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Astrodome Redevelopment

What’s going on with the Astrodome?

It’s on the back burner for now.

Still here

A $105 million county-approved plan to renovate and build parking at Houston’s most famous relic has been put on pause since the plan’s most prominent advocate, Republican Ed Emmett, lost his seat last fall to Democrat Lina Hidalgo.

Hidalgo, who took the reins as Harris County’s chief executive in January, said making progress on issues such as bail reform and flood control are more pressing than breathing new life into the Astrodome.

Work on the Astrodome has ground to a halt, and it’s not clear when — or if — the renovation plan spearheaded by Emmett will be picked back up again.

“There are no other updates or changes at this time, but the Astrodome is forever part of our history,” Hidalgo said in a written statement. “Right now, we are focused on transformational actions that will improve the daily lives of our residents.”

Hidalgo stressed that the county has boosted its flood control capacity, enhanced its environmental monitoring capability and fixed a broken bail-bond system.

“Until we can make sure that the Astrodome plan makes fiscal sense and makes sense for our community, no major steps will be taken with regard to the project,” she added.

[…]

Workers did complete some initial stages of Emmett’s plan, such as finishing the first phase of a program to strip asbestos from some parts of the stadium.

County officials finished drawings and specifications for the first phase of the restoration, but they shelved a meeting to present it to the state historical commission for approval.

The cost of that early work was just under $8 million. Most of that money — more than $6 million — went toward design and construction document fees. The asbestos program cost close to $2 million.

“In the future, we’ll come back and look at all of this,” said county engineer John Blount. “I understand people say, ‘Well, what about the Astrodome?’ No one’s forgotten about the Astrodome.”

The last update we had was before the election, so that’s about where we are now. It was clear from the way Judge Hidalgo campaigned that the Astrodome was not high on her list of priorities, so none of this is a surprise. I do think Commissioners Court will return to this in the next couple of years, but it’ll be on Judge Hidalgo’s timeline. If you’d prefer something else, I recommend attending a Commissioners Court meeting and airing your views there. The Press has more.

Does the Astrodome redevelopment need air conditioning?

I hadn’t thought about this, to be honest.

Also not air conditioned

As work continues on the initial stages of preparing the Astrodome for its new life as a parking and events venue, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo raised questions last week about the costs associated with redeveloping the former sports stadium.

Harris County’s new judge, who recently toured the property with officials from NRG Park, said she learned that the $105 million the county allocated to the redevelopment project did not include air conditioning.

“I’m looking to make sure the current plan is fiscally responsible and that it will get us to a point where the Astrodome is self-sustaining,” she said in an interview on Houston Public Media’s “Houston Matters.”

Hidalgo declined to comment further, but current and former county officials said the renovation costs were never meant to include traditional air conditioning. Rather, the climate inside would be maintained by a mechanical forced-air ventilation and convection-based system designed to keep the inside of the building more temperate when it is hot or cold outside.

“The thought process was that further phases would bring in air conditioning,” said County Engineer John Blount, who is managing the project.

[…]

For Ed Emmett, Hidalgo’s predecessor, the Astrodome project was never about nostalgia, but to keep the integrity of the NRG complex intact. The county has a contract with the rodeo and the Texans to maintain NRG Stadium in first-class condition.

“Those tenants are going to start coming to the county saying we need this or that upgrade. There’s no revenue source to provide those upgrades without the Dome,” Emmet said.

As far as the air conditioning, he said the idea was to make the space usable, “but not necessarily at 72 degrees.”

“My purpose from day one was to create nine acres of indoor space protected from the weather, where it would be preferable than being outside,” Emmett said.

I mean, it kind of makes sense. It just has to be cool enough, and contrary to popular belief it’s not always summer here. Seems a little weird to be talking about it now, but whatever.

Who’s advocating for the Dome?

Some old familiar names are getting back in the game.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Tuesday after the Commissioners Court meeting name-dropped two former county judges — Jon Lindsay and Robert Eckels — who will lead the charge on a campaign to garner support for an Astrodome renovation project.

A $217 million bond referendum to turn the vacant stadium into a massive, energy-efficient convention hall and exhibition space will appear on the ballot this November.

“You know, I know former Judge Eckels, former Judge Lindsay, people at the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., are talking about it,” Emmett told reporters. “Now, how it gets formed, they have to wait and see.”

Lindsay confirmed on Wednesday that he and Eckels, who will serve as treasurer, are, indeed, planning to lead the charge. He said they have had one meeting with the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., which conceived the renovation proposal, and are planning another for next week.

