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Harris County Sports & Convention Corp

The injury totals from AstroWorld

A lot of people were seriously hurt at that event.

More than 700 people were seriously injured during November’s Astroworld Festival tragedy, according to new court documents filed in Harris County this week.

Plaintiffs attorneys Jason Atkin, Richard Mithoff and Sean Roberts notified 11th Judicial District Judge Judge Kristen Brauchle Hawkins that they’d conducted a survey of people affected by the lethal Astroworld tragedy, which claimed the lives of 10 concertgoers late last year, including a 9-year-old boy and 14-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl.

According to the attorneys’ survey, some 732 people filed claims tied to injuries requiring significant medical treatment. An additional 1,649 claims were tied to injuries that required less extensive treatment, and they were also reviewing 2,540 claims for injuries where the severity was not fully ascertained.

The filing provides the latest and most complete picture, so far, of the toll of the Astroworld Festival, a local music festival which drew tens of thousands of visitors to Houston from across the region and the rest of the country.

[…]

The defendants in the lawsuit, Live Nation Worldwide, Scoremore Mgmt, ASM Global, Travis Scott, and others, generally deny the allegations, court records show.

One of the companies, Contemporary Services Corporation, has come under additional criticism, after a man successfully jumped onstage during a comedy show in Los Angeles last week and attacked Dave Chappelle.

Scott — who pleaded guilty to reckless conduct after urging fans to rush the stage during a 2015 show in Chicago and to a charge of disorderly conduct for similar behavior during a 2017 show in Arkansas — has consistently denied wrongdoing and asked to be removed from the lawsuits.

See here for the most recent update. The deaths of the ten concertgoers have been the headline of this story, but the sheer number of people that were badly injured would be grounds enough for the litigation that has followed. We can and should have investigations and task forces to look into what happened and why, but the discovery process is going to tell us a whole lot about this tragedy that we otherwise would not have known.

State task force recommendations on AstroWorld

Interesting.

To avoid a repeat of the mayhem at last year’s deadly Astroworld Festival, Texas needs to standardize its event permitting process, establish “clearly outlined triggers” for stopping shows and ensure local public safety agencies are organized in a clear chain of command during large events, a state task force recommended Tuesday.

The event permitting process currently is “inconsistent across the state, which can lead to forum shopping by event promoters,” according to the task force that recommended a universal permitting template with a standardized checklist for counties to consult before issuing permits.

The group, appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott after 10 people died from injuries sustained during rapper Travis Scott’s show last November, also advised event promoters to develop “unique contingency plans” for venues including NRG Park — formed by a series of parking lots — that fans can easily stampede. The venue perimeter was breached at least eight times leading up to Scott’s 2021 performance.

Presenting its findings in a nine-page report, the Texas Task Force on Concert Safety said its recommendations are “narrowly tailored to address gaps that were identified as contributing to safety failures at the Astroworld event.” Members of the task force who met over the last five months included law enforcement officials, public safety experts, state agency employees and music industry representatives.

“While some level of risk is inherent in any mass gathering, it is the opinion of the [task force] that proper planning will allow Texans to enjoy safe performances, concerts, and other culturally significant events,” the report reads.

More uniform permitting regulations would also help mitigate confusion that can arise at venues located under the jurisdiction of multiple government entities and public safety agencies, the report found.

The Astroworld Festival took place on Harris County property but lies within the city limits. The city approved all permits for the event, and the city fire marshal — who is responsible for inspecting the NRG Park facility under an agreement inked between the city and county in 2018 — signed off on the site plan.

Still, the task force found “there was no occupancy load issued for the event, which is typically determined by the Fire Department.”

“A consistent permitting process could have helped establish jurisdiction and authority over ultimate event shutdown in the face of a life-threatening incident,” the report reads.

Houston Fire Chief Sam Peña said there was no occupancy permit for the Astroworld Festival because such permits do not exist for outdoor areas. The event organizers did secure permits required under the city fire code for pyrotechnics, tents and propane. The city released those and other permits in November.

“The event was a county-sanctioned event on county property,” Peña said Tuesday night, adding that he had not yet fully reviewed the task force’s report.

The task force report is here. It’s pretty straightforward, I don’t see anything unexpected or eye-catching about it. I must have missed the announcement of this particular task force, I don’t have a previous post about it. Whatever, this is fine.

That doesn’t mean that it is without some controversy.

Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie L. Christensen on Wednesday rejected findings issued by a state task force which laid some of the blame for the Astroworld tragedy on the county’s handing of the incident.

[…]

The task force recommended a universal permitting template with a standardized checklist for counties to consult before issuing permits.

But the findings again raise one of the central issues related to the Astroworld tragedy: Ever since it occurred, city and county officials have sought to avoid blame for the fiasco by pointing fingers at each other.

The task force pointed to two laws that have permitting requirements — one related to mass gatherings, and one related to outdoor music festivals. Both refer to county events, because incorporated municipalities can create their own ordinances.

The situation is complicated by the fact the Astroworld Festival took place on Harris County property but lies within Houston city limits. The city approved all permits for the event, and the city fire marshal — who is responsible for inspecting the NRG Park facility under an agreement inked between the city and county in 2018 — signed off on the site plan.

Echoing other county officials who spoke to the Chronicle, Christensen said she had reviewed the task force’s findings, but that the task force cited statutes that “simply do not apply” to the Astroworld event. The laws, she said, apply “only to performances outside the boundaries of a municipality.”

“The fact the Astroworld event occurred within the City of Houston along with the (memorandum of understanding) between Harris County and the City of Houston clearly shows Harris County lacked any jurisdiction for permitting the Astroworld event,” she said. “Our office will continue reviewing the recommendations over the next several weeks.”

City officials, including Fire Chief Sam Peña, have argued that the event was “a county-sanctioned event on county property.”

I’m not particularly interesting in a pissing contest between the city and the county, but it is fair to point out that the laws cited by the report didn’t apply here because of the county-property-within-city-limits aspect of NRG Stadium. That doesn’t mean we should just shrug our shoulders and move on, but if it is more complicated than the report suggests, then we need to wrestle with the complexity. This is the point at which I’m officially out of my depth, so let me just say that we’re not off the hook and we shouldn’t act like it.

I should note further that there is a local task force working on its own report, and that first story gave us an update on it.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, another task force – this one selected by city and county officials – continued to meet to review communication, protocols and permitting requirements locally. City officials had more to say about that task force’s work than the one in Austin. Mary Benton, spokeswoman for Mayor Sylvester Turner, said the mayor has not yet reviewed the state task force’s report but would do so soon. She said the local group continues to meet and will write its own report for Turner and Precinct 2 Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

“The task force will incorporate nationally agreed principles and draw from national and international strategies, policies, guidelines, standards, and doctrine,” Benton said. “The work is multidisciplinary and will cover issues presented by crowded places and mass gatherings in general. The task force has already begun this work, met earlier today and has meetings planned in the future.”

County Fire Marshal Christianson is among the local task force members. I look forward to reading that report as well. And now that the state has done the local task force the favor of publishing first, we here can respond to it as needed. Just get moving and get it done.

AstroWorld lawsuits get underway

This is going to be fascinating, heartbreaking, infuriating, and a lot more.

Lawyers packed a Harris County civil courtroom Tuesday morning as the judge overseeing litigation stemming from the deadly Astroworld Festival concert outlined the first steps to organize the hundreds of cases since they were consolidated late last year.

The appearance marked the first time lawyers for some of the plaintiffs and defendants had set foot in a courtroom since the Nov. 5 tragedy, when nearly a dozen concert-goers — including children — died from compression asphyxia as a crowd surge pushed people together at the NRG Park festival.

“Our first cattle call,” is how Houston personal injury lawyer Brent Coon described the hearing — an attempt to organize the more than 300 lawsuits tied to the deadly show. Some lawyers were ushered into an overflow room. The plaintiffs include victim families, survivors and employees.

The Board of Judges of the Civil Trial Division of the Harris County District Courts decided in December to consolidate the suits into one filing, with 11th District Court Judge Kristen Hawkins tapped to oversee the proceedings. The civil judge in February issued a gag order preventing the parties involved from discussing the case outside of what happens in open court and relevant motions. She said the case “should be tried in the courtroom and not social media.”

[…]

The meeting identified lawyer Jason Itkin to speak for the plaintiffs in the mass of lawsuits, and Neal Manne for the defendants — which include Live Nation, rapper and headliner Travis Scott and others.

More than two dozen defendants have yet to respond to the litigation, Coon said, adding that the next gathering in four weeks will be crowded with more lawyers.

As noted in the story, there were a lot of lawsuits filed, with a lot of plaintiffs and some eye-popping numbers. It’s going to take awhile for all this to even get to pretrial motions, let alone the actual trial. Tune in at the end of March for the next likely update.

Here comes that AstroWorld task force

Got to admit, I had thought this had already happened.

Three months after 10 people were killed at the Astroworld Festival at NRG Park, Houston and Harris County have named a 10-person task force to review procedures, permitting and guidelines for special events in the region.

The task force, made up mostly of city and county officials, will seek changes to ensure the city and county collaborate better on events that draw large crowds. The group plans to meet monthly, but members said Wednesday they do not know when they will release recommendations.

