Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Reliant Arena

2020 early voting starts today

From the inbox:

The Early Voting period for the November 2020 General Election begins tomorrow, Tuesday, October 13th, and continues through Friday, October 30th. This is the longest Early Voting period in Texas history, and voters who are not eligible to vote by mail are encouraged to vote early to avoid long lines and crowds on Election Day. The Harris County Clerk’s Office has provided more voter access than ever before, tripling the number of Early Voting Centers from just over 40 in 2016 to 122 this November. Visit http://www.HarrisVotes.com/Locations to find your nearest voting center, along with approximate wait times at voting centers across Harris County.

“My number one priority is keep voters and election workers safe this November,” said Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins. “We know that voting by mail is the safest and most convenient way to vote, but for the thousands of Harris County residents that are not eligible, we’ve provided more opportunities to vote and stay safe than ever before in Texas history. We’ve worked hard to provide a safe in-person voting experience and give voters more choices in how they cast their ballot — from larger, safer locations to voting from the comfort and safety of your vehicle. I encourage everyone to make your plan to vote and to take advantage of the Early Voting period to cast your ballot safely this fall.”

VOTING METHODS

KEY DATES

  • Tuesday, October 13: First day of Early Voting
  • Friday, October 23: Last day to apply to vote by mail
  • Tuesday, October 27 – Thursday, October 29: Extended Early voting hours to 10 pm
  • Thursday, October 29: 24 hour voting at eight (8) locations
  • Friday, October 30: Last day of Early Voting
  • Tuesday, November 3: Election Day

For more information, please visit HarrisVotes.com and follow @HarrisVotes on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

As a matter of historical pattern, today is likely to be very heavy, and the two or three days before the end of early voting are also very heavy, with the last day usually swamping the rest. Keep that in mind if you want to vote in person and minimize your exposure to crowds. If you have a flexible schedule, vote in the later morning – say, between 9 and 11 – or mid-afternoon – say, between 2 and 4 – to avoid the rush hour and lunchtime folks. Look to see how busy your location is, and choose another if it looks less crowded. We can all do a little something to avoid and minimize risk.

And while the courts will likely not do anything to stop Greg Abbott’s vote-suppresing order to close mail ballot dropoff locations, you can still drop yours off at Reliant Arena, or just put it in the mail as people have always done. Just do it quickly, don’t wait on it, and track its progress. If you have requested a mail ballot and for some reason have not received it, and you cannot vote in person (I have a friend who asked about this for her son at college), by all means call the County Clerk’s office and have them check it out. They should be able to send you another one ASAP if the first one didn’t get sent or got lost.

At this point I would say if you’ve been going to the grocery store or getting takeout, you can and probably should vote in person, picking a good place and time as noted above. But do make a plan, because turnout is gonna be lit.

Harris County election officials are preparing for a record number of voters to cast their ballots before Election Day, a process that will ramp up across Texas on Tuesday as early voting begins for the November general election.

County Clerk Chris Hollins, the elections administrator for the state’s largest county, said he expects as many as 1.7 million Harris County voters to turn out, a total that would shatter the record 1.3 million votes from 2016. Political analysts and elections officials are projecting an unusually large share of the votes will come during the early voting period, which Gov. Greg Abbott extended by six days, and through the mail as voters look to avoid contracting COVID-19 at crowded Election Day polling sites.

“It’s very likely that you’re looking at close to about three-quarters of all the vote being in before Election Day, which is a dramatic turnaround from what we’ve had just a few years ago,” said Jay Aiyer, an assistant county attorney working on elections at the Harris County Attorney’s Office. “It’s better to think of the election process as less about Election Day and Nov. 3 and really more about ‘election weeks.’”

I should note that 74% of the vote in 2016 was early or by mail, and 71% was early or by mail in 2018. So this is in line with recent elections, though with likely much higher numbers this time around.

Hollins had mailed out 235,000 ballots by this past weekend, his office announced, more than doubling the total from 2016. He had anticipated sending out roughly 10 times that amount to all 2.4 million registered voters in Harris County, but Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton stopped the effort through a legal challenge.

The clerk’s office had received 22,000 completed mail ballots by the weekend, while another 13,250 voters had dropped off their ballots in person at NRG Arena through Friday.

Driving part of the expected turnout increase is the steady growth of Harris County’s voter rolls. The county has added nearly 234,000 registered voters since 2016, far more than the 143,000 new residents added during the same span.

I’ll be tracking everything as usual. Now get out there and vote!

Win one, lose one at SCOTX

The win:

Early voting in Texas can begin Oct. 13, following the timeline the governor laid out months ago, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Wednesday, rejecting a request from several top Texas Republicans to limit the timeframe for voters to cast their ballots.

In July, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered that early voting for the general election in Texas begin nearly a week earlier than usual, a response to the coronavirus pandemic. But a number of prominent Republicans, including state party Chair Allen West, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and several members of the Texas Legislature, challenged that timeframe in September, arguing that Abbott defied state election law, which dictates that early voting typically begins on the 17th day before an election — this year, Oct. 19.