“All I can say right now is we’re working on it and trying to get organized,” Lindsay, first elected in 1974, said, describing the effort as “preliminary.”

He said that Edgar Colón, chairman of the sports corporation, the county agency that runs Reliant Park, likely would chair the campaign.

I believe this is the earlier story to which that refers. Eckels and Lindsay, who offered some warnings about the two of them being a bit out of shape for fundraising and campaign-running, are likely as good as anyone to do this. They know the county and they ought to be credible to a large segment of the electorate. Both Judge Emmett and Commissioner El Franco Lee will be on board with them as well. Honestly, I don’t know that you could have gotten a better team, all things considered.

More from that KHOU story:

“I think it’s going to take some sort of organized effort,” said Bob Stein, the Rice University political science professor and KHOU analyst. “Bond proposals of this sort usually succeed when there’s an overwhelming majority of campaigning and spending on behalf of a bond.”

Emmett said a number of people have talked about leading the effort, but nobody’s grabbing the ball to run with it.

“Typically, right after Labor Day is when things crank up,” Emmett said. “And so we don’t know who all is going to be involved, frankly.”

Among people who’ve watched with dismay as the dome has fallen into disrepair, this only fuels suspicion that a failed bond election will give county leaders political cover to destroy the dome. Even a Houston Chronicle editorial recently opined, “The Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation comes to bury the Astrodome, not to praise it …We’ll see it on the ballot only with the intent of it being voted down.”

That suggestion leaves Emmett visibly annoyed.

“No, I don’t think that’s right at all,” Emmett said. “I think that we spent so much time trying to find a private use for the dome and none of those were funded. Then we had to decide what the best public use is, and I think that’s what’s before the voters right now.”

As before, I’ll side with Judge Emmett on this. Harris County was set to move on a privately-funded plan for the Dome in 2008, but that fell through when the economy bottomed out. Maybe the Court could have acted last year, but not much earlier than that. They also could have waited for another private investor with sufficient capital to step up, but despite the plethora of suggestions for what to do with the Dome, no one with financing in hand has come forward. I don’t know if Eckels and Lindsay can fully quiet the conspiracy-minded, but they ought to muffle them a bit.

Whether the referendum passes may depend largely on the age of the voters who turn out in November. Polling conducted during the past few years for KHOU and KUHF Houston Public Radio has shown a curious generational pattern. The strongest supporters of preserving The Astrodome tend to be older voters, who are more likely to have seen games in the historic stadium. Younger voters are more likely to oppose spending bond money on saving the dome.

Generally speaking, off year elections skew in the direction of older voters. I don’t know what the dividing line is in the poll cited, but I feel pretty comfortable predicting that the average voter this year is likely to be north of 50. When I said earlier that Eckels and Lindsay ought to have credibility with a chunk of the electorate, these are the people I had in mind. Who better to talk to a bunch of old voters than a couple of old politicians, right? PDiddie, John Coby, and KUHF have more.

Astrodome referendum officially on the ballot

It’s been a long, strange trip, but at last you will get to vote on the fate of the Astrodome.

The Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously voted to place a bond election for up to $217 million to convert the iconic stadium into a massive, street-level convention hall and exhibit space, saying residents should take part in deciding the historic structure’s fate.

Should voters reject the bonds, County Judge Ed Emmett and Precinct 2 Commissioner Jack Morman said Tuesday they see no other alternative than to demolish the former “Eighth Wonder of the World,” which has sat vacant since city inspectors declared it unfit for occupancy in 2009. The Reliant Astrodome has not housed a professional sports team since the Astros moved to Minute Maid Park in 2000.

“If it does not pass in November, then that should be the death knell for the Dome,” Morman said.

[…]

While the vote to put the measure on the ballot was unanimous, court members’ personal support for the project is not.

Only Emmett and Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee said they definitely will cast a vote in favor of the bond referendum. Both, however, said they have no plans to launch – or, in Emmett’s case, participate in – campaigns to get the measure passed.

“There needs to be some plans made to do it, if it’s going to be a success,” Lee, who wants to save the Dome, said of a campaign. “The judge is our leadership, so we’ll just see what occurs from there.”

The Commissioners Court on Tuesday also approved $8 million for work that needs to be done to the half-century-old stadium regardless of whether it is torn down or renovated. That work includes asbestos abatement, demolition of the exterior spiral walkways and the sale of signs and other salvaged items that qualify as sports memorabilia.