The officials left Astroworld unmentioned in their initial remarks, but later acknowledged the concert tragedy directly inspired the task force’s formation. Still, they insisted the group would look forward, not backward at any one event, and would not spend considerable time trying to determine what went wrong at the concert festival.

“I think anyone of us would be dishonest if we say it didn’t precipitate it. Certainly, it did,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said, adding later: “This task force is going to be futuristic. The investigation into the Astroworld event continues, so we certainly do not want to impede in that investigation.”

[…]

The task force will be chaired by Susan Christian, the director of the mayor’s office of special events, and Perrye K. Turner, Sr., the deputy county administrator and the former FBI special agent in charge of the Houston division.

It will also include Houston Police Chief Troy Finner, Fire Chief Sam Peña, and Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen, as well as Steven Adelman, vice president of Event Safety Alliance; Rob McKinley, president of LD Systems, a production services company; Major Rolf Nelson of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office; Ryan Walsh, executive director of the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp; and Mike DeMarco, chief show operations officer for the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo.

As noted in the story, Commissioners Court decided against launching an independent investigation into the disaster, opting instead to let the law enforcement investigations do that work and to conduct an internal review. It’s not totally clear to me if this task force is the fulfillment of that “internal review” item, but I suspect it is as there’s no other mention of it that I can find, in this story or via Chronicle archive search. The task force, which was put together by Mayor Turner and Commissioner Adrian Garcia, looks fine, it’s just a matter of what their scope is and when they intend to produce a report. We’ll see.

It’s not like there aren’t a bunch of other things going on that will tell us more about the tragedy and things we could or should have done differently. In addition to the law enforcement investigation and all of the lawsuits, which should produce a lot of info when and if they get to the discovery phase, there’s also a Congressional probe and an FBI website seeking input from witnesses. This task force has a different and more focused mission, and if they do their job well it should produce something worthwhile. We’ll know soon enough.

I’ll see your AstroWorld lawsuit and raise you $10 billion

That’s a big number, though that’s partly because there are a lot of plaintiffs.

A local law firm has just filed the largest suit to date against Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival after the mass-casualty tragedy that claimed the lives of 10 concert-goers. Attorney Brent Coon is demanding $10 billion in restitution on behalf of 1,547 attendees — that’s more petitioners than any firm thus far.

Additionally, Coon’s firm, Brett Coon & Associates, has filed a request with the Harris County District Court system to consolidate all cases involved into one courtroom to provide for more efficient management of the docket on behalf of all claimants, per a press release. A hearing is scheduled for December 13, 2021.

Aside from the mammoth suit, Coon notes in a statement that he is demanding legislative action to include crowd control planning specialists to certify events, mandated training programs for event preparation and criminal liability for any wrongdoing.

[…]

Coon’s suit comes after a $2 billion filing by San Antonio lawyer Thomas J. Henry and a $750 million petition by Houston attorney Tony Buzbee.

See here for some background, and here for the Chron story. I assume the mention of consolidating the cases is a reference to the many others that have been combined and will be heard in Harris County via the Texas Multidistrict Litigation Panel.

Not much else to add to that story, so let me note a couple of other AstroWorld items that I didn’t put into their own post. First up, Travis Scott is seeking to be dismissed as a defendant from eleven lawsuits.

Houston rapper Travis Scott has responded to 11 lawsuits launched against him in the deadly Astroworld festival tragedy denying all liability and requesting he and his record label Cactus Jack Music be dropped as defendants, according to court documents.

Scott, whose real name is Jacques B. Webster II, has been named in hundreds of lawsuits totaling billions of dollars since the tragedy that took 10 young lives on Nov. 5. Scott’s attorney Ed McPherson issued a “general denial” on his behalf to allegations claiming he was to blame for the deaths and injuries of concertgoers.

Scott is also requesting the claims be “dismissed with prejudice” so that once finished, cases cannot be refiled.

Representatives with Scott’s legal team said in an email to the Chronicle that the request is “a standard response to the plaintiff filing and reiterates what’s already been out there that Travis is not legally liable.”

One of the 10 victims, 22-year-old Texas A&M student Bharti Shahani, died nearly a week post-festival after succumbing to injuries that left her on a ventilator. Her family filed suit against Scott and festival organizers and refused to accept Scott’s financial assistance for funeral expenses. Their lawsuit is one of the 11 Scott’s lawyers responded to.

Not clear to me from the story why Scott is taking this action in only eleven lawsuits, or why these specific eleven lawsuits. Maybe they have something in common, maybe they were just first in line, maybe he’s in settlement talks with the others, maybe full dismissal will be sought for others. I have no idea, but given the high-powered legal team working for Scott and Live Nation, I’m sure this is just a first step.

Other AstroWorld stories that I have skimmed but not found anything original to say about:

Exclusive: CEO of Astroworld medical provider recalls moment when routine festival spiraled out of control

How missed warning signs at Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival led to one of the worst U.S. concert tragedies

8 biggest revelations from the Houston Chronicle’s in-depth Astroworld investigation

This story will be with us for a long time.

Travis Scott’s legal team

Some heavy hitters here.

Prominent Los Angeles trial lawyer Daniel Petrocelli sent an electronic letter late last Wednesday to lawyers for the plaintiffs in the Astroworld Festival tragedy announcing that he now represents rapper Travis Scott and offering to pay the funeral costs of those who died at the Nov. 5 concert in Houston.

“Your client’s offer is declined,” Corpus Christi attorney Bob Hilliard, who represents the family of 9-year-old Ezra Blount, who died at the concert, said in an email response to Petrocelli.

The Thanksgiving Eve email exchange answered the question of who Scott, who was born Jacques Bermon Webster II, would select as his lead lawyer to defend him against more than 120 civil wrongful death, personal injury and premises liability lawsuits filed in the three weeks since the Astroworld event.

Petrocelli, who is head of litigation for the global corporate law firm O’Melveny & Myers, is known for representing high-profile clients.

In 2002, Dallas rocker Don Henley hired Petrocelli to successfully fend off wrongful firing charges levied by Eagles’ guitarist Don Felder. Two years later, Petrocelli defended Enron CFO Jeff Skilling against criminal fraud and insider trading charges. Skilling was convicted. And in 2018, Petrocelli served as the lead trial lawyer for Dallas-based AT&T and Time Warner in the federal government’s antitrust lawsuit seeking stop their merger. AT&T won.

Petrocelli burst into the national spotlight in 1997 when he represented the father of Ron Goldman suing O.J. Simpson for his son’s wrongful death. A jury awarded his client $8.5 million.

“Dan is an absolutely superb, elite trial lawyer,” said Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher partner Rob Walters, who was co-counsel with Petrocelli in the AT&T litigation. “Dan has an uncanny ability of establishing the moral high ground, which resonates well with factfinders.”

“Dan and Neal will be a formidable team in court in this litigation,” said Walters, referring to Susman Godfrey partner Neal Manne, who has been hired by Astroworld festival promotor Live Nation.

Well, when you’ve got a couple of billion dollars’ worth of lawsuits filed against you, you’re probably not going to skimp on the legal defense. It will be very interesting to see how Petrocelli directs the defense, which also includes criminal defense attorney Kent Schaffer, whom you may know as one of the Ken Paxton special prosecutors. Neal Manne, the Live Nation lawyer, was the lead on the misdemeanor bail lawsuit against Harris County. Like I said, heavy hitters.

Time for some bigger AstroWorld lawsuits

Here is a large number.

As the lawsuits continue to pile up following the aftermath of the Astroworld Festival tragedy, attorney Tony Buzbee has filed one of the largest yet.

The prominent Houston lawyer filed a suit Monday on behalf of 125 clients, including Axel Acosta, who was one of the 10 victims who passed away from a catastrophic crowd surge.

Buzbee said at a Nov. 8 press conference that Acosta was suffocated and trampled and left on the muddy ground “like a piece of trash.”

“His death was needless, and was the result of gross negligence,” Buzbee said in a statement.

The suit seeks more than $750 million in damages and names a slew of defendants, including Travis Scott, whose real name is Jacques Bermon Webster II, Drake, whose real name is Aubrey Graham, Apple Music, Live Nation the event organizer, Cactus Jack Records, Travis Scott’s record label company, as well as other labels like Epic Records and Grand Hustle Records associated with producing the event, and Paradocs, the private medical company hired for the festival among others.

“The Buzbee Law Firm believes, based on its ongoing investigation, that Apple Music, Epic Records and many other corporations that stood to profit from Astroworld will share legal blame in a court of law, in front of a Texas jury,” Buzbee said.

The 55-page suit attacks Scott’s history of inciting behavior Scott refers to as raging both on social media and at his concerts, including the rapper’s previous misdemeanor charges for reckless conduct in 2015, plus disorderly conduct, inciting a riot and endangering the welfare of a minor in 2017 after he encouraged a fan to jump from a balcony. At least one person fell and became paralyzed in that incident.

See here for some background. Buzbee has another lawsuit on behalf of 100 clients in the works, so presumably that will be in the same ballpark. And if that isn’t big enough for you, try this.

A $2 billion lawsuit has been filed on behalf of nearly 300 victims of the Astroworld tragedy that left 10 people dead and 25 hospitalized earlier this month.

