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Reliant Stadium

Let’s talk about the Dome

Time for a come to Judge Emmett meeting about everyone’s favorite historic yet threatened local landmark.

Not historic but still standing

Emmett said he wants to use the meeting next Wednesday to clear up any confusion surrounding last week’s unanimous vote by the state’s Antiquities Advisory Board to forward an application for landmark designation to the full commission, acknowledging that approval is “likely.” The vote will occur at the commission’s quarterly meeting on July 30 and 31 in Alpine, commission spokeswoman Debbi Head said.

Emmett said many people do not understand that the county-owned Dome has had protected status since February when the historical commission agreed to consider the application, submitted by two Houston residents.

“We’ve got a lot of people who are saying different things about what they think is happening and this is just to make everything clear as to what’s going on,” Emmett said. “There is no answer, there is no proposal out there right now, but it’s just to have the conversation because once the historical commission filing was made, then the county’s hands are tied to a degree already. Some people don’t understand that.”

Representatives from the Rodeo and the Texans – the primary tenants of NRG Park, where the Dome is located – are among those on the guest list. Others include Ted Powell and Cynthia Neely, who submitted the antiquities designation application earlier this year, and Dene Hofheinz, daughter of former Houston mayor and county judge Roy Hofheinz, who is credited with building the dome.

In a statement, Rodeo officials said they remain eager to find an “acceptable resolution to a closed and rotting building that sits at the center of their operations.”

[…]

Neely, part of a group that proposed turning the Dome into a movie studio, said Tuesday she is glad Emmett is holding the meeting, but that she still is wary the county ultimately may resort to demolition, which inspired her to seek the antiquities designation in the first place. She and Powell, a retired LaPorte chemical engineer who led the fight to save and restore the Hurricane Ike-damaged Sylvan Beach pavilion, successfully pushed for the Dome’s inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places earlier this year, making it eligible for placement on the state list.

“I’m going in with a positive attitude hoping that now something good will happen,” said Neely, owner of Black Gold Productions, a Houston film company.

See here and here for more on the Dome’s historic landmark designation, which at the very least would seem to take demolition off the table. Maybe. Anyway, let’s be honest, the problem has always been money. There’s no shortage of ideas of what to do with the Dome, ranging from compelling to wacko, but what they all have in common is no readily identifiable way to pay for them. I thought the 2013 bond referendum would have settled this, but I was wrong. I’m still not sure whether the reason for its defeat had more to do with people just not liking the New Dome proposal, people not wanting to pay for anything, people being distrustful and cynical about a process that has taken forever to go nowhere, or some other thing. What I do know is that if we’re ever presented with another plan that requires public funding and a vote, the powers that be need to do a much better job selling it. I also think the Rodeo and the Texans need to put some skin in the game and pledge to pay for at least a little bit of whatever gets proposed; part of the cynicism I mentioned before comes from the Rodeo and Texans are driving an agenda of demolition and that they’ve gotten all of the benefit of Reliant Stadium on our dime. A private investor would solve a lot of these problems – assuming they are sufficiently capitalized, of course – but in the absence of a sugar daddy, everyone else needs to put an oar in the water and start rowing in the same direction. Maybe then the public will go along with it.

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.

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.

Here comes the Dome renovation committee

I was wondering when we’d see this.

Reliant Park and Harris County officials on Thursday announced the launch of a campaign to garner voter support for a plan to redevelop the Astrodome, with Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee each pledging $5,000 to the effort.

A referendum to fund the project will appear on the ballot this November. If approved, the county would issue up to $217 million in bonds to turn the now-vacant stadium into “The New Dome Experience,” an energy-efficient event center flanked by an “inviting” outdoor green space.

Dene Hofheinz, daughter of the late Roy Hofheinz, who is credited with building the world’s first domed super stadium – dubbed “the eighth wonder of the world” when it opened in 1965 – also pledged a donation during a news conference at Reliant Center.

The campaign political action committee is being co-chaired by former Harris County judges Jon Lindsay and Robert Eckels and former Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President Irma Diaz Gonzalez.

Lindsay, who has been a vocal advocate for preserving the iconic structure, said the committee hopes to raise $250,000 from private individuals.

“We know, mostly, where we can get the money, and we’ll just see how it comes in,” Lindsay said. “The campaign is really focusing on that this is a special event center that will bring in major functions.”

Officials from Harris County, which owns the Dome and Reliant Park, and the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation, the agency that oversees the complex and conceived the renovation plan, will drive the campaign, along with a coalition of local and national historic preservation groups keen on saving the structure.