County engineers and consultants, who estimated it would cost $217 million to repurpose the Dome, also determined it would cost $20 million to demolish it, not including the $8 million.

If the bond fails in November, Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said it “would make no sense to me at all” to spend millions of dollars demolishing the structure.

“There’s another day to have another election,” he said. “Why are you going to spend $8 million and then tear it down?”

The vote to call the bond election was made with one condition championed by Radack: That the ballot language explicitly say that the project would require an increase to the county property tax rate, which has not been raised in 17 years.

See here for the last update. We were headed towards a referendum in 2008 back when Astrodome Redevelopment was proposing a convention center as the Dome replacement, but the economic collapse knocked that off track, and so here we are now. The big question at this point is who lines up to oppose this. The Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation, whose renovation plan is what the Court approved for the ballot, will take the lead in communicating the referendum and the reasons to vote for it to the public. I have no idea how much money they’ll have to mount a real campaign, however. It’s certainly possible that some deep-pocketed types could show up to fund a campaign in favor of this, or in opposition to it. It’s also possible that there will be little more than earned media and some online presence to inform the voters. If I had to guess, I’d say this passes, but who knows? How do you plan to vote on this? Leave a comment and let’s get a totally unscientific data point to bat around. Texpatriate and Swamplot have more.

More on the New Dome Experience

The Chron’s subscription site story adds some more details to the news about the New Dome Experience.

[Harris County Judge Ed] Emmett said that if the court signs off on the plan next week, it likely would ask the county budget office to look for alternative ways to pay the $194 million tab, which includes asbestos abatement, to minimize the amount of any bond referendum put to voters.

County Budget Chief Bill Jackson said last week that millions potentially could be generated via naming rights deals, building use fees and auctioning off various salvaged building parts, including the seats.

The cost estimate is about $80 million cheaper than a similar plan the agency presented to Commissioners Court last year. Loston said the primary reason the price tag is lower is because the plan does not involve renovating the below-ground space.

Rodeo Chief Operating Officer Leroy Shafer said the sports corporation’s proposal seems like a modified version of the one submitted last year, which he said the rodeo was involved in crafting.

“So, on the surface, it appears to be something that is in line with our lease covenants and something that we would have no opposition to,” he said.

Shafer said the rodeo remains concerned about the future of the aging Reliant Arena, but is “excited that movement is taking place.”

“We’re excited about this recommendation,” Shafer said. “But we were excited about the recommendation when it went to Commissioners Court last year, too. So, we still have to wait to see where this goes.”

Those who submitted reuse plans to the sports corporation said they were disappointed their ideas were not selected but glad officials were not pushing demolition.

“We’re very happy that there’s no intention or recommendation to demolish the Dome, and that was our principal objective,” said Chris Alexander, project director of Astrodome Tomorrow, which submitted a $1 billion plan to turn the stadium into a “tourist mecca” with retail and restaurants and an educational facility. “Obviously, we had our own proposal. We think it’s a great proposal, and we still intend to take it directly to Harris County.”

See here for the initial New Dome announcement. I’m not exactly sure what Chris Alexander means by taking his idea “directly to Harris County” – lobbying Commissioners Court? Advertising his solution as a better alternative? Something else? I don’t see anything on their webpage or Facebook page to suggest what that might mean.

The idea of salvaging the Dome as a way to defray costs was raised last year by demolition experts and reported in the Chronicle. It’s good that Harris County is thinking along those lines – it really wouldn’t make any sense to do otherwise – but it’s not something that was just thought up.

There was that $270 million plan from last year to create a New Dome Experience, which did not get an endorsement from Judge Emmett and never went anywhere, in part due to concern that the economy wasn’t good enough yet to put a $270 million Astrodome bond referendum on the ballot. (As Swamplot reminds us, the same basic idea of a multi-purpose facility goes back even further than last year.) I inquired with Judge Emmett’s office about the difference between this year and last year, and besides the obvious fact that this year’s proposal is a lot cheaper and the economy is in better shape, the process has played out more fully, which wasn’t the case then. Now clearly, some people think this process has taken way too long, but I agree with that assessment. It feels different to me, like everyone is more engaged, and even if none of them were ready for prime time, the fact that 19 private proposals were submitted says a lot.

Not all reactions to the HCSCC announcement have been positive. After Hair Balls posted a straightforward account of the announcement, John Royal went on a rampage about it.