The lawsuit was filed by Texas Attorney Thomas Henry on behalf of 282 Astroworld victims. The suit seeks up to $2 billion in damages from a long list of defendants, including Apple Music, Travis Scott, Drake, Live Nation, the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation, and NRG Stadium.

“The defendants stood to make an exorbitant amount of money off of this event, and they still chose to cut corners, cut costs, and put attendees at risk,” Henry said in a statement. “My clients want to ensure the defendants are held responsible for their actions, and they want to send the message to all performers, event organizers, and promoters that what happened at Astroworld cannot happen again.”

Henry added that another 120 victims have contacted his firm seeking representation.

More than 165 lawsuits have been filed in the wake of Travis Scott’s Astroworld concert earlier this month.

There’s basically no chance of a verdict that results in damages of that magnitude, and even if that did happen it would be drastically reduced on appeal, but these complaints will get the attention of the defendants and their insurance companies. Figure there will be a reasonable settlement reached at some point, for each of them. It will be a very active time for everyone involved until then. CultureMap has more.

No independent investigation of the AstroWorld tragedy

Not sure how I feel about this yet.

Harris County will not launch an independent investigation into the Astroworld festival disaster after commissioners declined to support a plan by County Judge Lina Hidalgo to do so.

Instead, the group on Tuesday voted unanimously to conduct an internal review, at the request of Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

“I proposed a more thorough and detailed scope to increase the likelihood of objectivity and an impactful outcome,” Hidalgo said. “While this scales back my proposal, I am happy to see the court move as a unit on some next steps.”

Garcia, a former Houston Police Department officer, made a motion to support that agency’s investigation. The motion also directed the county administrator, Harris County Sports Authority and Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation to examine safety regulations for outdoor concerts.

“There’s a lot of moving pieces in this particular event, so my motion is intended to help us move forward in the spirit of making sure that we are coordinating and collaborating, but at the same time looking forward,” Garcia said.

He expressed concern that authorizing a new investigation would expose the county to lawsuits.

[…]

Hidalgo, as a member of the three-member Democratic majority, rarely loses votes on Commissioners Court. She was unable, however, to convince any of her colleagues behind closed doors to support her plan for an independent investigation of the festival, which she said would not interfere with the Houston Police Department’s probe.

Hidalgo said she hopes the review would suggest actions the county can take to make concerts safer.

I hope so, too. I liked the idea of an independent investigation, though there had been no discussion of what that might look like and what powers the investigator would have. Campos thinks it’s a mistake for the county to not pursue this, while Erica Greider has mixed feelings. The county’s review will not overlap with the HPD criminal probe, so maybe it will turn up some useful information. Like I said, I hope this is worthwhile.

UPDATE: Stace also thinks Commissioners Court should have approved the independent investigation.

Here come the AstroWorld lawsuits

As well they should.

At least 34 Astroworld Festival attendees have sued or plan to sue the event promoter in what is expected to be a bevy of litigation related to the mayhem at NRG Park.

At least eight people died and dozens more were injured Friday during rapper Travis Scott’s concert at the Houston festival. The plaintiffs in several of the lawsuits allege that their injuries — and in one case, a family member’s death — were aided by the negligence of organizers, who they say failed to plan a safe event and failed to provide adequate medical staff, security and equipment for what was expected to be an unruly scene.

“Tragically, due to Defendants’ motivation for profit at the expense of concertgoers’ health and safety, and due to their encouragement of violence, at least 8 people lost their lives and scores of others were injured at what was supposed to be a night of fun,” attorneys said in a lawsuit filed by concert attendee Manuel Souza.

[…]

Souza and another attendee, Cristian Guzman, filed separate $1 million lawsuits in state civil district court over the weekend, alleging they were both trampled and injured.

Guzman, who said he suffered a significant back injury, is suing Live Nation, NRG Park, NRG Energy and the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation.

Souza is suing a variety of owners, operators, promoters and public relations representatives – including Scoremore, Live Nation, ASM Global, Travis Scott and a number of other named individuals.

Both of the men are also asking the court to grant temporary restraining orders that would require the defendants preserve evidence in the case.

See here and here for some background. Stories like this are certain to become obsolete quickly, as more lawsuits get filed. KUT and CultureMap both mention lawsuits not included in the Chron story, and legal experts anticipate many more. Which is how it should be! Eight people, including two children, died at this event, and many others were injured and traumatized. It may ultimately be shown that everyone involved in the planning and execution of this event acted responsibly and took adequate safety measures, but no one believes that right now, and nor should they. We have a civil justice system for a reason, and this is what it’s here for. I guarantee you, we will learn more about what happened via discovery and deposition than by any other means. The Press has more.

Wait, what Astrodome mural project?

How is it we hadn’t known about this before now?

Ready and waiting

A proposal to repaint the Astrodome with a series of murals expressing opposition to human trafficking was rejected Friday by the Texas Historical Commission out of concern for the 56-year-old building.

Commission members said they were worried about acrylic latex paint being applied directly to the structure, a state antiquities landmark that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Under the proposal, submitted by the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp., which owns the 1965 dome, street artists would paint the building’s exterior circumference with murals measuring 75 feet high and 150 feet wide, under the coordination of a group called Street Art for Mankind. An eighth artist would paint an image on the roof of an astronaut in space. The art installations would remain in place for 10 years.

No one representing the county or the art group was present as commission staff presented the request for a historic buildings and structures permit.

“We have concerns about turning the Astrodome into a big billboard. It doesn’t really seem like an appropriate treatment for a historic building that is a state antiquities landmark,” Mark Wolfe, the commission’s executive director, told commissioners and members of the agency’s Antiquities Advisory Board.

Commissioners said they would support an artificial “wrap” around the dome. But they objected to paint being applied directly onto the building’s concrete surfaces and glass windows.

I did not make it through all 295 pages of the Texas Historical Commission’s agenda, so I don’t know anything more about where this came from or who would do it. It’s a noble idea, but I share the THC’s reluctance to make such a fundamental alteration to the Dome. There will one day be a true redevelopment effort, and I’d rather they start with the Dome more or less as is, rather than have to scrape off a bunch of latex paint. I would also support the “wrap” idea, which seems ideally suited for this kind of project. And I’d still like to know more about the origin of this idea.

The timeline for the Astrodome

Work will get started after the Rodeo.

Soon to be new and improved

According to Ryan Walsh, executive director of the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation and NRG Park, the final phase of asbestos abatement is scheduled to get underway at the Dome next week and should continue until the end of the year. The work is being done by county engineers deep in the walls of the disused landmark.

“That work will take several months up until the rodeo moves in,” Walsh said Wednesday.

Construction on the project is expected to end in February 2020 and Walsh said this week that soon he will receive a more detailed construction schedule for the months and years ahead.

After the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo concludes its 2019 season more intensive work is expected to begin on the Dome. The rodeo has “gate to gate” coverage of the NRG complex during rodeo season.

I for one am looking forward to seeing what this finished product looks like. I’m also looking forward to an end of the griping about what has and has not happened to and for the Dome, what should have happened instead of this plan, etc etc etc. Not that any of that is likely to happen, but I still look forward to the end of it.

Hey, look, it’s another Astrodome proposal

Meet A-Dome Park.

A Houston architect is touting a new idea for the Astrodome’s overhaul, urging the county to avoid an indoor park concept and instead strip the structure down to its bones.

The concept, dubbed “A-Dome Park,” is being advanced by James Richards and Ben Olschner, architects who previously worked at Herzog & de Meuron, the firm behind London’s Tate Modern and the Olympics stadium in Beijing.

As Richards sees it, Harris County’s current plans for the stadium — essentially, an indoor park and events space — aren’t particularly unique, especially given the proliferation of world-class parks in Houston and abundant event space that already exists at the NRG Center complex.

[…]

Richards, who moved to Houston in 2014, isn’t a fan of the current concept, with its emphasis on indoor activity, and he thinks the 2013 vote is a testament to the fact that Harris County residents aren’t either.

He believes that despite the region’s brutal summer heat, few Houstonians will want to spend their free time within an indoor park — especially given the relatively mild weather Houston enjoys the rest of the year — and he’s skeptical that the plans for vast amounts of plant life inside the facility are realistic. He also doesn’t think restaurants and others vendors on the first floor of the Dome (part of the ULI proposal) will actually be financially viable, based on the number of people who will visit the indoor park on a regular basis.

So instead, Richards and his partners on the “A-Dome park” proposal are envisioning something totally different. The idea isn’t to just preserve the Astrodome but to highlight — and even expose — the architectural elements that made it world famous.

Richards wants to strip the structure down to its steel bones. The idea is to remove the non-structural surfaces of both the Astrodome exterior and interior, leaving only the dramatic steel frame, which would be painted to prevent decay. The plan, Richards argues, highlights the innovative engineering that went into the dome structure itself while also creating a space that offers a completely unique experience.

The A-Dome Park website is here, and you can see plenty of pictures of the proposal at the Urban Edge post. If some of this sounds familiar, it’s because it is similar in nature to Ryan Slattery’s strip-the-Dome-to-its-skeleton idea from 2013. The first comment on the Urban Edge post deals with that, so good look and see what you think. I’m not enough of a design nerd to comment on the merits of one versus the other or the current Harris County plan. I will just say again, generating ideas for the Dome is easy enough – I’ve long since lost count of the plans and proposals that have been floated, and every time anyone writes about the Dome more people will chime in with “what about this…” suggestions. The hard part is finding one proposal that can get enough support to be politically and financially viable, since the stumbling block all along has been how to pay for it. Maybe this is it, maybe the county’s plan is it, maybe it’s something else, who knows? I’m sure Judge Emmett would like to have whatever it is in motion by the time he steps down. Swamplot has more.