Abbott added six days to the early voting period through an executive order, an exercise of the emergency powers he has leaned into during the virus crisis. The Republicans who sued him argued this was an overreach.

The state’s highest civil court, which is entirely held by Republicans, ruled that the GOP officials who sued challenging Abbott’s extension waited until the last minute to do so, when he had already extended early voting in the primary election and announced he would do the same for the general months ago. Chief Justice Nathan Hecht noted also that the election is already underway.

“To disrupt the long-planned election procedures as relators would have us do would threaten voter confusion,” he wrote in the opinion.

See here and here for some background, and here for the opinion. After noting that Abbott has “issued a long series of proclamations invoking the Act as authority to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on a wide range of activities in the State” since his disaster declaration in March, the Court notes that the relators (the fancy legal name for “plaintiffs” in this kind of case) took their sweet time complaining about it:

Relators delayed in challenging the Governor’s July 27 proclamation for more than ten weeks after it was issued. They have not sought relief first in the lower courts that would have allowed a careful, thorough consideration of their arguments regarding the Act’s scope and constitutionality. Those arguments affect not only the impending election process but also implicate the Governor’s authority under the Act for the many other actions he has taken over the past six months. Relators’ delay precludes the consideration their claims require.

The dissent argues that relators acted diligently because they filed their petition in this Court four days after they received an email confirming that the Harris County Clerk intended to comply with the Governor’s July 27 proclamation. But relators’ challenge is to the validity of the proclamation, not the Clerk’s compliance.16 Relators could have asserted their challenge at any time in the past ten weeks. The dissent also argues that the Court has granted relief after similar delays. But none of the cases the dissent cites bears out its argument.17

Moreover, the election is already underway. The Harris County Clerk has represented to the Court that his office would accept mailed-in ballots beginning September 24. To disrupt the long-planned election procedures as relators would have us do would threaten voter confusion.

[…]

Mandamus is an “extraordinary” remedy that is “available only in limited circumstances.”20 When the record fails to show that petitioners have acted diligently to protect their rights, relief by mandamus is not available.21 The record here reflects no justification for relators’ lengthy delay.

The “dissent” refers to the dissenting opinion written by Justice John Devine, who was all along the biggest cheerleader for the vote suppressors. I have no particular quibble with this opinion, which seems correct and appropriate to me, but the grounds on which the mandamus is denied are awfully narrow, which gives me some concern. The Court may merely be recognizing the fact that there are several outstanding challenges to Abbott’s authority to use his executive powers in this fashion, relating to mask and shutdown orders as well as election issues, and they may simply want to leave that all undisturbed until the lower courts start to make their rulings. That too is fine and appropriate, but I can’t help but feel a little disquieted at the thought that maybe these guys could have succeeded if the timing (and their lawyering) had been better.

That ruling also settled the question of counties being able to accept mail ballots at dropoff locations during the early voting process – the relators had demanded that mail ballot dropoff be limited to Election Day only. None of this is related to the issue of how many dropoff locations there may be, which is being litigated in multiple other lawsuits, four now as of last report. We are still waiting on action from those cases.

On the negative side, SCOTX put the kibosh on County Clerk Chris Hollins’ plan to send out mail ballot applications to all registered voters in Harris County.

The state’s highest civil court ruled Wednesday that Hollins may not put the applications in the mail. The documents can be accessed online, and are often distributed by political campaigns, parties and other private organizations. But for a government official to proactively send them oversteps his authority, the court ruled.

“We conclude that the Election Code does not authorize the mailing proposed by the Harris County Clerk,” the court wrote in an unsigned per curiam opinion.

The Republican justices sent the case back to a lower court in Harris County to issue an injunction blocking Hollins from sending the mailers.

The county has already distributed the applications to voters who are at least 65, who automatically qualify for absentee ballots, and has also begun sending out the applications to other voters who requested them. An attorney for Hollins estimated last week that the county would send out about 1.7 million more applications if the court allowed.

See here and here for some background, here for a statement from Hollins, and here for the unanimous opinion, which is longer than the one in the first case. The Court goes into the many ways in which the Legislature has expressed its intent that most people should vote in person, and then sums up its view Clerks getting creative:

Hollins’ mass mailing of ballot applications would undercut the Secretary’s statutory duty to “maintain uniformity” in Texas’ elections, the Legislature’s “very deliberate[]” decision to authorize only discrete categories of Texans to vote by mail, and its intent that submission of an application be an action with legal gravity.43

Authority for Hollins’ proposed mass mailing can be implied from the Election Code only if it is necessarily part of an express grant—not simply convenient, but indispensable. Any reasonable doubt must be resolved against an implied grant of authority. Mass-mailing unsolicited ballot applications to voters ineligible to vote by mail cannot be said to be necessary or indispensable to the conduct of early voting. Even if it could be, doubt on the matter is certainly reasonable and must be resolved against recognizing implied authority. We hold that an early voting clerk lacks authority under the Election Code to mass-mail applications to vote by mail. The State has demonstrated success on the merits of its ultra vires claim.