The Corporation unveiled its grand plan on Wednesday, and in doing so, stated that no qualified private plans had been submitted, so it had to cobble together its own plan. A plan that essentially repeated warmed over plans that the Corporation had tried to pass off on suckers in the past. The difference being that this time the cost was an outrageous $194 million that, somehow, the public will be forced to fund.

Amazingly, there are sheep out there who think that not only is this a good plan, but that the costs are reasonable and doable. Those costs will be doable of course because taxpayers would be paying for it.

But being a doable plan doesn’t make it a good plan. Creating more convention and exhibition space that will only be used during the Rodeo, the Offshore Technology Conference, and the occasional Super Bowl at a cost of $194 million isn’t reasonable or doable. It’s idiotic. It’s moronic. It’s the work of imbeciles who, over past years, have also offered up proposals for turning the place into an aquarium, a movie studio, a hotel, and a theme park, to name just a few ideas.

[…]

Then again, this whole fiasco has never been about saving or refurbishing the Dome. It’s always been about saving face. About finding some way to get cowards on Commissioners Court off of the hook. Tear it down? Well only if there are no other options. Rebuilding it with taxpayer funds so as to guarantee the revenue streams of the Texans and the Rodeo, well, if that’s the only option. And if this plan is put on the ballot and the voters stupidly support it, then how can the Commissioners be blamed because it’s what the public wants.

The Dome is an architectural wonder that deserves much better than what the county’s not-so-benign neglect has delivered. Unlike its next door neighbor, the Dome is a building with character and personality. It defines a Houston from a past era, a Houston that was forward thinking and was on the leading edge of the space race. But Houston’s now like Reliant Stadium, a stale, sterile rip-off of ideas generated by outsiders who care less about Houston’s past, present, or future – much like Minute Maid Park is just a poor imitation of many things done so much better.

If any building should be demolished to make way for parking it should be Reliant Stadium. If there’s any body of people who should be replaced along with Reliant Stadium, it’s the worthless fools who make up the Commissioners Court, who are more concerned with reelection than they are with doing what’s right by the Astrodome and with the citizens of Harris County.

It’s doubtful that Commissioners Court reads this blog, but if they do, please say no to this abomination of a plan that is set to do nothing more than rip-off taxpayers while continuing to enrich the Texans, the Rodeo. Let’s defund the damn Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation.

And while this opinion might not be the popular one, I urge this. If somehow this supreme folly ends up on the ballot, please vote no.

I presume Royal means that the HCSCC are the “imbeciles” in question, but they weren’t the ones who offered up the movie studio or hotel/convention center ideas; they both came from the private sector. Royal avows his love of the Astrodome and his desire to preserve it, but it’s not clear to me how he would like to see that happen. What do you want the Astrodome to be, and how do you want it to get there? I mean, if all one cares about is that the building continues to exist, then the current plan of not-so-benign neglect works pretty well, and at a bargain price. Anything else is going to cost money, most likely nine digits’ worth. That’s been the problem all along, as we well know. I understand the grumbling about the 19 private proposals being dismissed in favor of the HCSCC’s publicly-funded option, but I haven’t seen any of those 19 proposers claiming that they had financing, or at least the promise of it, lined up. I trust Royal isn’t advocating for public money to be spent on a privately-owned project, but then I don’t know what he’s advocating. Nobody has to like the HCSCC plan – most likely, you’ll get your chance to vote on it in November – but if you don’t like it and don’t want the Dome to be demolished, then what do you want? And how would you pay for it? We’ve been asking these questions for a decade. If there were an obvious answer, we’d have figured it out by now.

Also not a fan is the Chron editorial board.

Of course the HCSCC’s public option was going to win – it promulgated rules that disqualified anything else. So instead we watched a well-rehearsed script as the corporation went through the motions of soliciting private ideas, considering them under the impossible guidelines set and then inevitably striking them down. The HCSCC instead falls back on a public plan that seems strikingly similar to the one proposed in May 2012 – a proposal notably rejected at the time by County Commissioner Steve Radack. Mischief, thou art afoot.

It is hard to grasp this proposal as anything but another kick of the can, getting us closer to an apparently inevitable destruction of the Dome all while looking like we’re doing the right thing.

This isn’t a convention center. It looks to us like a lamb that the county seeks to sacrifice without appearing like butchers. We’ll see it on the ballot only with the intent of it being voted down. How long until the first voices from within county government condemn this plan as too expensive? Or unnecessary? Or requiring extra study? After all, why would a plan rejected a year ago suddenly become the best idea?