Under the Dome

The latest plan to save the Dome takes a step forward.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Harris County Commissioners Court moved forward on Tuesday with one piece of the Astrodome revival that needs to happen whether or not the park plan is achieved, according to County Judge Ed Emmett.

The court asked for an internal cost assessment for building two floors of underground parking, or a large underground storage facility, beneath the ground floor of the Astrodome.

[…]

Edgar Colon, an attorney who serves as the appointed volunteer chair of the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation, has been managing this undertaking. He estimated the task force of engineers, architects, designers, cost estimators and financial advisers has logged more than 200 hours on Astrodome conversion planning.

He said Emmett took the lead, and the late Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee also took great interest in the process.

Under the broader plan, the Astrodome would remain county property, and the park inside it would be a county park. The conservancy would help raise the funds for the project and assist in designing it.

By the end of June, Colon said, the plan for the conservancy’s structure and its role in developing an indoor park should be finalized.

But first, Emmett wants to address the more pressing matter of raising the floor of the Astrodome to ground level and making use of the 30 feet of space underneath it.

“My first goal is to put the Dome into usable condition, whether it be for the rodeo for their food court or the Offshore Technology Conference, or for festivals, gatherings or merely for picnickers in the park,” Emmett said.

“The Dome’s a building. We can’t just leave a building sitting there unusable.”

See here for the background. Basically, the plan is a public-private partnership overseen by a conservancy, similar to Discovery Green, but with more moving parts. Among the attractions of this setup would be the ability to fundraise as a non-profit, which would sidestep the need to put another bond issue before the public. I can’t wait to see what the structure of the conservancy will look like. One presumes the incoming County Commissioner (the Dome resides in Precinct 1) will take a lead role in getting this off the ground, and one presumes that Judge Emmett, who is known to want to retire after this term is up at the end of 2018, will want to have it well in motion by then. KUHF has more.

Is this the plan that will save the Dome?

Maybe.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

A few months ago Ed Emmett had a breakthrough moment about how to save the Astrodome, a goal he’s been chipping away at for the better part of eight years. The Harris County judge was driving out of the county administration building lot headed straight for the historic 1910 courthouse in downtown, and he thought, “There’s a building we completely re-purposed without bond money.”

Meanwhile, the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation was mulling over a 38-page report by the Urban Land Institute outlining details for transforming the Astrodome into an indoor park with 1,200 parking spaces underneath it. What remained unclear was how to fund it.

And that’s where Emmett’s idea comes in. His plan has now become the blueprint for a public-private partnership overseen by a conservancy that would unite the city, county, the sports and convention corporation and other governmental entities with private investors to revive the Astrodome without requiring voter approval. Under the conservancy model, Emmett said, the Dome would earn tax credits, which would help significantly with covering expenses for renovation.

The details for the partnership – and who will commit to covering what percentage of the costs – are being discussed in meetings between representatives of various stakeholders, including during a session on Tuesday and another one scheduled for Friday.

The finished funding plan will come before county officials likely before year’s end, and, if the majority of the five-member Commissioners Court backs the proposal, the Astrodome revival will commence.

[…]

The two newest commissioners, Jack Cagle and Jack Morman, said in interviews Tuesday that they might ultimately support a conservancy to oversee a Dome project; however, neither could say for certain without reviewing the actual proposal.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said he would want to hear comments from the public, adding that “a plan that does not involve taxpayers’ money is certainly going in the right direction.”

Commissioner El Franco Lee expressed wholehearted backing for Emmett’s new strategy.

“I support and am pushing for the conservancy approach,” he said. “It gives philanthropic givers an opportunity to participate, and it takes us down the road much faster by doing some creative things.”

Lee said participants in the conservancy discussions are fully aware that the majority on Commissioners Court does not support taxpayer money going toward the Astrodome project, and he said the planning group will certainly keep that in mind as it crafts a proposal.

“At this point, I’m very optimistic,” Emmett said, “that it’s going to happen without a bond issue. That’s the direction we’re moving in. People seem to be coalescing around the idea of re-purposing the Dome as a green space, adding parking underneath, and adding a conservancy to oversee the upper parts.”

That’s the key right there, no bond issue, which would mean no vote need be taken. I mean, there’s not a whole lot of reason to be optimistic about any further Dome-related votes, so avoiding that would be a big deal. As Judge Emmett notes, this is the same concept that the Houston Zoo and Discovery Green use. That would require some kind of board that would be responsible for management and – more importantly – funding, with some operations money coming from the county and likely the city. I expect that would be easy enough to work out. This makes so much sense that you have to wonder why no one thought of it before. Better late than never, I guess. What do you think about this? Texas Leftist has more.

Who will pay for Super Bowl stadium improvements?

Gotta say, I’m with Steve Radack on this one.

If the NFL has its way, luxury boxes and club seats at NRG Stadium will undergo major upgrades at the expense of Harris County or its tenants before Super Bowl LI arrives in Houston in 2017.

But if the decision is up to Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack, using public funds to improve suites for corporate executives and billion-dollar companies would be a non-starter.

“I’m not about to vote to spend a single dollar of county money updating these luxury suites,” Radack said.

With 21 months to go until the sporting event that launches Houston onto the world stage for one glorious Sunday, much work still remains to prepare for the big party. One of the most significant tasks appears to be dressing up NRG Stadium. The price for seating updates and other improvements could rise as high as $50 million, including $5 million to enhance the facility’s WiFi capacity, sources previously have told the Houston Chronicle.

Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s senior vice president of events, said Monday that upgrading the stadium’s WiFi is something the bid committee has agreed to do. In terms of sprucing up the seating, he said he noted on a recent visit that NRG “is in a very good place at this stage in its stadium life, but there are opportunities to upgrade that are common across Super Bowl stadiums as they prepare and continue to make sure they are state-of-the-art.”

O’Reilly said the burden for the costs of upgrading the facility rests with Harris County or its tenants – the Texans and the rodeo. But so far, none of the parties involved has volunteered to pick up the tab. County officials seem resolute that they won’t be forking over any funds.

Jamey Rootes, president of the Texans, explained that the team is 13 years into its 30-year lease and O’Reilly was merely noting “that there could be some improvements that would help Houston put its best foot forward.”

“Anything that as a fan you might come into contact with might be a factor because you’re going to be in that facility for a long time,” Rootes said.

[…]

For NRG Park, the question of fixing up the premises comes down to a landlord-tenant issue under glaring stadium lights.

The county, through its sports and convention corporation, serves as landlord to NRG’s tenants, which include the Texans and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. [Commissioner Jack] Cagle said WiFi costs are “currently a responsibility of the current tenant.”

“WiFi wasn’t really around when our contracts were set up,” Cagle said. “It’s not one of our landlord responsibilities. We have a contract that is in place, and perhaps that needs to be renegotiated.”

See here for the background. The “landlord-tenant” characterization sounds right to me. I can see the case for upgrading WiFi – who installed it in the first place, if it wasn’t there originally? – and of course if there are actual repairs to be made, that’s a landlord responsibility. But if we’re basically talking about fancier party decorations and accoutrements, that’s on the tenant. Stand firm, y’all. Paradise in Hell and Campos have more.

More on the ULI Astrodome plan

From Tory Gattis:

This was not a presentation of, “well, if the all the stars line up you might be able to make this work.” The theme was more, “this is an absolutely incredible opportunity and you would be fools to not seize it.” In fact, Tom Murphy, former mayor of Pittsburgh, was the anchor speaker and threw down the gauntlet, challenging us to step up to the plate, think big, and make this happen.

[…]

Here are my thoughts on aspects of it:

  • Brilliant putting 1,500 to 2,000 parking spaces in two levels at the bottom of the dome’s bowl, which makes it a lot easier to sell to the Texans and Rodeo. In general, they said they bent over backwards trying to accommodate their needs, as well as the OTC.
  • They smartly called for refreshing the different tenant agreements at NRG Park, rather than just trying to stay within their limits that never envisioned re-purposing the dome.
  • Clever idea of making a good part of the interior green space removable like the turf trays at NRG Stadium. That allows it to be converted to hard floor space for events like the OTC, or a dirt floor for the Rodeo.
  • They did look at using it for fixed-seating concerts/events, but determined there were already plenty of venues in Houston for that, so that functionality was not included. There certainly may still be concerts in there, but they will be more of the festival lawn variety.
  • They very explicitly did not recommend a replacement for the NRG/Reliant Arena, whose functionality they believe can be included inside the revamped Astrodome. Boom – $150 million saved right there! That may give the Rodeo a little heartburn, but – as I’ve said before – it’s the right call.
  • In any discussions of finances for this, that $150 million savings of an Arena replacement should absolutely be factored in, including communications with the public. They mentioned a ballpark potential cost number of $200 to $300 million (a bargain compared to similar scale projects elsewhere, they said), which means the Arena savings gets us more than halfway there!
  • They believe it might be possible for operating costs to be covered by revenues, so it won’t be an ongoing burden. The capital costs are the trickier part, although they laid out a lot of options there.