I’ve discussed my views on this before, when the appeals court upheld the original order, and I don’t have anything to add to that. I agree with Michael Hurta that this case will be cited in future litigation that aims to limit what Texas localities can do to innovate, which is what Hollins was doing here. It’s basically another attack on local control, and as I replied to that tweet, it’s another item to the Democrats’ to do list when they are in a position to pass some laws.

I hate this ruling for a lot of reasons, but that right there is at the top of the list. The Court based its ruling in part on the fact that Hollins was doing something no one else had thought to try – “all election officials other than Hollins are discharging this duty in the way that they always have”, they say as part of their reasoning to slap Hollins down” – and while I can see the logic and reason in that, we’re in the middle of a fucking pandemic, and sometimes you have to step outside the box a bit to get things done in a manner that is safe and effective. I get where the Court is coming from, and I admit that allowing County Clerks to experiment and freelance has the potential to cause problems, but it sure would have been nice for the Court to at least recognize that Hollins’ actions, however unorthodox they may have been, did not come out of a vacuum. Clearly, the fact that the arguments in this case were heard via Zoom didn’t sink in with anyone.

On a practical level, I don’t know how many people would have voted via absentee ballot who would not have otherwise participated. Some number, to be sure, but I really don’t think it’s all that much. It’s the principle here, one part making it harder to vote and one part keeping the locals in line, that bothers me. As has been the case so many times, we’re going to have to win more elections and then change the laws if we want some progress. You know what to do. The Chron has more.

Paxton opposes Hotze mandamus to curb early voting

From Reform Austin:

In a brief filed with the Texas Supreme Court, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton argues that the GOP group suing Gov. Greg Abbott to prevent him from extending early voting for the November election has no standing and has failed to prove any harm.

Conservative activist Steve Hotze and a long list of high-profile Texas Republicans claim Abbott is violating Texas election law and overstepping his authority without first consulting with the Texas Legislature.

Paxton counters that delegation of powers is both necessary and proper in certain circumstances.

“The Legislature properly exercised its delegation power when it enacted the Disaster Act because it contains adequate standards to guide its exercise,” Paxton’s brief reads. “It sets parameters for what constitutes a disaster, provides a standard for how the governor is to declare one, places limits on his emergency powers, and specifies when the disaster ends.”

See here for the background. A copy of the Paxton brief is here. The introduction is worth a read:

To the Honorable Supreme Court of Texas:

Relators direct their petition at the Secretary of State, even though they do not allege that she has undertaken or threatened to undertake any unlawful action. Neither the Governor’s July 27 proclamation (“the Proclamation”) nor the Election Code imposes any ministerial duty on the Secretary. And the provisions of the Election Code concerning early voting are administered by county election officials, not the Secretary of State. Although the Election Code designates the Secretary as Texas’s “chief election officer,” this Court has long held that does not give her generalized enforcement power over every provision of the Election Code. Moreover, the Proclamation independently binds each county’s early-voting clerk, so any mandamus issued against the Secretary would not remedy Relators’ grievances. Indeed, granting the relief Relators seek would have no impact at all—which makes this petition nothing more than a request for an advisory opinion.

Relators’ merits arguments are similarly misguided. They raise multiple constitutional challenges to the Disaster Act, but none is properly before this Court because the Disaster Act delegates no power to the Secretary. And in any event, the Governor’s discretion and authority under the Disaster Act are cabined by reasonable standards, so it is a lawful delegation of legislative power, and the July 27 Proclamation is a proper exercise of that delegated power.

Relators waited two months to file this mandamus petition, yet they ask this Court to “alter the election rules on the eve of an election.” Republican Nat’l Comm. v. Democratic Nat’l Comm., 140 S. Ct. 1205, 1207 (2020). They are not entitled to relief.

Well, now we know where Ken Paxton’s line in the sand is: He’ll value the Governor’s executive power over a challenge to voting rights. Well, he’ll value this Governor’s executive power over a challenge to this Governor’s use of that executive power to enhance voting rights. Good enough for these purposes, I suppose.

Other court documents related to this writ are here. There are now documents available relating to the latest Harris County writ as well, which you can find here. Responses to that are due today at 4 PM. Have I mentioned lately that I will be happy to ease up on all the legal blogging? Please get me past this election, that’s all I ask.

Hotze’s latest Supreme Court gambit

He has nothing else to do, clearly.

A litigious conservative activist in Houston, the Harris County Republican party, and a number of Republican officials and candidates are asking the Texas Supreme Court to limit in-person and absentee voting options for Harris County voters during the pandemic.

The county, the state’s most populous and a major Democratic stronghold, began letting voters drop off absentee ballots Monday for the Nov. 3 general election at 11 annexes. In line with a directive from Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, the county also intends to begin in-person early voting Oct. 13.