See here for the previous update. I’d say the group’s first order of business is to give themselves a name, and after that it would be nice if they’d at least put up a Facebook page. The story notes that the annual Offshore Technology Conference has committed to using the renovated Dome, so that’s one more thing for the committee to tout in its sales pitch. Also of interest is the lack of a mention of any anti-referendum group so far. The lack of any organized opposition will make the committee’s job easier. But please, name yourselves. That will make my job easier.

On a tangential note, Hair Balls had two posts last week reviewing the history of stadium-building in Harris County, and Swamplot pointed to this call by The Architect’s Newspaper for some bolder thinking on how to re-do the Dome. Check ’em out.

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.

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 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.

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

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

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s about use, not just sentiment

NYT reporter Jere Longman, who hails from Houston, penned a love letter to the Astrodome after hearing about its possible impending demise.

At long last, is this the end?

So it was despairing to hear that the vacant Astrodome might be torn down and its site paved over as Houston prepares to host the 2017 Super Bowl. Demolition would be a failure of civic imagination, a betrayal of Houston’s greatness as a city of swaggering ambition, of dreamers who dispensed with zoning laws and any restraint on possibility.

A recent drive past the abandoned Astrodome at night revealed it to be unlit. It has been closed since 2008. The stadium was visible in silhouette, like a waning moon.

In daylight, however, beneath the dust and neglect, the Astrodome’s silvery exterior continues to summon a city’s innovative past and futuristic promise. By contrast, Reliant Stadium next door is a dull football arena, designed with all the imagination of a hangar to park a blimp.

James Glassman, a Houston preservationist, calls the Astrodome the city’s Eiffel Tower and the “physical manifestation of Houston’s soul.” New York could afford to tear down old Yankee Stadium, Glassman said, because the city had hundreds of other signature landmarks. Not Houston. Along with oil, NASA and the pioneering heart surgeons Michael E. DeBakey and Denton A. Cooley, the technological marvel of the Astrodome put a young, yearning city on the global map.

“There was a confluence of space-age, Camelot-era optimism, and we were right there,” said Glassman, founder of the Web site Houstorian.org. “It really set us on the road for a go-go future.”

Houston’s best ideas bring clever solutions to tricky problems. The weed whacker was invented there in 1971 by a dance instructor and developer named George Ballas. He got the idea from whirling brushes at a car wash. His prototype consisted of an edger and fishing wire threaded through a can of popcorn.

The Astrodome was built to solve a vexing conundrum: How to bring major league baseball to a city where the temperature could match the league leaders in runs batted in?

[…]

Demolition “would symbolize that we’ve just decided to quit,” said Ryan Slattery, whose master’s thesis in architecture at the University of Houston offers a different alternative.

Slattery’s plan, which has gained traction, involves a vision of green space. He would strip the Astrodome to its steel skeleton, evoking the Eiffel Tower of sport, and install a park. It could be used for football tailgating, livestock exhibitions, recreational sports. Other ideas have been floated through the years, some more realistic than others: music pavilion, casino, movie studio, hotel, museum, shopping mall, indoor ski resort, amusement park.

All private proposals for the Astrodome are due by June 10 to the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation, which oversees the stadium.

Legitimate debate can be had about whether the Astrodome’s innovations ultimately enhanced or detracted from the broader sporting experience. Whether indoor stadiums lend sterility. Whether artificial turf leaves players more vulnerable to injury. Whether we need scoreboards to tell us to cheer. Whether basketball played in giant arenas is an abomination.

But the Astrodome is too essential to become a parking lot. Slattery is right when he says that Houston should not demolish the memory of its past but reimagine it for the future.

Again, as someone who Did Not Grow Up Here, I don’t share the sentimental attachment to the Dome, and as a lifelong Yankee fan who watched the House That Ruth Built get demolished, I’m not greatly moved by pleadings about other stadia’s historicness. The weed whacker is a great invention and all, but last I checked New York was the home of some innovations, too. Forgive me if I don’t see how that has anything to do with the argument at hand. Jeff Balke, who is from here, has come to accept that the Dome may be doomed, and he just has one simple request.

But, for the love of all that’s holy, if the powers that be are going to, once and for all, demolish the only true identifiable Houston landmark, why must it be for a parking structure?

The truth is blowing up the Astrodome to build a parking garage for VIP parking would be in character for our city. We live in a city where historic preservation may as well be a four-letter word. The laws — and I use that term extremely loosely — governing what can be protected are so lax that virtually anyone with a bulldozer and a wad of cash can shred any structure in the city and build whatever they goddamn well please on the piece of dirt that remains.