Overall it was far better than I had hoped or expected.

From CultureMap:

The plan calls for an oak-lined promenade leading from the METRO light rail station on Fannin to the Astrodome, which will be repurposed into the “world’s largest room” on the third floor of the structure — “a grand civic space in which to shine,” said Amy Barrett, a South Carolina urban planner.

The grand space could be used for a variety of functions including, but not limited to, a park, sustainable farm, farmer’s market, festivals and museums with an educational component. The top area of the Dome could include a viewing area as well as an Adventure Park, with zip-lining, hike-and-bike trails and indoor rock climbing.

The plan calls for the first two floors of the Dome to be converted into a parking garage for more than 1,500 cars, including spaces large enough for horse trailers and large vehicles, providing a source of steady revenue. Other sources of income could come from naming rights to various areas of the complex, sponsorships and admission charges for the Adventure Park and other attractions.

Additional funding sources could include solicitations from philanthropic organizations, federal and state grants, joining the city on a TIRZ district, seeking a share of hotel occupancy taxes, and a county bond issue, if necessary, ULI panelists suggested. They were hard to pin down on the potential cost of the project, although one said it could be in the $200 million to $300 million range.

“Our conclusion is that the Astrodome can and should live,” said Los Angeles real estate developer Wayne Ratkovich, who chaired the panel. “We believe that the Dome can serve all of Harris County and beyond. It can be a scene of many more historic moments and the home of many activities that will enhance the quality of life for all Houstonians.”

The panel made special efforts to address the concerns of two major tenants at NRG Park — the Texans and the Rodeo. They emphasized that the repurposed Dome could provide additional opportunities for the Texans on game day and for the Rodeo during the month of March. A Rodeo representative said they were studying the plan; a Texans representative declined to comment.

“The work really begins now,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett. “The main thing about this morning’s announcement from the ULI is they unanimously came back and said the dome needs to be saved. Yes it’s usable. Now go do it. That begins the hard work. The rodeo has to be part of that. The Texans have to be part of that. But the community at large has to be part of that. That building — the dome — belongs to the taxpayers of Harris County.”

Emmett added that he gave this plan “almost 100 percent” chance of succeeding and awaits the final report, which is due within 90 days. “At that point we can really go out and start seeing other entities and say, ‘Here’s the concept,'” he said. “It will be a constant conversation between me and the commissioners from now on. In the meantime we are proceeding with the washing of the building and cleaning it up.”

See here for the background and here for the full Urban Land Institute report. What I like about this is that they’ve directly addressed the concerns that the Rodeo and the Texans have brought up before, because getting those entities on board will be critical to success, and while there’s still a lot of “could be used for” language there’s also a lot of specifics. Tying the space in to the Rodeo and football game day experience is a good idea as well, and I have to agree in looking over the document again that it’s got some bold, big-thinking ideas. I got a little excited imagining it, and that’s not something I’d have said before. We just might finally have a winner here. What do you think? Next City has more.

Urban Land Institute report on the Astrodome

Is this, at long last, The Plan for the Astrodome?

The iconic, yet aging Astrodome is worth saving from the wrecking ball and could find new life as a massive indoor park and green space, a national land use group said Friday.

A panel of experts with the Urban Land Institute released a preliminary proposal for the former Eighth Wonder of the World that would convert it into a public space that includes an indoor lawn, outdoor gardens with a promenade of oak trees, and exhibit space for festivals and community events.

It would also include a play area with zip lines, trails and rock climbing walls.

“The Astrodome can and should live on,” said panel chairman Wayne Ratkovich, president of Los Angeles-based Ratkovich Co., which specializes in urban infill and rehabilitation projects.

The panel that included urban planners, designers and economists from around the country, spent this week interviewing stakeholders and Houstonians about the former home of the Houston Astros. It presented its preliminary findings at a public meeting at the NRG Center and will present a final report to Harris County within 90 days.

The study by the non-profit education and research institute was paid for by the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation and a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which named the Astrodome a National Treasure in 2013.

While the costs and details were not firm, the panel agreed that the structure is worth saving. The panel proposed a public-private funding structure that would include a mix of philanthropy, historic tax credits, hotel occupancy tax funds, money from tax increment reinvestment zones and county funding, possibly in the form of a bond proposal.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who previously proposed an indoor park idea, said he did not know if the proposal would require a bond initiative to fund. Yet, Emmett said, the proposal has an “almost 100 percent chance” of succeeding.

“They unanimously came back and said, ‘The Dome needs to be saved. Yes, it’s usable. Now, go do it,'” he said. “Now begins the hard work.”

Ideally, Emmett said, a portion of the park project would be completed in time for 2017 when Houston hosts the Super Bowl at NRG Stadium.

You can see the presentation here. The ULI got involved in September. The plan is basically a synthesis of a number of ideas that have been advanced before, and there is a lot to like about it. As has always been the case, the question is how to fund it, and how to get public support for it if it comes to a vote. The one bit of recent polling evidence that we have is not positive on that latter point, but we haven’t had a plan that everyone with a stake in it has bought into and worked together to sell. If Commissioners Court and the Rodeo and the Texans and the preservationists are all on board and pulling in the same direction, we could have something. I don’t know how big an “if” that is yet, but we’ll see. What do you think of this?

A second chance to get a piece of the Dome

There’s going to be another Astrodome memorabilia sale in the near future.

This one is not for sale

The Harris County Sports and Convention Corp. is considering selling more seats out of the Astrodome after raking in $1.5 million late last year during two online auctions and a walk-up “yard sale” at NRG Center where thousands of nostalgic fans waited hours in line to buy seats, swatches of Astroturf and a slew of other memorabilia salvaged from the world’s first domed sports stadium.

Net proceeds from the sales in November and December totaled nearly $650,000, meaning they cost almost as much to put on as they brought in. County officials, however, said the haul far exceeded their expectations.

“We were just hoping for it to be able to pay for itself, but it did much more,” said Kevin Hoffman, deputy executive director of the sports corporation, the county agency that runs NRG Park, the South Loop sports complex where the dome is located.

[…]

Hoffman said the sports corporation now is considering having at least one more sale of Dome seats, but is not sure it will be allowed by the state historical commission, which last month postponed its vote on whether to make the 49-year-old stadium a protected landmark while the county continues searching for a private company or coalition to redevelop it.

Under state law, the owner of a building under consideration for so-called “state antiquities landmark” status cannot make significant alterations to the structure during the application process, or after designation, without permission from the commission.

Since the seats have already been removed and are sitting in storage I’m not sure what the problem with selling them might be, but I suppose we have to let the process work. The first memorabilia sale was a big success despite some major logistical issues. This story says there were 7,000 pairs of seats sold in the first event, which presumably includes the online auction, though the stories at the time indicated it was 2,400 pairs. I’m not sure what accounts for the discrepancy – perhaps it’s just that they’ve continued to sell more seats online – but in any event there are another 4,000 pairs left. Funds from that sale went to cleanup efforts after partial demolition of walkway towers and ticket booths, and funds from this next one would be used for maintenance and upkeep. I’ll keep my eye out for further updates on this.

Appeals court revives MBIA lawsuit against Sports Authority

Here we go again.

A lawsuit against the agency that pays the debt on Houston’s sports stadiums is back on following an appeals court ruling.

Last April, a state district court judge ruled that a bond insurer could not sue the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority or the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp., saying they were immune from such legal action as government agencies.

MBIA Insurance Corp., with the National Public Finance Guarantee Corp., sued the Sports Authority in January 2013, asking that the cash-strapped agency be forced to collect more money to cover its obligations, including additional parking and admissions taxes at Reliant – now NRG – Stadium, and seeking damages for other alleged breaches of contract. The sports corporation, the county agency that manages NRG Park, also was listed as a party in the suit.

In an opinion issued last week, a three-judge panel from the First Court of Appeals ruled that the Sports Authority had waived its immunity when it entered into an agreement with MBIA – now National – that provided that the company, which insures $1 billion in bonds, would guarantee regularly scheduled principal and interest payments on them.

Upholding part of state District Court Judge Elaine Palmer’s decision, it also ruled that the sports corporation was not liable because the company had not accused it of breach of contract.

Sports Authority Chairman J. Kent Friedman said it has not yet decided whether to ask the First Court for a re-hearing, to appeal to the Texas Supreme Court or to “go ahead and try the case.” Deadlines to request a re-hearing or appeal are next month.

“I continue to be very confident in our position in the litigation,” he said. “All it really did is allow them the right to proceed with their lawsuit.”

See here, here, and here for the background. The Court’s opinion is here, and if like me your eyes glazed over after about five seconds, you can skip to the end and confirm that the bottom line is that the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority does not have immunity and thus can be sued, but the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation does have immunity as Judge Palmer ruled and thus cannot be sued. The matter is now back in the 215th Court, pending a decision by either party to appeal the part of the ruling they didn’t like. Also, I’m glad to see that we seem to be done with that “Kenny Friedman” business, and J. Kent Friedman is once again being called “J. Kent Friedman” as well he should be. So there you have it.

Rename this!

Whatever.