And once voters strike down the rather convenient convention idea, HCSCC has explicitly said that the next step is demolition. This has been the stated scheme since April. If public option fails, there is no room for another vote, no looking for new plans, only demolition. HCSCC says it’s going to fix up the Dome into a new experience, but this feels more like the fix is in.

County commissioners need to come out and say now whether they will support this plan or not come election day. The voters of Harris County deserve transparency from them as well as from the Rodeo and the Texans, two other very interested parties that play in a tax-subsidized facility. We’re afraid opponents will bide their time until election season and suddenly let loose a parade of horribles about every aspect of this Dome decision process, and it’ll be too late to do anything different.

I think we’ve already answered the question about why the plan rejected a year ago is now being touted as the best idea: That plan is now $75 million cheaper, and the economy is in better shape, thus making a publicly-funded solution more feasible. Maybe that lower cost estimate is unrealistic, but the Chron isn’t making that claim. The point about Commissioners Court supporting this plan is a good one, one for which I presume we will get an answer on Tuesday. If Commissioners Court adopts the plan unanimously, and a campaign team gets assembled to pass the subsequent ballot initiative, would that satisfy the Chron’s objections? Of course there will be the usual suspects in opposition because that’s what they do, but if there’s an honest effort to convince the public that this is the right time and the right plan, I don’t see any reason to complain. And if it does get voted down, maybe that’s what the public actually wants. We won’t know until we ask, right?

I don’t think this is the platonic ideal of a plan for the Astrodome. There are a lot of details to be filled in, and even at the lower price it’s fair to wonder why we’re recycling an old idea. How many events do we really think this new facility will be used for, and how many of them would have been held at a different county-owned facility if this one didn’t exist? I was asking those questions myself last year. For all his unfocused ranting, John Royal is correct that the lease deal with the Texans and the Rodeo have hamstrung this process and will limit the usefulness of the New Dome. Again, though, that would be true of any option besides turning the place into a parking lot. The one thing I know is that we’ve talked about this for a long time. There’s never been a consensus about what to do with the Dome, which is why there have always been plenty of ideas for it, however wild and crazy many of them are. If nothing else, this gives us a chance to find some kind of consensus. I for one am ready to stop talking and start doing something. Campos has more.

The Texans and the Rodeo will have their say on the fate of the Dome

There’s this little matter of their lease agreement to deal with.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Five years ago, Harris County appeared on the brink of striking a deal with a group of entrepreneurs to turn the Astrodome into a 1,300-room hotel and convention center, a $450 million plan that never came to fruition.

County officials say its failure came down to lack of money. The project, however, faced two other big obstacles: The Houston Texans and the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, which both opposed the hotel-convention center on the grounds that it would steal away the business of fans and rodeo-goers.

While the primary tenants of Reliant Park do not have veto power over development plans, they do have other extensive rights to the site under lease and legal agreements with the county. Even though Harris County Commissioners Court will make the ultimate decision about what to do with the iconic stadium, those rights “must be taken into consideration,” said Edgardo Colón, chairman of the governing board of the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp., which oversees Reliant Park.

[…]

Among the three criteria, which include ability to secure funding: “Compatibility with the contractual rights of our tenants.”

“What we are going to do is we are going to analyze all of those proposals, and if we think there is one that may fit within the rights of the current tenant, then we will visit with them and brief them on the proposal,” Colón said.

Under a 2001 agreement, which officials say was designed in anticipation of Astrodome redevelopment, the Texans and the Rodeo are granted protection from any venture that would eat into their revenue streams, as well as exclusive access to all 25,000 parking spaces on game days, for the Texans, and to the entire complex for nearly three weeks during the rodeo.

Asked if those constraints have been a deterrent for investors looking to back a redevelopment plan for the stadium, Colón said it “obviously is a challenge: How to devise your business plan and your visibility given those constraints.”

I had forgotten about the previous attempt to do a hotel/convention center deal.The genesis of that goes back to 2003, with the idea of a convention center/hotel first appearing in 2004. They actually got Commissioners Court approval in 2006, but ran into financing issues in March, 2007. They claimed to have new financing in May, 2007, but then the Rodeo and the Texans voiced their opposition in October. A lease agreement was supposedly in the works in May, 2008, the Texans and the Rodeo backed down at least somewhat in August, and then the economy went in the crapper and that was pretty much the last anyone heard of that idea. Next thing you knew, it was feasibility study time.

Rodeo Chief Operating Officer Leroy Shafer, speaking on behalf of both parties, said compliance with the lease agreements is the only parameter they have, other than that a decision be made quickly.