Prominent activist Steve Hotze, as well as Wendell Champion, a Republican candidate for Congress; Sharon Hemphill, a Republican candidate for judge; and the local GOP chair, are suing to stop that, arguing Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins is overreaching the bounds of state election law. They’re asking the state’s highest civil court to order Harris County to not begin early voting until Oct. 19 — the date set by state law that Abbott extended by executive order, citing safety concerns — and not accept absentee ballots delivered in person until Nov. 3.

[…]

The conservative plaintiffs also argue that state law does not allow Hollins to permit voters to drop off their ballots at the 11 sites, a strategy they claim “creates an opportunity ripe for fraud.”

According to the Harris County clerk’s website, voters who complete absentee ballots may drop them off at any of 11 locations during specified hours, including 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the early voting period and on Election Day. Voters can deliver only their own ballots in person, and when they do they must present identification.

As the story notes, this is in addition to the mandamus request to halt the extra week of early voting statewide. I have a hard time imagining even this Supreme Court thinking that the law supports halting the extra week in only one county. The use of County Clerk annexes and locations like NRG Arena as mail ballot dropoff locations has been discussed for weeks and weeks, so you have to wonder why this is just being filed now. (It may be because it wasn’t an issue that could be litigated before now – the legal system can be funny that way.) Hotze of course was also the first to try to stop the sending out of mail ballot applications, for which there should be a SCOTX hearing on Wednesday. The other stuff, I have no idea. There’s nothing to indicate any action from SCOTX on the mandamus to halt the extra week of early voting, but I suppose that could happen out of the blue at any time between now and October 12, so who knows. Hotze is basically Pennywise without the makeup, but that doesn’t mean that SCOTX won’t join him down in the sewer.

You’ll be able to vote at Toyota Center this fall

Nice.

Toyota Center will serve as a voting center for the upcoming 2020 Presidential Election, the Rockets and the Harris County Clerk office announced on Thursday.

Toyota Center will be open to any registered voter in Harris County from Oct. 13 to 30 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. for early voting and on Election Day, Nov. 3, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

“On behalf of the Houston Rockets, and Toyota Center, we are honored to help serve our community by providing a safe and convenient location for Harris County voters for the upcoming Presidential election,” Doug Hall, General Manager & Senior Vice President of Toyota Center said. “Voting is an extremely important right which many have fought hard for throughout the years and we want to thank the Harris County Clerk office for allowing the Rockets and Toyota Center to offer support.”

The Rockets and Houston First will provide free parking at Toyota Center throughout the voting period.

The Rockets have also partnered with I am a voter. (iamavoter.com), a nonpartisan movement that works to enhance awareness and participation in the voting process. Fans may text ROCKETS to 26797 to confirm their voter registration status.

“Our elections this November will be historic – not only because we are electing the President of the United States, but also because we must meet the challenge as a community to ensure that every Harris County voter can cast their vote safely,” Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said. “I’m thrilled that Toyota Center, home to our beloved Houston Rockets, will be a voting center during the Early Voting Period and on Election Day.”

Here’s the County Clerk’s statement about this. Toyota Center joins NRG Arena and many other places. Unlike the other innovations being put forth for this year, this one may not be repeatable, as Toyota Center (and NRG Arena) are generally quite busy with multiple events that draw large crowds. Then again, one could argue that’s exactly the kind of place where you’d want to put a voting center, for maximal convenience. If there’s a practical way to do it in the future, then by all means let’s do so.

Making NRG Arena the 2020 election headquarters

Sounds like a good idea.

Chris Hollins

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins is seeking permission from Commissioners Court to use NRG Arena as a headquarters for the fall presidential election, converting the expansive space for voting, ballot counting and a call center.

The proposal would use $5.1 million of the $12 million former county clerk Diane Trautman secured to run elections during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The agenda item submitted by Hollins for Tuesday’s meeting states the clerk’s office plans to transfer all of its elections operations to Hall D of the arena. The 100,000-square-foot space would be used for walk-in voting, drive-through voting, a call center, ballot by mail operations, the county’s vote-counting operation and include a space for administrative personnel and equipment storage.

Hollins said the clerk’s office downtown is too small for elections staff to socially distance, and using a facility already owned by the county was a logical solution to that problem.

“It’s all about spacing. What we have on the fourth floor of 1001 Preston, we physically cannot fit while following social distancing guidelines,” Hollins said. “We need to move, just to be able to run our election operation at full staff.”

The polling place at the arena may be one of the largest the county operates, he said.

In a letter to court members, Hollins said the cost includes expenses for laptops needed for the ballot by mail, call center and administrative staff operations, as well as other IT needs.

This makes sense. As the story notes, the arena isn’t being used for anything else at this time, so scheduling is not an issue. This would also serve well as a mail ballot drop-off location, which is allowed during the extended early voting period. The arena is accessible by mass transit (the Red Line and the Kirby bus line, for sure) and is close to a lot of residences and businesses, including part of the Medical Center. Honestly, I can’t think of a good reason not to do this.