Just plain Astrodome, thanks

Reliant Park will soon be called NRG Park and Reliant Stadium NRG Stadium, after NRG Energy, the parent company of one of the largest electric retailers in the Houston area.

County sources say NRG, which acquired Reliant’s retail operations in 2009, is planning a rebranding effort that will involve swapping out every sign bearing the Reliant name.

A related item is expected to appear on the next meeting agenda of the board of the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., the agency that runs the county-owned park.

The long version of the story is here. They can name it whatever they want, but that doesn’t obligate anyone else to call it what they name it. The Astrodome is still the Astrodome, not the Reliant Astrodome and certainly not the NRG Astrodome. The building that now houses Joel Osteen’s church will always be The Summit. The airport north of the city is plain old Intercontinental, the big building near the Galleria with the waterwall is the Transco Tower, and that lawn you need to get off is mine. I’m glad we had this opportunity to clear this up. Link via Swamplot, and Hair Balls has more.

Back to private investors for the Dome

Sure, why not?

We still have the memories

Commissioner El Franco Lee, whose Precinct 1 is home to the county-owned Dome, said Commissioners Court is “not under any time constraint” in deciding what to do with the vacant stadium.

“The only constraint we’re under is spending any public money,” Lee said.

[…]

Lee noted that about $8 million worth of cleanup work, including asbestos removal, is underway to prepare the Dome for redevelopment or demolition and said that work would be sufficient to prepare the structure for the Super Bowl.

“We’ll be ready for that,” Lee said. “That’s a pretty low bar to meet.”

A memo to the court from the county engineer states that “no major activity can occur until asbestos removal is completed” by next September.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said Tuesday the Super Bowl is “a critical date” when it comes to the Dome’s fate but said the county will allow private parties another shot.

“People continue to come and say, you know, if you give us a little time we’ll have $100 million or $200 million or whatever, and I think Commissioners Court is of a mind that if they show up here and they’ve gone through the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp. and they have the money and they want to convert it, then we’ll certainly listen to ideas,” Emmett said.

[…]

Private funding is “the only thing you got left, and that is where we wanted to be in the first place,” Lee said.

Emmett said he, too, is hopeful, even while noting the private sector has “had 10 years to come up with the money” to no avail.

The “we’re in no rush” meme appeared immediately after the election, so this is no surprise. Private funding has always been the preference, since it (theoretically, at least) reduces the county’s exposure and most likely avoids the need for any further input from the voters, who needless to say can sometimes go off-script. There’s already a proposal to turn the Dome into a fitness center, with a promise from the proposer that given a couple months’ time he can scare up $200 million or so to do it. Not sure how I feel about that particular idea, but then like all of the others that preceded it, it’s unlikely to ever become anything more than an idea. If we wait around a little longer, and all indications are that we will, I’m sure plenty more ideas of varying levels of practicality will turn up. The question is what will happen if one of them comes with enough money to make a go of it.

So what happens now with the Dome?

It’s mostly dead, but I suppose it’s not all dead just yet.

We still have the memories

The board of the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., the county agency that runs Reliant Park, passed a resolution in April saying that if a vote were to fail, the agency would ask Harris County Commissioners Court to allow it to “prepare a plan to decommission and subsequently demolish the Reliant Astrodome.”

“That still stands,” said Willie Loston, sports corporation executive director. However, he said, “there’s nothing we have to do now. We’re awaiting direction. That’s the bottom line.”

All eyes now are on the five-member Commissioners Court, which holds the power to determine the fate of the vacant stadium, which has served as nothing more than a storage facility since city inspectors declared it unfit for occupancy in 2009.

[…]

“We said before the vote that absent a vote to transform the Dome into something useful that didn’t bankrupt the county or the taxpayers, then the likely result would be for the Dome to come down, but that’s not my decision – that’s the decision of Commissioners Court,” Emmett said this week.

Asked about demolition on Tuesday, Emmett said the event center plan was “the only option that was viable and, so if the voters rejected the only viable option, then I wouldn’t know where to go next.”

Strictly speaking, I don’t think Commissioners Court is required to authorize demolition at this point. Someone check me if I’m wrong, but I see no reason why they couldn’t choose to pursue another bond referendum next year, perhaps with one of the creative and unfunded plans that had been rejected. I also see no reason why they couldn’t continue to seek out a private investor, or just leave things as they are. They won’t do nothing, but it won’t surprise me if they take a little time before moving forward with something.

What that something is, even if it is the threatened demolition, remains unclear.

County engineers have estimated it would cost $20 million to demolish the dome and create an “open space.”

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, who voted against the bond and predicted its failure, said he plans to push an idea to turn the dome into a detention pond after it is torn down, eliminating the need to fill in the hole – and the cost – and exempting the county from having to pay a controversial city drainage fee.

“We spend millions every year digging holes, so why would we spend $200 million covering up a pretty good hole that can help with flooding? It makes no sense,” he said.

If that happens, then I believe the very least we can do to commemorate what used to be there is to come up with an appropriate name for what follows. Something like “Lake Hofheinz” or if you prefer formality, the “Judge Roy Hofheinz Memorial Retention Pond”, for instance. Or maybe just call it “Radack’s Hole”. I think The People should be left to settle the question on this, too. Feel free to leave your own suggestion in the comments. Houston Politics, PDiddie, Swamplot, Burka, Mean Green Cougar Red, and Hair Balls have more.

On the uses of the New Dome

So it’s looking pretty good for the Astrodome renovation referendum. But what exactly will we get if it does pass? In particular, will the New Dome be economically sustainable in a way that the current one is not?

To date, Harris County and Reliant Park officials have offered little more than verbal assurances the New Dome would be an economic winner.

The closest thing to a fiscal analysis that has been released since the Harris County Commissioners Court voted in August to put the bond proposal to voters came a month later on a single sheet of paper brought to a Houston Chronicle editorial board meeting. Projections on the paper show a converted Astrodome would generate $1.9 million a year – $4 million in revenue, minus $2.1 million in expenses.

The $4 million includes usage fees, concessions, parking and revenue from “incremental” naming rights. The $1.9 million net income likely would be spent on utilities or other operating costs, but officials say they are certain the facility would pay its own way.

“The goal, at the very minimum, is to break even,” said Edgar Colón, chairman of the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., which devised the New Dome plan.

Consultants the sports corporation hired to devise various reuse plans found last year that “all options have operating shortfalls,” including a multipurpose facility virtually identical to the New Dome plan.

A sports corporation list of potential uses of the New Dome spans more than four pages. Major events include fan parties during the Super Bowl and NCAA Final Four, as well as Wrestlemania.

The list of new prospects, everything from a Star Wars Convention to the Junior Olympic Games, is much longer than the one of existing events that could locate there, which includes only the annual Offshore Technology Conference and the Mecum Auto Auction.

The OTC, which has outgrown Reliant Center, has said it would use the New Dome.

The economic argument officials make the most is akin to “Build it and they will come.”

“You put together a facility that is unique in the world and then you go out and sell it, and that’s what we have here,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who said the new venue would spur hotel and other development in the area.

[…]

Even if the New Dome is not an economic boon, Emmett has suggested that expecting it to break even is not a reasonable goal, comparing it to a public park.

“There are a lot of things that government does that provides an asset or a service to the taxpayers that doesn’t necessarily pay for itself,” he said in his September newsletter.

The “public park” angle is interesting, and it makes some sense. I don’t recall it being brought up before now, which is the sort of thing that can come back and bite you afterward. I look at it this way: The current Dome is costing us something like $2 million a year, and we’re getting no use out of it. If what we build winds up costing less, never mind breaking even, and we get some use out of it, it’s a win. If it does wind up breaking even, so much the better. People clearly find value in the preservation of the Dome, which is a part of Houston’s identity in a way that few other things are, and if we wind up with something that costs a few bucks a year, that’s what we chose to do. Houston Politics has more.

Want to buy a piece of the Dome?

Now’s your chance, but act fast.

This one is not for sale

Five hundred pairs of upper-deck “rainbow gut” seats and old Astrodome space helmets worn by the grounds crew nearly 50 years ago are among the items up for grabs Saturday during a sale and auction at Reliant Center.

Larger Dome items, like turnstiles and dugout benches, are headed for auction, while smaller items will be sold at a fixed price.

Registration for the 9:30 a.m. auction begins at 7 a.m. The sale of seats and turf begins at 8 a.m.

The roughly 500 pairs of upper-deck seats – some of which still had years-old peanut shells stuck to the sides from fans – will be sold for $200 per pair. There’s a limit of four pairs of seats (eight seats total) per person.

For those looking for a piece of history on the cheap, a 12-inch-by-12-inch piece of turf will go for $20. Again, there is a limit. Buyers can take home only four squares of turf per person.

The auction is run by Reliant Park officials and the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., which manages the county-owned Reliant Park.

Proceeds from the event will go to the Astrodome renovation project.

Note that this partial disassembly is necessary whether the Dome referendum passes or not. Recall also that the sale of Astrodome memorabilia was built into the estimates for the Dome renovation project, so by buying that upper deck chair you’re helping the preservation cause. Who out there plans to make a bid for something? Swamplot has more.

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.

Hoteliers for the Dome plan

Count the Hotel & Lodging Association of Greater Houston among the supporters of the Astrodome renovation plan.

