February 04, 2008
Commissioners criticize Emmett over Dome hotel plan

The week before last, County Judge Ed Emmett asked the Harris County Sports and Convention Corps' board not to give an extension to Astrodome Redevelopment to negotiate a lease (which they eventually finished anyway). He was critical of their ability to secure financing for the project, and thought it was time for someone else to have a crack at doing something with the Dome. Turns out some of his colleagues on Commissioners Court don't appreciate what he did.

Commissioners El Franco Lee, Sylvia Garcia and Jerry Eversole said they are awaiting reports from county financial analysts and the county attorney's office on the proposed 1,300-room hotel.

Lee said he does not want the county to walk away too quickly from a project that could create as many as 1,500 jobs, create more convention business for Reliant Center and generate tax revenue.

"If you are going to be in the convention business, you have to have a large hotel to accommodate these people," he said. "Anytime you can stimulate your local economy with job creation is a plus. Hotel taxes and retail taxes help relieve the overall tax burden."

At Emmett's urging, the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp. voted last month not to extend Astrodome Redevelopment Co.'s letter of intent by 90 days. The letter of intent granted the company exclusive rights to negotiate a deal to find a second life for the Dome.

Commissioner Garcia said the judge was not speaking for the court and had not informed other members that he would try to influence the sports corporation's decision.

"I felt totally blindsided by that," she said.

County Attorney Mike Stafford wrote Commissioners Court that it would be appropriate to grant a 90-day extension because the county's budget and financial management office wanted more time to analyze Astrodome Redevelopment's deal.

"To me, it was important to let the process work," Garcia said. "As long as we don't have to use public money, this convention hotel may be the best deal we can get."

So the point of contention is Emmett speaking on behalf of the Court without consulting them first. I'm a little curious as to what took them so long to air that particular grievance, but not surprised that they would.

Emmett said Astrodome Redevelopment has not obtained financing and that it is time to entertain other proposals.

The county still can consider Astrodome Redevelopment's plan, but it has lost the exclusive right to negotiate a deal with the sports corporation, he said.

"These people were given the opportunity to come to us with a plan and financing," he said. "We do not have a proposal. I was not comfortable with the way things were drifting along."

Astrodome Redevelopment chief executive John Clanton called Emmett's remarks about the company's financing misleading.

He said county officials, including Emmett, have been shown plenty of evidence of the financing plan, including:

  • A term sheet from a major lender saying that it would loan $360 million.

  • A letter from the Texas Historical Commission indicating that it had approved the company's renovation plans, qualifying it for federal historic rehabilitation tax credits.

  • An offer from a parking garage company saying it would pay for building a $32 million garage around two-thirds of the Dome in exchange for the rights to operate it.

The term sheet for the $360 million loan expired in the fall, but Clanton said Astrodome Redevelopment can obtain similar financing.

Hanson said the company is caught in a Catch-22: It cannot obtain final financing and have $360 million in escrow until the county finalizes a lease with Astrodome Redevelopment.

If what Clanton says is true, that sure looks like they have financing to me. Which makes me wonder what Emmett has become suspicious about. Is he disputing their evidence, or does he just think that this isn't such a hot idea any more? It's not clear to me.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on February 04, 2008 to Elsewhere in Houston

No ammount of public money is good enough for you, eh?

Posted by: RD on February 6, 2008 2:34 AM