“If the proposal comes forward and it’s funded and it doesn’t violate any of those leasing rights, then we will not oppose it,” Shafer said, noting that “there are a lot of things that could be done with the dome that would be in accordance with our lease agreement and there are some things that would not be.”

Well, at least this time around everyone should have known going in that this was an issue. All of the plans have been submitted for review, and the Sports Corp will review them and their own plan if they put one forward next Wednesday. They’ll vote on what to send to Commissioners Court on the 25th. Can you feel the excitement in the air? CultureMap has more.

Is it finally time to do something with the Dome?

A few days ago, a woman named Cynthia Neely took to CultureMap to demand that we Do Something about the Astrodome.

Regardless of whether you love or hate the Astrodome, the building is owned by the county and in effect belongs to all of us taxpayers. And you are paying for it.

Consider these options:

  • It would cost about $128 million to tear it down — that’s $128 million of public funding (which includes the existing $40 million bond debt that has to be satisfied no matter what is done).
  • To repair the Dome just enough to become habitable (and able to produce at least some revenue), the Sports and Convention Corp says it would cost $30 million (though some reports say less).

Hmmm …$128 million to end up with nothing versus $30 million to stop the bleeding and still have an historic building with both revenue and jobs potential.

The Commissioners have allowed it to deteriorate, not protecting our investment — even though it is likely the county’s biggest asset; the Astrodome’s doors were slammed shut in July 2008 due to fire code and building inspection violations.

Had somebody been on the ball, these problems would not have come as a surprise. Modifications could have been made all along to maintain its certificate of occupancy and thereby its ability to create revenue. It could have been self-supporting, or on its way towards being self-supporting, and not have wasted at least $3 million in taxes every year to do nothing.

Instead, since the Astrodome has been permanently closed in 2008, taxpayers have forked over a minimum of $9 million for it to collect dust. If the Commissioners had begun correcting those violations three years ago, some of that money could have gone into repairs, not down the toilet.

Most property owners and landlords who have the means fix their leaky roofs, have their furnaces checked before turning on each winter, repair a broken window to keep the rain out, and that kind of thing. It’s called upkeep. It is the responsibility of the County Commissioners to do the same, particularly since we are entrusting them with our money. It is their fiduciary responsibility.

Neely, in case you’re wondering, had previously been with the company that had proposed turning the Dome into a movie studio. I don’t know if she had a wire on this or what, but it appears that someone was listening.

Harris County should move this year to renovate the Reliant Astrodome into a special events arena, County Judge Ed Emmett told a Greater Houston Partnership luncheon audience Friday.

Emmett said he favors a “minimalist” approach that would see the Dome’s roof replaced, its seats removed, its shell intact, and grass laid down. He did not have a cost estimate for the idea.

“Anything we do to or with the Dome is going to be expensive, but it really is time to move forward,” he said during the annual State of the County speech to roughly 1,100 people at the Hilton Americas-Houston Hotel. “I think we owe it to future generations to preserve the Dome as a gathering place for special events.

“The taxpayers have to be engaged early in the process, for it is their Dome,” he continued, “but now’s the time to make a decision.”

Houston’s major festivals could be held at the Dome, he said, rather than in a less-than-ideal spot around downtown’s City Hall, where property is hard to secure at night.

“I think people would flock to it,” Emmett said. “Is that a revenue generator, enough to pay for the Dome? No. It would have to be a decision that the community said, ‘You know what? We want this to be part of our community.'”

Emmett said he hopes Commissioners Court will reach a decision “in a matter of months” to be presented to the voters of Harris County, perhaps a year from now, in a bond referendum.

The main thing I take away from this is that Judge Emmett, at least, no longer thinks getting a private investor to turn the Dome into a movie studio or convention center/hotel or whatever is viable. A corollary to that is that the fabled three options are no longer in play – the Emmett Option is far more minimalist than any of them. It’ll be interesting to see how the County Commissioners react to this – Steve Radack is quoted expressing skepticism about spending money on the Dome while the economy is still weak; none of the others were quoted having a reaction. Beyond that, I don’t have any strong feelings about this as yet. I don’t have the sentimental attachment to the Dome that many people have, Judge Emmett apparently included, but we have always needed to do something about this sooner or later. The only real complaint I have about this is that we’re still paying off bonds from the Dome’s 1987 facelift. It would be nice to be off the hook for this thing once and for all.