Harris County Sports and Convention Corp. Chairman Edgar Colón, with back-up from Deputy Executive Director Kevin Hoffman, presented the agency’s vision for revamping the half-century-old structure into “The New Dome Experience,” a 350,000 square-foot, street-level space they and other county officials say could play host to everything from “the world’s largest” Super Bowl party, to graduations, to cricket matches to political conventions.

“Any event you can imagine,” Colón told a packed room at the St. Regis. The project would take 30 months to complete, and construction would begin immediately if voters approve the bond, meaning it would be done in time for the Super Bowl at Reliant Stadium in February 2017.

One of the first things Colón told the attentive crowd was that the concept would make the world’s first domed super-stadium easily modifiable, in case some private party — with funding in hand — comes forward in the future and wants to turn the structure into something else.

“It actually enhances the opportunity for future development,” said Reliant Park General Manager Mark Miller during a Q&A after the presentation. Other questions touched on whether there were plans for constructing walkways between facilities and, yes, a hotel.

Officials said those very projects are included in the Reliant Park Master Plan, which would likely require another bond referendum to execute.

During the Q&A, Colón also revealed that plans are in the works to form a political action committee that will raise money to promote the Dome referendum. If it passes, county officials have said they would have to hike the county property tax rate — for the first time in 17 years — by as much as half a cent.

“There is going to be a more organized political campaign, a political action committee, to which I’m sure you all of you can donate funds,” Colón said, eliciting some hearty laughter.

Many attendees described the plan as “exciting” and said they wanted to see the Dome preserved.

So in addition to learning that there will eventually be another bond referendum to (presumably) do maintenance and upkeep on Reliant Stadium, we find that there will be a PAC, no doubt created by the Sports & Convention Corp as I suggested, to get this sucker passed. Perhaps that will put PDiddie‘s mind more at ease. I personally think it’s too early to say whether the referendum is a favorite or an underdog. In the absence of any other information or activity, I’d probably bet on it passing, but it’s just too early to say for sure. Let me know when this PAC gets off the ground, and when/if some opposition coalesces, and then we’ll talk.

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.

Astrodome referendum headed for the ballot

If you’ve been waiting for the chance to vote on the fate of the Astrodome, your wait will soon be over.

Commissioners Court next Tuesday is expected to approve a measure asking voters to authorize the county to spend as much as $220 million to transform the vacant stadium, County Budget Chief Bill Jackson said Wednesday.

County engineering staff, with the help of hired consultants, determined that the conversion project the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp. proposed in June will cost $217 million. The sports corporation, which runs Reliant Park, had estimated its plan to turn the decaying structure into an energy-efficient meeting hall dubbed “The New Dome Experience” would cost $194 million.

Engineers also determined that it would cost $20 million to demolish the Dome and create an open space and identified $8 million worth of additional work – including asbestos abatement and selective demolition – that needs to be done no matter whether the structure is revamped or torn down.

The last demolition estimate, released in March by the NFL’s Texans and Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, showed it would cost $29 million to implode the structure and build a 1,600-space parking lot.

Jackson said the county may be able to come up with other kinds of revenue to offset how many taxpayer dollars would have to be spent.

[…]

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said he not only wants to see the plan on the ballot but that he will vote in favor of it – even if it means a tax rate increase – because it will generate revenue.

“Would I build that building today? No, but it’s an iconic structure, it’s a part of our history, I think we can put it to use,” he said. “We can make Reliant Center, and Houston in general, a unique destination for exhibits and special events, and I think that’s worth doing just for the money that will come our way.”

Whether a bond would pass is debatable, court members and county staff say.

Commissioners Court had previously authorized the budget office to give the HCSCC plan the once over. If Harris County winds up borrowing the full $220 million, there could be an increase in the county’s property tax rate of up to a half of a cent. Because there could be a tax rate increase, you can be sure that there will be some opposition to this, though at this point it’s unclear which of the usual suspects will take the lead. Given that the county spends $2 million annually on Dome maintenance, no one really disputes the need to do something. The question is whether people will openly advocate for demolition, which is the alternative and the much cheaper price tag to renovation. Commissioners Court is set to approve this item on Tuesday, so we’ll get a better idea of the politics of this after that.

Commissioners Court approves HCSCC Astrodome plan for further review

I noted this briefly in an update to my interview with Willie Loston, but on Tuesday Harris County Commissioners Court unanimously approved the proposal by the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation to redevelop the Astrodome for further study.

Commissioners did not comment on the proposal before or after the vote, but County Judge Ed Emmett said the court wanted to refer it to budget staff “to analyze what exactly the financial impact is, because if there is a bond, there will be a tax and everybody needs to understand that, but the level of that tax right now is still undetermined.”

County Budget Chief Bill Jackson said he and his staff will review the cost of building, maintaining and operating the facility, and then look at ways to pay for it, focusing on the “non-public property tax items first” in an effort to lessen the amount of any bond referendum sent to voters.

Court members said Tuesday they would like to see a plan on the ballot this November so the 30-month project could be completed in time for the 2017 Super Bowl at Reliant Stadium.

Jackson said options to be examined include naming rights and selling salvaged parts, including the nearly 60,000 seats.

When Astroworld was dismantled about eight years ago, Jackson noted, “people were paying ridiculous amounts for things that they remembered as kids.”

“I just feel that people, if they do take parts and pieces out of this thing, people will be willing to spend something for that,” he said.

The review should be complete by Aug. 1, Jackson said.

That would cut it close for the deadline to place an item on the November 6 ballot, but there would be sufficient time to do so. The Infrastructure Office and the County Attorney’s office were also asked to review the plan. This is basically what Loston said would happen in the interview. Hair Balls elaborates.

The court voted unanimously to send the plan to the county budget office, the county attorney and the public infrastructure department. The budget office will tell them how much this plan will actually cost tax payers, and the county attorney’s office will tell them how quickly everything needs to move to get this on the November ballot, if that’s possible. It’s going to the infrastructure department because Pct. 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle asked that it be sent to that department as well. Now the court has to see what the budget office, the county attorney and the public infrastructure department all have to say before looking at the issue again.

Back in April, the HCSCC said tearing the Dome down would become an option again if whatever option they ended up recommending (which ended up being this one) failed to get approved. Now, [HCSCC Chair Edgardo] Colon notes that if the commissioners decided not to vote for the plan or voters decided against it, demolishing the building would be one of the options, but they would still be looking to the court for guidance and other options for what to do with the building.

Once things really get rolling, Colon says his organization will move in and start working to get the public informed on this project enough to vote on it if and when it gets on the ballot.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said he wanted to see a variety of bond referenda on the ballot, according to the Chron story, including a demolition option. I’m not exactly sure how that would work, though he is correct to note that just because a bond referendum is approved that doesn’t mean the money has to be borrowed and spent. Still, if we’re going to ask the people to vote we ought to be giving them the final say, not just narrowing the choices for a final determination by Commissioners Court. Let’s have one up-or-down item on the HCSCC proposal, and if it fails then Commissioners Court can then decide what the next move is.

In the meantime, County Judge Ed Emmett met with the Chron editorial board to discuss the plan and its status. Two items of interest from their talk. Item one:

In a somewhat heated meeting with the Houston Chronicle editorial board on Wednesday, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett took credit for the timeline the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp. set in April for deciding what to do with the decaying Reliant Astrodome, describing it as an attempt to put an end to a nonstop stream of private reuse ideas that don’t have financial backing — and to force a decision on what to do with the vacant stadium.

“The private groups kept coming and coming and coming and I started chewing on… the Sports and Convention Corp. to set a deadline,” Emmett, who took office in 2007, explained. “This was more a deadline to make sure that those who kept talking actually came to some end and namely that they either had money or they didn’t have money or they had a definite plan or they didn’t have a definite plan.”

Rebuking a Chronicle editorial last Thursday that described the process as rushed and set up to end in demolition, Emmett went on to say that “there’s no plot that I’m aware of.”

“It wasn’t anything to try to short circuit the system,” he said. “In fact, it was trying to put an end to a system that had been going on for years.”

See here for my previous comments on that Chron editorial. As I said earlier, it’s fair to question whether the HCSCC plan will have the full political backing of Commissioners Court, which could be a difference maker in getting a referendum to fund the proposal passed. Judge Emmett appears to be on board, but as we know, the Court is composed of individuals with their own agendas. If one or more Commissioners actively works to undermine the referendum, or otherwise works towards a goal of demolition, people will have a right to be upset about how the process has played out. It’s too early to know how this will play out.

Point two:

Emmett said he “wasn’t keen on the idea” of having the vote this year because there won’t be any other county issues on the November ballot, other than state constitutional amendments. But he said it has to happen if the project is to be done in time for the 2017 Super Bowl at Reliant Stadium. It also has the greatest chance of passing, he said.

“If we don’t have it this year it won’t be ready in time for the Final Four and the Super Bowl and I hate to miss those opportunities,” Emmett said. “And the political reality is I think it’s more likely to pass when you don’t have the whole county voting because I think the people in the city of Houston probably have more of an attachment to the dome than people out of the suburbs. It’s just a guess; We haven’t polled that yet.”