Trump’s tiny Texas rally for Ted

Aww, how cute.

Not Ted Cruz

President Donald Trump will make good on his promise to help Texas Republican Ted Cruz, announcing plans to hold a large rally next Monday night in Houston.

The Trump campaign on Monday said the next stop on the president’s midterm campaign tour will be at the NRG Arena, which its website states can hold “less than 10,000” people near the larger NRG Stadium.

In August, Trump said he would do a “major rally” for Cruz in the “biggest stadium in Texas we can find.”

The NRG Arena is not the state’s largest stadium. That honor goes to Kyle Field at the Texas A&M University campus with its seating capacity of 102,733.

That’s the biggest stadium he could find? Really? Maybe that was the biggest stadium he felt like finding. Or the biggest he thought he might have a shot at filling up. Or the biggest stadium he thought Ted Cruz deserved. I could do this all day. I’ve seen some folks suggest on Facebook reserving tickets, then not attending so there will be lots of empty seats. I’ve no idea how well that might work, but I do see people going through with it (you have to go to Trump’s campaign webpage for, and I’d sooner eat paste than link to it, so you’re on your own if you want in), so we’ll see if it has any effect. But seriously, the “biggest stadium in Texas”? It wouldn’t even be the biggest stadium in HISD. Never believe a word Trump says.

A lot of people wanted a piece of the Dome

Unfortunately, most came away empty-handed.

This one is not for sale

Wearing a floppy orange hat and an Astros baseball shirt, Dene Hofheinz grabbed a front-row seat for Saturday’s auction of iconic items from the domed stadium her father built more than four decades ago.

She joined thousands of others who waited for hours in long lines to get a piece of history from the world-famous Astrodome. Popular items, including stadium seats and squares of Astroturf, sold out as organizers acknowledged being overwhelmed by the turnout.

Ted Nelkin, whose family owned a sports memorabilia store in Houston for decades and formerly operated a trading card store at the Astrodome, waited more than 11 hours in line and left with a receipt for two pairs of seats, which he was told he could pick up in December.

The manner in which the sale was conducted was “the worst,” Nelkin said.

“I’ve got nothing good to say about it,” he said. “They could have cared less that we were there. It was ‘If you want your seats, you will wait in line as long as it takes.’ We were kept in the dark and had no idea of what to expect.”

Nostalgic fans started lining up around 5 a.m., three hours before the sale was set to begin at the adjacent Reliant Center.

Nelkin said he was told that organizers ran out of Astroturf pieces at 11 a.m. and ran out of physical seats that had been removed from the Dome by 2 p.m., forcing buyers to receive receipts for seats to pick up next month.

Mark Miller, Reliant Park’s general manager, said sale organizers expected about 1,500 people to show up but that the actual crowd was six to eight times that size.

“I apologize to everyone for the wait,” he said. “The sentiment for this building is just overwhelming, but the crowd was very cordial and very understanding, and we had no real issues.”

[…]

“We were going to feel good if we had sold 500 pairs of seats,” Miller said. Instead, organizers sold 900 pairs and accepted orders for another 1,500 pairs.

Miller said Reliant Park will conduct an online auction starting at noon Nov. 15 for customers who were unable to get to the Saturday morning sale. Plenty of seats remain, he said, but he is unsure how much Astroturf, if any, remains available.

The Reliant Park folks guessed at the level of demand for Astrodome items by basing it on the volume at other stadium auctions. Never let it be said Houston isn’t a sports town, I guess. As far as the subsequent online auction goes, I’d love to tell you more, but there’s nothing in the story about it, there’s nothing on the Reliant Park events calendar or on their Facebook page. So who knows when or at what URL it will be. On the plus side, that ought to keep demand under control. John Coby, who attended the sale and came await more disappointed than anything else, has more.

Anyone remember the Comets?

Not much to remember them by.

I remember them

Five years ago Sunday, the Comets played their final game.

There were no balloons, no confetti, no celebration. There weren’t even fans.

The final game the WNBA team played was at Strahan Coliseum in San Marcos, where it was moved after Hurricane Ike hit the Houston area. It was the latest setback in a string of them for the Comets that season.

Six weeks before that game, the team was put up for sale and its operations were taken over by the WNBA.

Despite their troubles, no one in the organization thought the Comets were folding. So when they played their final game in the Texas State University gym, worried about their friends in hurricane-ravaged Houston, they never thought it would be their last.

But three months later, the league suspended team operations and the franchise that won the first four WNBA titles was no more.

“We knew there was trouble,” former guard Tamecka Dixon said. “But it never crossed our minds that we wouldn’t be playing in Houston the next year. We understood that there would be new owners and that the league would run the team for a while, but I never thought it was over.”

[…]

The Comets won the league’s first four championships from 1997-2000. No other team has won more than two. The team’s average attendance was a WNBA-high 11,442 from 1997-2002, then fell to 9,592.