Most believe that the plan for the Dome has been set in motion for some time. With a limited deadline in place and few real solutions — at least ones that have monetary backing — it seems a foregone conclusion that the Texans and Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo will get their wish and teardown the Eighth Wonder of the World to be replaced by a place you park your luxury SUV.

(Of course, if they wanted that, they have a GIANT FREAKING EMPTY LOT DIRECTLY ACROSS THE FREEWAY ATTACHED WITH A BRIDGE, but that would make far too much sense.)

I’ve heard people complain that they are sick of hearing the argument and we should just tear down this old, sad, rotting structure. Fact is, the structure isn’t rotting. Sure, the seats are. The sheetrock is. But the bones of the building are in fine condition. It has held up against multiple hurricanes and housed the victims of one of the most devastating disasters in U.S. history, a shelter for those no one else wanted. And this is how we repay that memory?

There is also the old “whatever we do, it should be cost neutral” argument. Yes, because everything good in this world must turn a profit. I’m fairly certain no one in Paris worries that the Eiffel Tower doesn’t earn money. The Roman Coliseum is anything but cheap to maintain, yet the folks in Italy aren’t clamoring for it to be torn down so they can put in some luxury condos. And before you start in on the whole “You can’t compare those places to a football stadium,” the Astrodome is modern history’s version of an architectural marvel. It was the first of its kind and it is to Houston what those other iconic structures are to their cities, just a little younger.

It should be noted that the Rodeo bought part of the old Astroworld site in December, which they already use for parking. Surely there’s a deal to be made with the county and Reliant that could address Jeff’s concerns. Be that as it may, I disagree with his point about other landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and the Coliseum. Age and historic value questions aside, those things are in active use today. The Dome isn’t. That’s really what this all comes down to, whether or not there’s a viable, financially sustainable use for the Dome in some form. As such, the cost issue does matter. The county would like to not have to pay $1.5 million a year on top of the bond debt it still owes to maintain an empty building, and any private investors not only have to convince a bank to finance their redevelopment scheme but also have to earn enough money in the long run to keep it afloat. Look at it this way – if the county agrees to sell the Dome to a developer to be converted into a museum or hotel or park or whatever, and they subsequently go belly-up because it turns out there just wasn’t that much demand for whatever they built, what do you think happens then? I don’t know for sure, but I can say with some certainty that it won’t involve multiple feasibility studies and a public referendum. It’s in our interest to get it right the first time, because if we don’t we won’t get to have any say in what happens after it all goes wrong. I certainly agree that anything is better than another parking lot, but not anything is necessarily more likely to be around in another decade or so than a parking lot.

Does the Super Bowl doom the Dome?

The Texican ponders what the announcement about Houston landing Super Bowl LI means for everyone’s favorite unused arena.

At long last, is this the end?

So what does this mean for our Dome?

A parking garage would be an ignoble end for the Dome, though I am sure many would settle for parking somewhere in the former lodge section if it meant they wouldn’t need to watch pieces of it be hauled down 610 on the backs of flatbed trucks.

Tacking on millions upon millions of dollars onto what will already be an expensive enterprise such as a Super Bowl just isn’t feasible, or even sane, in order to keep the Dome alive and kicking. Can you imagine the thing still sitting there as it is in 2017 during that big game? People will start thinking it an art installation.

Wait, that could work….

Right now would be the time for everyone with those great open-air ideas for the Dome to step forward and begin shouting about your grand schemes. I am rooting for Ryan Slattery myself. Keep reminding the Harris County Sports and Convention people that your plan is worthy.

Slattery’s vision of skeletonizing the Dome for a pavilion concept is exciting, and you make use of the structure without completely demolishing history.

But then there are the rubs.

RodeoHouston needs more space, and they have said as much in the press. The Dome sits like a tumor inside the rodeo festivities, making people have to walk around the building to get to more places to spend money. And people in Houston do not like walking a few extra yards to spend that money.

The Houston Texans wouldn’t balk at having more space. As it is on game days, their fan parties have to line up next to the Dome, and the Dome somehow angers you more just looking at it after a tough loss.

Even as an unrepentant Domer, a person who collects anything I can get my hands on related to the building, I still see the thing being torn down piece by piece in the next few years though, if Slattery’s plan or that of others is not enacted.