Having a vote this year is the right thing to do. This has gone on long enough, and having the 2017 Super Bowl as a deadline for completing the necessary work ought to keep everyone’s eyes on the ball. The bit about whether there’s a difference of opinion between the city and the ‘burbs is fascinating, and I for one would love to see some polling data on it. I hope whoever does the eventual Chronicle/KHOU poll makes a note of that. Anyone want to critique Judge Emmett’s hypothesis?

Interview with Willie Loston

Willie Loston is the Executive Director of the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation, which is the not-for-profit company that operates and maintains the public facilities at Reliant Park, including Reliant Stadium and the Astrodome. It was the HCSCC that called for and evaluated the private proposals for the Astrodome, and the HCSCC that ultimately presented the plan for a publicly-funded renovation of the Dome into a multi-purpose event facility. Of course, the process of coming up with a sustainable plan for the Dome goes back well before this year, but after a few false starts it has traction now. As you know, not everyone is on board with HCSCC’s idea, which must be approved by Commissioners Court and then ratified by popular vote, and there are still a lot of questions about why it was the HCSCC plan that was put forward, why has this taken so long, and so on. Mr. Loston reached out to me after one of my (many) posts about the Dome, and agreed to let me throw a few of these questions at him for my blog. Here’s what we talked about:

Willie Loston interview

Just as a point of clarification, the interview was conducted yesterday, so when Loston refers to the Commissioners Court meeting tomorrow, he means today, Tuesday. I believe this is the link Loston refers to when he mentions searching for the master plan. We’ll see what Commissioners Court does today; I’m sure there will be plenty more opportunities to write about this before all is said and done.

UPDATE: Commissioners Court has unanimously approved the HCSCC proposal, and sent it to the county budget office, county attorney and infrastructure department for further review.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said he expects to hear back on the proposal in about a month.

The budget office will look at ways to finance the project, including revenue generators to offset the price tag of any bond referendum sent to voters. The project could end up on the ballot in the form of a bond referendum as early as November.

Commissioners had no comment on the proposal before voting to send it to staff.

Emmett, however, explained that they were referring it to the budget office “to analyze what exactly the financial impact is because if there is a bond, there will be a tax and everybody needs to understand that, but the level of that tax right now is still undetermined.”

The county attorney, he said, will determine what deadlines have to be met to get the item on the ballot.

So far so good. Now that the T-word has been invoked, we’ll see who pops up to oppose this.

More on the rejected Dome ideas

The Chron pays some attention to the 19 ideas that were submitted to the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation for what to do with the Astrodome.

Willie Loston, executive director of the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., said much of the plan it outlined features ideas and suggestions from 19 proposals it got from the public.

However, Loston said many of the pitches were not sophisticated. Most were for various types of museums. There were also suggestions for – naturally – shopping centers. Indoor recreation areas were popular, as well.

Ideas for amusement parks were thrown about, as was one for an indoor water park. The least sexy ideas apparently came from transportation hawks who wanted the iconic stadium turned into a transit station.

“The great majority of these are from citizens who were concerned and not in the business of making financial or formal proposals,” Loston said. He added that the submissions, with the exception of a couple, did not mention realistic or specific financing options.

“A lot would say things like, ‘The public ought to be willing …’ or ‘We could find someone who can … ‘” Loston said. “There were more ideas of how to use the building, not ideas of how to pay for it.”

[…]

Developer John Tuschman said he and his partners were among the 19 groups to submit plans to the county. He said he was disappointed that Loston dismissed what he said was a detailed financial plan.

Tuschman’s group proposed converting the space into a multipurpose center complete with a movie theater, a hotel and several sports museums. Their plan also called for a Texas dance floor with an “infinity pool” surrounded by waterfalls in the center of the ground floor.

Tuschman hopes to work with the sports corporation to meld some of his group’s ideas into the final proposal. He believes the county plan “lacks a focal point,” which he thinks could be a sports museum.

“Their concept fits into our concept,” Tuschman said. “We want to make Houston the capital of the world.”

You can see a bit more about some of the 19 plans here. It’s just stadium designs, no details or business plans, so I can’t evaluate Tuschman’s claim. As it happens, I’m going to be interviewing Willie Loston later today, so I’ll get a chance to ask about that. If there’s anything you’d like for me to ask him about the New Dome Experience, leave a comment or drop me a note.

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 New Dome Experience

Behold:

If the future of the Astrodome has been keeping you up at night, you’ll rest easy knowing that a major step was taken in favor of preservation at a board meeting on Wednesday afternoon: The Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation (HCSCC) board unanimously agreed on a recommendation to repurpose the Houston landmark.

Willie Loston, executive director of HCSCC, said that none of the 19 privately-funded proposals submitted by the June 10 deadline met the criteria required, but the public use option presented at the board meeting does — think of it as “The New Dome Experience.”

Loston, along with SMG-Reliant Park general manager Mark Miller, presented the plan for a 350,000-square-foot column-free exhibition space, which would require removing the seats and raising the floor to street level.

Other improvements would include adding glass at the stadium’s four compass points for enhanced natural light and aesthetics, with a signature entry at the south end; installing solar panels on the domed roof and incorporating other building systems to improve energy-efficiency; and removing the berms, entrance ramps and ticket booths from the building’s exterior to create a more continuous and useable outdoor plaza, with food vendors and restroom opportunities as well as green space.

“What we want the ‘Dome to become for major events in Reliant Park is the front door,” explained Miller.

The reimagined space could serve, he said, as the headquarters for Reliant Park’s 24-hour security post, and would help facilitate emergency operations within the county in the case of disaster. The interior could be easily reconfigured to accommodate swim meets, graduations and other community events, football games, conventions and more.

The project is estimated to take about 30 months to build out at a cost of approximately $194 million, including everything from architectural and engineering fees to food service, according to Miller, although board chairman Edgardo Colón said that the HCSCC hopes to reduce that amount even further with alternative sources of financing.

See here for all my recent blogging on the subject, and here for the complete presentation on the New Dome. Commissioners Court will take up the matter on June 25, and if Judge Emmett’s reaction is any indication, it will get the Court’s support as well. As this option would require public money, it will also require a vote from We The People, meaning that if it fails then a date with the wrecker is surely next. If you’re wondering what happened with the private proposals, here’s your answer:

In order to be considered, privately submitted proposals had to include private funding, must be compatible with lease agreements with the Houston Texans and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, as well as the master plan of the Reliant Park complex. None of the ideas submitted by private groups or individuals met those criteria, Loston said.

Loston previously had said that some of the submissions were little more than ideas, while a few appeared to be professionally developed proposals.

That really shouldn’t be a surprise. If getting funding had been doable, someone would have made a formal proposal to do it by now, as almost happened back in 2007. I’ll be very interested to see how the usual anti-spending-on-anything suspects react to this, since it will be more public debt.

Speaking of which, it turns out that the existing debt on the Astrodome is only $6 million, which is probably less that you might have thought.

According to information provided by the County Attorney’s Office, three “categories” of debt can be linked to the half-century-old domed structure: One $3.1 million package from 2004, being paid with hotel occupancy taxes, will mature this year. Two others – totaling more than $28 million – are various voter-approved bonds issued between 1997 and 2009 that refunded debt originally issued for improvement work on the Astrodome.

Those packages, however, have been refunded so many times that the amount that can be tied directly to work done on the stadium is hard to nail down, especially when one considers that the oldest debt is paid off first.

The original $27 million general obligation bond that voters approved in 1961 to pay for construction of the world’s first domed super stadium was paid off 12 years ago.

Of the $245 million the county owes on the Reliant Park complex, nearly $240 million – issued in 2002 for construction of Reliant Center and a cooling plant – has nothing to do with the Astrodome, at least directly. That means the county owes less than $6 million on the decaying structure, on which it spends $2 million a year for insurance, utilities and upkeep.

There were only two other Astrodome-specific bond packages since 1961, both issued in 1988 back when we were trying to keep the Oilers from leaving, and they have been paid off. So we’ve got that going for us, which is nice. I have always sort of assumed that any action taken on the Dome now, whether a private proposal, a public proposal, or demolition, would include the existing debt as a part of it. Maybe this will make that part of it a little easier. PDiddie, who is delighted to see this plan, has more.

MBIA appeals lawsuit dismissal

Here’s the brief that MBIA has filed with the First District Court of Appeals to overturn the dismissal of their lawsuit against the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority and the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation. The issues presented for review are pretty straightforward:

1. The Sports Authority was authorized to waive its purported governmental immunity by the Texas State Legislature in Texas Government Code Section 1371.059(c), and it clearly and unambiguously waived any such claim of immunity in the operative deal documents.

2. The Sports Authority also waived its governmental immunity to suit, as provided in Texas Local Government Code Section 271.152, by entering into contracts for goods or services relating to the issuance of approximately $1 billion in bonds.

3. The Sports Authority, a joint creation of the City of Houston and Harris County, had no right to governmental immunity when it issued bonds in its proprietary capacity after a public vote by the citizens of Houston.

4. The Sports Corporation waived its governmental immunity to suit, as provided in Texas Local Government Code Section 271.152, by entering into contracts for goods or services.

I’ll leave it to the lawyers to evaluate their chances. Typically, it will be months, if not more than a year, to get an answer on this. In the meantime, I came across this link about the Sports Authority’s bond rating. The improving economy has the ratings services optimistic about its revenues in the near term. Take a look if you’re into that sort of thing.