Anyway. The West U Examiner has some good coverage on this and the rest of Judge Emmett’s State of the County address, which you can read in full here. As I have called on Judge Emmett to push back against looming cuts in mental health services by the Legislature, I’m glad to see this from his speech:

Harris County is home to the world’s greatest medical center, a hospital district that is a model for the nation, and many neighborhood clinics and organizations supported by thousands of dedicated people. Yet we have far too many residents with no medical home, so they come to our emergency rooms. That is tragic and costly. Fortunately, the Greater Houston Partnership, working with the Houston Galveston Area Council, is working toward a regional concept to provide better care for more people at lower cost in the long run. Ultimately, the Legislature and, to a degree, the federal government must provide the framework to make a new system, but Harris County will be a driving force.

Now is not the time to cut funding for such efforts. Now is the time to move forward.

While on the subject of health care, mental health issues are a top priority to be addressed. Let me rephrase that. We have a lot of Harris County residents who suffer from mental health conditions, and we must do a better job of caring for them. Far too many of these people end up in our county jail – time after time. The cost of incarceration and treatment in a criminal justice setting is staggering compared to proper preventive care and treatment.  

Now is not the time to cut funding for mental health programs. Now is the time to move forward ‐ fully funding those programs so that the taxpayer reaps huge benefits in the long run and our residents receive better care.

From your lips to the Lege’s ears, Judge.

Finally, I note that while Judge Emmett spoke about the need to do something with the Dome a little more than a month ago, his press release in advance of the State of the County address gave no indication that it was going to be a topic for discussion. Way to keep us all on our toes, dude.

Still trying to save the Dome

Nancy Sarnoff reports.

A new page has sprung up on Facebook called Save the Astrodome.

It was created by the Houstonian behind www.AmnesiaHouston.org, a Web site aimed at bringing attention to the city’s disappearing landmarks.

The creator compares the Astrodome to the Eiffel Tower and wonders, “what else it could be.”

That’s the question, isn’t it? As noted before, none of the ideas that have been floated for what to do with the Dome seem to have gone anywhere. I’m sure some of that is a function of the economy, but none of those schemes had gotten much traction before things went south, either. If you can solve the “what to do with it” problem, the rest takes care of itself. And please, the “why not let it be the new home of the Dynamo?” question has long been answered and was never a viable option anyway. I go back and forth on this, but in the end this is what it will come down to. If there’s something that can be done with it, I believe it will. If not, well, kaboom. It’s as simple as that.

Once again mulling the fate of the Astrodome

Am I the only one who noticed the omission in this story about the current state of the Astrodome?

Debt and interest payments will amount to more than $2.4 million this year, according to a payment schedule for the higher debt estimate. The Astrodome’s manager estimates it also will cost $2 million for insurance, maintenance, utilities and security.

The debt likely would have to be reckoned with in any deal to redevelop the Astrodome, said Willie Loston, executive director of the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation, which the county created to run the Reliant Park complex.

But no deal to restore what once was known as the “Eighth Wonder of the World” is likely to be affected by $32 million, Loston said.

“Practically anything that would be done with the building would be some multiple of that,” Loston said. “It’s not enough to make or break a development proposal.”

Not a word is mentioned about any specific redevelopment project. Nothing about the planetarium, the movie studio, or the convention center. Does that mean all these ideas are now officially dead, and that the most likely but still only spoken about in whispers outcome is this? You tell me.

That story was also about Commissioners Court finally getting around to the matter of the Dynamo Stadium deal. As expected, they approved it.

County Judge Ed Emmett emphasized that the Dynamo deal differs sharply from past stadium projects in which taxpayers picked up a much greater share of the tab.

“This is a team building its own stadium,” Emmett said.

Nor does the Dynamo deal cost any general fund money, Emmett and other county officials reaffirmed. Instead, a redevelopment zone will be created around the stadium so that future increases in tax receipts in the neighborhood will be funneled back into the project.

[…]

Much remains to be done before construction begins in October for a planned 2012 opening.

“This is, practically speaking, an agreement to agree,” said David Turkel, who as director of the county’s community services department is negotiating the deal with the city.

The Dynamo and the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority must negotiate a lease for the soccer team’s use of the stadium. The city and county must also formally approve the creation of the redevelopment zones.

It’s still a significant step forward, and it ought to be a lot easier from here now that the basic framework is in place. Enjoy the moment, Dynamo fans, it’s been a long time in coming.

Yet another Astrodome plan

It’s a convention center, it’s a movie studio, it’s a planetarium.