[…]

“No one saw it coming,” former Rockets guard John Lucas said. “No one. And it’s too bad, because they were a big part of Houston basketball. When the Rockets weren’t playing, you had the Comets. It was an important part of the sports cycle for the city of Houston.”

So when the Comets traveled from Chicago to San Marcos for their last game of the regular season Sept. 15, 2008, no one on the team knew they would be on the floor for the last time.

“It’s sad to think that there was no celebration for the Comets, nothing,” Dixon said. “We weren’t even in Houston. The fans didn’t get a chance to have a real goodbye, a real celebration. And Houston had such loyal fans. That is a franchise that deserved a real sendoff.”

The Comets did indeed have a loyal fanbase, with fans as rabid and dedicated as any you’d see at a Texans game. But it was a dwindling fanbase, and if we’re honest with ourselves we will say that it hadn’t been treated very well towards the end. Speaking as a many-year Comets season ticket holder, the move from the Toyota Center to Reliant Arena for that last season would have killed hardier franchises than that. Reliant Arena, to put it delicately, was a dump. You could probably find a dozen high school gyms, and likely a few junior high gyms, that offered a better fan experience for watching a basketball game. Dark, dingy, lousy sight lines, worse acoustics, few amenities – it was a depressing way to watch a game. Had the team continued to exist, I doubt we’d have renewed our tickets for another year – the kids were too little to enjoy the games, and unlike the Toyota Center where you could at least walk around the outer corridors with them in some comfort and with some awareness of what was going on in the game, there was nothing at Reliant for the fan with small children. For a franchise that won four straight championships, something very few teams in any league can claim to have done, they deserved better. Speaking for their once rowdy fans, so did we.

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.

Big week for the Dome

This week things start to get real for the Astrodome.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Monday is an important deadline for those who are determined to save the historic Astrodome, as private firms turn in renovation proposals to the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp.

But the agency that oversees Harris County-owned Reliant Park is also crafting its own plan, possibly a new one, which Executive Director Willie Loston said will be revealed to the board of directors at a meeting on June 19.

“Even if we get a privately funded proposal that meets all the requirements, we’re still going to do a public recommendation as well,” Loston said.

He would not describe the public plan, or say whether it is different from a half-billion dollar proposal the agency recommended to Harris County Commissioners Court last summer. That plan would have renovated the Astrodome and replaced Reliant Arena.

Whatever plan the agency comes up with will go to county commissioners – along with private proposals – on June 25.

County officials have said a “public option,” so called because it would be paid for using tax dollars, could end up on the ballot this November.

In other words, the most recent What To Do With The Dome report, which was put together last year at this time and then put aside by Commissioners Court, is being revived by the HCSCC as a plan for Commissioners Court to consider. The three options presented were to renovate the Dome as a more modern sports arena for $270 million; do the same but also tear down Reliant Arena and replace it with a less-grody 10,000 seat arena for smaller events, for $385 million; and tear the Dome down, for $64 million. Unless prices have gone up, calling this a “half-billion dollar proposal” is therefore a bit of an overbid. Well, I suppose the HCSCC could have spiced it up some since last year, and thus driven up the price tag. We’ll know soon enough.

The rest of the story is about some of the private proposals that are in circulation – Astrodome Tomorrow, Ryan Slattery’s park proposal, and one I hadn’t heard of before to turn the Dome into a business incubator. All private proposals need to have financing lined up in order to be considered by Commissioners Court. That brings up a point that I don’t think has been sufficiently clarified. Any vote in November would be about a public proposal – that is, a proposal to spend public money, presumably via a bond issue – and it has to be a straight yes-or-no vote, so if the public/bond proposal fails, the Dome is doomed to demolition. What that says to me is that private proposals will be considered first, and if one or more of them are considered acceptable to Commissioners Court, then they will choose among those proposals, and that’s what will go forward. The only circumstance under which there will be a vote is if there are no acceptable – i.e., adequately financed – private proposals. If you’re rooting for the Dome to be preserved, you want a private proposal to go forward so that you don’t have to sweat out the result of an election.

Is this the end of hockey in Houston again?

Looks like it.

As the Houston Chronicle first reported in January, it appears the Houston Aeros’ 19-year run in Houston is all but over.

An announcement could be coming in the next couple of weeks, basically after the Aeros’ season, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported Tuesday.

The Aeros, affliated with the NHL’s Minnesota Wild, are expected to move to Des Moines, Iowa.

The reason for the move was that the team has been unable to extend its lease at Toyota Center.

The Harris County-Houston Sports Authority has looked into alternative venues – primarily Reliant Arena – for the minor league hockey franchise but has found none suitable.

I confess, I don’t follow the Aeros very closely – it’s been at least ten years since I’ve been to a game. I didn’t even realize they were now affiliated with an NHL team. What I do know is that if they can’t renew their lease at the Toyota Center, they may as well move. Tiffany and I were for awhile season ticket holders for the Houston Comets, and they played one year at Reliant Arena, their last year before folding. It was a truly awful venue – dingy, lots of poor sight lines, lousy or non-existent amenities, and no option to park for free on the street. Maybe it’s better now, and maybe the replacement facility that has been talked about as part of an Astrodome plan would be better – it could hardly be worse – but that would be of little help to the Aeros. So yeah, Toyota Center or bust. Good luck with that. Hair Balls, which also wrote about this last week, has more.