Look, I know I didn’t grow up here and thus don’t have the emotional attachment to the Dome that folks like The Texican have. I get that people love the old behemoth, which was the first of its kind, and want to preserve it, which is a strange sentiment in a town like Houston. It’s just that there’s no precedent for doing anything other than applying the wrecking ball. I mean, they tore down Yankee Stadium, which with all due respect has a bit more of a claim to significance than the Dome. Most of the Astros’ former colleague in the National League are playing in stadia that were built after the stadia that were built to replace their historic parks were torn down. Nobody even remembers Crosley Field, Forbes Field, or the Baker Bowl, and surely no one mourns Riverfront, Three Rivers, or Veterans stadia. The only historic venues that have been preserved are the ones that are still actively used – Fenway, Wrigley, Lambeau, Madison Square Garden. If there is a feasible and practical thing to do with the Dome then great, let’s do it. If not, then let nature take its course. I don’t see any other way.

Be that as it may, the people who helped land the Super Bowl bid say that the Dome was not and is not a factor in their thoughts or deeds.

“We had a process in place before the bid, and even after the bid, the same process applies,” said Kevin Hoffman, deputy executive director of the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation.

Nor is there an agreement – written or secret – that Houston’s selection hinged on converting the former baseball-football stadium into a parking lot, those planning Super Bowl LI and those working to save the iconic structure agreed.

“Not at all,” said Greg Ortale, bid committee member and president of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We addressed the Astrodome with the NFL early on. We told them it would not be part of our bid and there was a process in place to be determined with voters voting.”

[…]

Proposing to make Super Bowl LI the longest, largest football party to date only increases pressure on local leaders to ensure the celebration is not dampened by traffic congestion and cars jousting for that last open spot.

Chris Alexander, of Astrodome Tomorrow, said that does not necessarily strengthen the arguments of those seeking to tear down the Astrodome.

Alexander, whose group wants to renovate the Dome into a high-tech entertainment and exhibition space, said their proposal includes expanding parking by building a garage on the Kirby lot.

He believes the plan for the county to review all proposals after the June 10 submission deadline, have the commissioners court choose the best option and then possibly have voters approve it clearly takes the decision out of the NFL’s control.

County Judge Ed Emmett agreed.

“It’s a totally separate question,” he said.

One we still have to come to terms with ourselves. KUHF gets some further clarity from Judge Emmett.

This is Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.

“If there’s no private interest that has a reasonable financial backing, then on June 25th, the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation is to present their best idea of public use of the Dome to Harris County Commissioners Court and our capital improvements planning session. From that point, it will be in the hands of County Commissioners Court.”

Emmett says the Astrodome saga will likely end at the ballot box, with local voters ultimately deciding what to do with an aging Houston icon.

“It’s very likely to require a bond election. That would be presented to the voters, but I’m told we’re not allowed to put options, so it will be a real clear, this is the best idea of what to do with the Dome. If you’re not agreeable to this, then the Dome comes down. And all of that will be occurring in the next year or two years.”

First, Commissioners Court has to decide what that one clear non-demolition option is. I look forward to seeing the choices they will have for review. Campos has more.

Florida’s failure to be insane is our gain

Good news if you’re rooting for Houston to host Super Bowl LI.

Houston’s bid for Super Bowl LI received a major boost Friday when Florida lawmakers ended a 60-day legislative session without approving a plan that would have provided a $350 million upgrade for Sun Life Stadium in Miami.

Houston is bidding for the 2017 Super Bowl against South Florida or San Francisco — the city that doesn’t win the NFL owners’ vote for Super Bowl L.

The owners will vote on Super Bowls L and LI on May 21-23 at the league meetings in Boston.

Members of Houston’s bid committee were careful to not sound too confident after learning South Florida would not get the $350 million in taxpayer funding to improve the Dolphins’ stadium.

“This definitely improves our chance to get the Super Bowl,” said Ric Campo, chairman of the bid committee. “Miami’s stadium is woefully in need of repairs and upgrades to (Super Bowl) standards. Even after repairs, it wouldn’t come close to what we have at Reliant Stadium.

“If Miami isn’t willing to invest capital to make their facility world class, that puts them at a disadvantage. It improves our competitive advantage.”

Can’t imagine why they didn’t want to do that considering how well it went the last time, but hey, no one said this had to make sense. If there are three competitors for two slots and one competitor fails to meet the criteria required, that would seem to bode well for the other two. We may not even have to worry about the effect of the Astrodome on our bid. Sweet, right? We’ll know in a couple of weeks if it all worked out for us.

MBIA lawsuit against Sports Authority dismissed

I haven’t seen a story about this in the print edition for whatever the reason.

A state district court judge on Tuesday ruled that the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority cannot be sued by the company that insures the $1 billion in debt that the agency services on local sports stadiums.

Bond insurer MBIA, with the National Public Finance Guarantee Corp., sued the Sports Authority in state district court in January, requesting that the cash-strapped agency be forced to collect more money to cover its obligations. Other local entities were listed as defendants, including the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp., the county agency that manages Reliant Park.