Add a planetarium to the myriad ideas for what to do with the Reliant Astrodome, Houston’s iconic stadium whose future has hung in uncertainty as officials and entrepreneurs have proposed new uses ranging from a casino to a movie studio.

The latest idea, a study of which was proposed by Commissioner El Franco Lee, is to turn part of the 44-year-old Astrodome into a planetarium or a medical or science institute, leaving additional space for some other public use. Commissioners Court will vote Tuesday on whether to spend $50,000 for a feasibility study of the idea.

“The Astrodome is a world-recognizable space and we want to put it to the highest and best use,” Lee said Friday. “We have been on the cutting edge of several technologies from aerospace to medicine and we would be looking at an educational venue that highlights that.”

Well, there’s a certain poetry to the idea. I have no idea whether this is something that could become self-sufficient, but it’s probably worth spending the money to do the feasibility study. At least we might get a definitive answer one way or the other, unlike the other concepts, which have been in limbo for what feels like forever.

Judge Ed Emmett, who had been skeptical of plans to pay for the convention hotel, said he supports the planetarium idea because it focuses on public use. It also would leave space in the facility for other features, such as a gathering space for festivals or concerts.

“My main interest is to turn the Astrodome into something that can be used by the public,” Emmett said. “The question of funding is always going to be an issue, but basically cleaning up the dome and using it as an open space that you put other things into is very different than turning the whole thing into a hotel.”

County officials this summer will begin seriously to study the various ideas and eventually could take the question of what to do with the Astrodome to voters.

“We waited to see what happened in the legislative session and we will begin to talk about all this,” Emmett said. “At some point, if we come up with enough ideas that are public use, we might ask voters.”

I’m glad there’s momentum to get something official put forward. I’ll be very interested to see how a vote might go – it’s not clear to me that there’s that much more support for preservation than there is for demolition. The longer this goes on, the smaller the share of the population that actually has fond memories of the Dome in its glory. I wouldn’t count on nostalgia to give any future renovation proposal that much of a boost.

Pity the poor Astrodome

These sure are bad days for the old icon, aren’t they?

The Astrodome will not host the rodeo’s nightly country-western dances next month, or any other special event for that matter, as city code violations that would cost millions to remedy threaten to keep the doors shut indefinitely.

It would cost Harris County $3 million just to make enough repairs to host rodeo-related events on the playing field of the iconic stadium, said Willie Loston, executive director of the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp. Tackling the entire list of violations the city identified last year would cost several times that amount.

[…]

The trouble began about a year ago, when dome officials could not produce a valid certificate of occupancy during their annual fire inspection, senior fire inspector Joe Leggio said. The county ultimately had to apply for a new certificate, which triggered an inspection by city building code officials.

That inspection and a follow-up inspection by the city fire marshal’s office identified about 30 problems, including malfunctioning sprinkler and fire alarm systems. Those violations are considered life threatening, so the fire marshal could have ordered the building shut down. Instead, the county voluntarily relocated the three dozen employees of the management company that runs Reliant Park who had offices there and agreed not to host any public events.

The sprinkler system has since been fixed, and the county has a contract to replace the problematic fire alarm panel, said Loston, whose group manages the Reliant Park complex for the county.

[…]

Susan McMillian, an executive staff analyst in the City of Houston’s Department of Public Works & Engineering, said standards are based on what the building is designed to be used for, not how it currently is being used. However, most of the inspection would be based on codes in place when the stadium was built in 1965.

It is not clear why the sports and convention corporation could not produce a certificate of occupancy despite operating with no problems for decades. County Judge Ed Emmett asked the County Attorney’s Office on Friday to look into the fire marshal’s authority to inspect the dome and what codes the stadium should be expected to follow.

Leggio said the city has always inspected the Astrodome and has always used the proper codes.

I would assume the fire marshal has – or at least, should have – the authority to inspect the facility because if a fire broke out there, it would be the Houston Fire Department that’d fight it. I don’t know what things are like at the Dome now, but I can say that when I saw Lyle Lovett and Bob Dylan perform there a few years ago during the Rodeo, it was depressing how rundown it looked and felt. One way or another, this situation needs some kind of closure.

The dome’s future has been uncertain since Reliant Stadium opened next door in 2002. Many residents oppose razing a structure long billed as the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” but a proposal to convert it into a luxury hotel has faltered amid financial snags.

What, no love for the movie studio concept? Maybe that’s the more realistic scenario these days.