More reactions to the new Astrodome report

Texans owner Bob McNair says “Sure, that’s nice and all, but don’t you forget about me.”

This would be cheaper to renovate

“Our first concern is Reliant Stadium,” McNair said Thursday. “We want to make sure we’ve got adequate funds there for repairs, replacement and improvements, and right now we don’t have ade-quate funds. I’d like to see that taken care of first.”

McNair claimed only $2.5 million is going into the stadium’s upkeep fund when $8 million is needed, explaining that the economic downturn since 2008 has significantly cut into tax revenues that would have been earmarked for stadium repairs, replacement parts and upgrades.

“(Commissioners) court has been very supportive,” said McNair, who watched the Texans’ OTA practice with Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee, on whose turf the Reliant complex sits. “It’s just now being brought to their attention. They’re contractually obligated to (maintain the stadium), but with the recession and the difference in tax receipts that were anticipated, there hasn’t been as much money available. (The Texans) and the rodeo have helped, and we’ll continue to do that. But it’s something that needs to be addressed long term.

“Compared to the other issues that we’re looking at, it’s a drop in the bucket. I think it needs to be addressed first.”

He is of course comparing costs with that of the proposed Astrodome/Reliant Arena renovation, which would almost certainly require a tax increase to pay for.

Bill Jackson, the county’s chief budget officer, said such a large bond issue likely would require a tax hike or deep budget cuts, particularly given other projects for which the county will need to sell bonds, such as a forensic sciences facility.

Financing $500 million over 30 years at 5 percent interest would require $28 million annually, Jackson said. For comparison, $28 million covers the annual costs for all but seven of the county’s dozens of departments, not counting the commissioners.

“It would be very difficult with everything we that have on our plate right now” to issue $500 million in bonds without a tax hike, Jackson said. “It’s a matter of setting priorities and figuring that out.”

A one-cent tax increase would generate about $26 million a year, Jackson said. That increase would raise the taxes on a $200,000 home by $16 annually, assuming the owner had a homestead exemption.

Yes, let’s talk priorities. I’m certainly not opposed to the idea of a tax increase. I’ve argued for some time now that Harris County should have considered at least rolling back the property tax cut they made a few years back to avoid or at least reduce the need for layoffs during the downturn. This project, in whatever form, would not be where I would want to see extra revenues go. It’s not even close. If it came up for a vote, I would vote against it. I agree with Judge Emmett here:

“The way it was trotted out, we’re going to re-purpose the Dome and we’re going to replace the arena with a new building,” Emmett said. “If we’re doing that, why don’t we use the Dome for the purposes the arena was being used for? Because that would obviously cost less.”

Yes. What exactly would a renovated Dome and/or Reliant Arena actually be used for? More to the point, what use could one or the other have that isn’t currently being addressed by some other facility? And even if there is some identifiable unfulfilled need, why would we need both of them for it? I touched on that yesterday, and John Royal asks as well.

Essentially they want to raise the floor and turn the Dome into a small venue for football, soccer, hockey, basketball, and concerts. But that’s also what they want to do with Reliant Arena. And what the consultants want to do with the Dome is what is supposed to be done with that new taxpayer-funded paradise the Dynamo is playing in. You know, that new small stadium meant for hosting soccer, football, and concerts. And one of the purposes for renovating Hofheinz Pavilion, besides giving the Cougars a modern basketball facility, is using it, once again, for concerts. And I’m sure Les Alexander would love Harris County trying to steal business from his Harris County-funded arena.

Royal concludes, with a heavy heart, that it would be better to demolish the Dome and put it out of its misery. The more this all drags out, the most I think that’s where we’re headed whether we want to admit it now or not. That said, I must admit I’ve not seen many good ideas for what to do with the empty space post-demolition. Turning it into some sort of park, as Royal and others suggest, sounds nice but who would actually use it? What attractions would be there to draw people in, and who would pay to build and maintain them? The upside is that this is by far the cheaper option, even if the cost of demolition is still on the way high end compared to other stadia.

Meet the new “What To Do With The Astrodome” report

Not that much different than the old “What To Do With The Astrodome” report.

Not actual size

The Astrodome, a now-empty showplace that has hosted everyone from Elvis Presley to Hurricane Katrina evacuees, should be turned into a multipurpose facility that could spark fresh interest in the city of Houston, a group of consultants recommended Wednesday.

The $270 million option was one of four considered by consultants led by Dallas-based CSL. The other options included leaving the dome alone, demolishing it and building an outdoor plaza, or building a massive and expensive “renaissance” complex anchored by a luxury hotel.

