

The Texans and the rodeo have adamantly opposed the convention hotel, saying it would hurt their operations.

With the letter of intent set to expire Jan. 29, county attorney Mike Stafford notified Commissioners Court that it would be appropriate to grant a 90-day extension because county financial experts hadn't finished analyzing the deal.

Emmett, however, urged the board Wednesday to deny the extension.

"There is no financing package that has been presented to the county," he said. "We are in a circumstance that this has been going on for years. There comes a point at which you can't just keep granting extensions."

This sounds a lot like a vote of no confidence to me. Judge Emmett seems to doubt their claims about financing. Given that ARC says they have everything in order, and that it was County Attorney Mike Stafford who wanted the extension, the HCSC and Emmett must think they can do better. How and from whom after all this time is a mystery to me. One scenario I can imagine is Emmett using this as the excuse to start publicly investigating demolition options. He can say "we tried to save it, but no one had a viable plan, and we had to take the necessary steps to be fiscally responsible". We'll see.

Of course, that depends on whether there really is no one else out there with a plan that the powers that be like. That's not a sure thing.

There could be three or four groups prepared to present plans to transform the Dome.

The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo may be one contender, said Leroy Shafer, the rodeo's chief operating officer. The rodeo and partners are looking into whether the Dome could serve as a replacement facility for aging Reliant Arena.

I'm far from convinced that it makes sense to renovate the Dome solely for a three-week event - if that were a logical thing to do, you'd think someone would have pushed for it before now. Be that as it may, we'll see what other possibilities arise.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 24, 2008 to Elsewhere in Houston
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