In a presentation to Harris County’s sports and convention agency, the consultants said the multipurpose option could turn Houston into a popular destination for special events and national trade shows. The plan would preserve the iconic structure’s outer shell.

Bill Rhoda, CSL’s president, said the multipurpose facility proposal “recognizes the magnitude of potential opportunities offered by this one-of-a-kind structure.”

The reconfigured dome would have more than 300,000 square feet available for trade shows, exhibitions and various sporting events, including basketball and football games.

Rhoda said the multipurpose facility could be finished by 2016, when nearby Reliant Stadium hosts the Final Four in men’s basketball, and help make Houston more attractive for any bid to host the 2017 Super Bowl at the stadium. Rhoda also said the multipurpose facility leaves open the possibility of revisiting the renaissance option in the future.

“It provides additional flexibility for being able to attract a variety of events,” Rhoda said. “It adds the ability to move toward the Super Bowls and the Final Fours of the world, and get those events to Houston.”

The recommendation now goes to the Harris County commissioners, who can review the details at their next capital projects meeting on June 26. There is no known timeline for a decision, and the dome’s future could in theory be put before voters someday.

This is the completion of the study that was commissioned last year. You can compare it to the three options proposal from the last study. I confess, I’m a little confused by this.

While the Astrodome’s outer shell isn’t going anywhere, the inside floor would be raised to street level to create a 300,000 square foot performance area.

That means capacity will be severely decreased — 5,500 for a hockey game, 5,000 for high-school basketball tournaments and 15,500 for football, which, for the circa 1996 Oilers, would have been a badass turnout.

If the $270.3 million project gets the thumbs-up by Harris County Commissioners Court, the HCSCC board hopes to get the proposed plan on the ballot for a public vote. If passed, officials may try to lure the 2016 Final Four and the 2017 Super Bowl to the improved digs.

I’m not exactly sure how having a small-capacity sports-capable facility next door to Reliant makes it more attractive for those events. Be that as it may, there are some sporting events that would be suitable for the MiniDome.

“We would like to aggressively pursue bringing back to Houston the state high school football championships,” [HCSCC Chair Edgardo] Colon said. “This would be ideal for an event like that. (Reliant Stadium) is probably too big.”

Actually, the division title games last year at Cowboys Stadium topped out at 43,369 for the Aledo-Manvel game, so the slimmed-down Dome likely could not host the 3A, 4A or 5A division games. About 15,500 seats, however, could be sufficient to host the 2A, A or six-man games, which were attended by 5,000 to 10,000 at Cowboys Stadium last year.

There is more to this plan than just the Dome.

Colon said the consultants believe replacing Reliant Arena is a higher priority, and would allow the county to better compete for events, shows and conventions it cannot host now.

The proposed $385 million fix would demolish the arena and replace it with a performance space with up to 10,000 seats, along with 250,000 square feet of exhibit space, more ballrooms and meeting space and a 3,000-space parking garage.

The consultants’ master plan also includes room for a hotel to be financed by private investors and connected to the renovated Dome by a skybridge.

It’s too soon for me to wrap my mind around this. I mean, what could a 5,000 to 15,000 seat Astrodome do as a sports and concert venue that, say, the new Dynamo Stadium couldn’t? It’s not clear to me where this thing fits in to the scene. Steve Radack is already pooh-poohing the report, so it may just wind up in a filing cabinet next to the last one, and two years later we’ll commission another study to see if anything has changed.

One more thing:

According to the consultants, demolishing the dome would cost $64 million.

That’s slightly less than what we have heard before, but still more expensive than other recently demolished stadia. And it may yet be what finally happens. Campos has more.

Time for another “What to do with the Astrodome?” study

It’s been two years since we had one of these.

The Astrodome’s next incarnation — planetarium? hotel? heap of dynamited rubble? – will be the subject of yet another study ordered up by Harris County Commissioners Court this week.

What to do with the dusty 46-year-old landmark has nagged at county officials even before the Astros left for what is now Minute Maid Park in 1999. How to pay for any proposal has not been far from their minds, either. Even tearing it down would cost tens of millions of dollars.

“We have to make a decision” on the Dome, County Judge Ed Emmett said. “I wanted us to make our decision this year. They’re going to look at every option there is and come back with the recommendation. It’s about time we do that.”

The county will contribute $50,000 toward a $500,000 study, bringing to $100,000 the total the county has spent in the past two years studying what to do with the aging Houston icon.

The remaining $450,000 for the latest study will be funded by the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, Houston Texans, Harris County-Houston Sports Authority and Aramark Corp.

The study, slated for completion in December, also will plot the future of the entire Reliant Park complex, home to the long-vacant Dome, the Texans’ Reliant Stadium, Reliant Center and aging Reliant Arena.

It was almost exactly two years ago when the previous study was approved. That led to the infamous three options proposal that nobody liked. County Judge Ed Emmett said at the beginning of the year that something needs to happen, and he reiterated his call at the State of the County address. According to the story, he wants to have a bond referendum on next year’s ballot. We’ll see if this study works out any better than that last one.