In granting two pleas to jurisdiction, 215th District Court Judge Elaine Palmer also ruled that the Sports Corp. cannot be sued. The Houston Texans and Livestock Show & Rodeo were also listed as defendants in the lawsuit.

Attorneys representing both sides made their cases in front of Palmer on Friday with the Sports Authority arguing it is immune from suit as a governmental agency created by the state Legislature.

Some folks from MBIA reached out to me a couple of weeks ago, presumably because I’d been blogging about this and had expressed some befuddlement about the finer points of the issues. As a result of that conversation, I now have a copy of the original complaint and response filed by MBIA, and a slightly better understanding of the whole thing as well. Though I am not a lawyer in addition to not being a finance guy, I confess that I am somewhat uneasy with the idea of a quasi-government entity like the Sports Authority being granted immunity like this. Hypothetically speaking, what if there had been an allegation of actual malfeasance? What would be the recourse in a case like that? I suppose the answer is that the County Attorney would investigate and hand things over to the DA if appropriate. While I have no doubt that Vince Ryan and his staff would be more than equal to that task, it seems there might be the potential for a conflict of interest. I don’t know. Any lawyers out there want to offer an opinion on this?

Anyway. I also received the following statement from Kevin Brown, a spokesman for National:

National and MBIA respect but disagree with the Court’s decision. This ruling raises a red flag for anyone doing business with governmental entities in Texas and calls into question whether their contracts are enforceable. We intend to appeal promptly and look forward to presenting our arguments to the Court of Appeals.

So it ain’t over yet. I’ll let you know when I hear more.

A STEM vision for the Astrodome

Tory Gattis has an idea for what to do with the Astrodome.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Where can America’s kids go to be inspired toward careers in our country’s most crucial need: science, technology, engineering and math (aka STEM)? Something far beyond their little local science or children’s museum?

Houston could be that city, building not only on our energy, chemical, aerospace and biomedical industries, but also on our top-rated and very popular existing STEM museums like Space Center Houston, The Museum of Natural Science, The Health Museum, The Children’s Museum, Moody Gardens and The George Observatory. But we really need one additional anchor “mega-attraction” that will give us critical mass and undisputed STEM leadership. That flagship would be the National Museum of Technology and Innovation, the world’s largest engineering and technology museum – something in the class of D.C.’s National Air and Space Museum (the second-most popular museum in the world), Germany’s Deutsches Museum, San Francisco’s Exploratorium or Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. It could even be one of the Smithsonian’s network of national museums, which have started to move out beyond Washington, D.C., like Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York and the Smithsonian affiliate, National Museum of Industrial History in Bethlehem, Penn.

Think of it as Houston’s version of Paris’ Louvre or London’s British Museum. And with the right design, it could attract STEM-related academic and commercial conferences from around the world to Houston (imagine a Davos of STEM).

By showing students stories of the great historical innovators who invented technology to address civilization’s problems, we can inspire America’s – and especially Houston’s – youth into STEM careers. They can see how they could become the next Edison, Bell, Ford, Gates, Jobs or Musk. But this institution would not just look backward at history. It would inspire kids into STEM fields by framing the great challenges of the present and future, such as the 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering by the National Academy of Engineering, including limitless fusion energy, health informatics, better medicines, artificial intelligence, carbon sequestration, preventing nuclear terror, securing cyberspace, advancing personalized eLearning and more.

Where can Houston find a grand structure to house such a grand institution? Yes, the Astrodome.

The problem with most of the Astrodome proposals so far is their isolation from a bigger civic vision. If a purely for-profit enterprise were feasible, it would have happened by now. Houston’s philanthropic community needs to be inspired to invest in the future of the Astrodome (in partnership with Harris County).

[…]

County officials have already stated a STEM museum is one of the best ideas they’ve been presented for repurposing the Astrodome, but they want to see philanthropic backing. The Getty Trust stepped up to build the spectacular $1.3 billion Getty Center in Los Angeles. Ross Perot’s family donated $50 million to kick off a successful $185 million campaign to build the stunning new Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas. Bernard Marcus, founder of Home Depot, donated $250 million to build the world’s largest aquarium in Atlanta. Does Houston have such a visionary leader?

We certainly have no shortage of people who could do this. The tricky part is getting one of them on board with a vision like what Tory outlines. It’s obviously a massive commitment, and you still have to find a way to bring that vision to reality. It’s also not certain that a for-profit enterprise isn’t feasible, since the discussion about the Dome’s fate didn’t really begin until after the economic downturn of 2008. However, if a commercial project is not worth doing now, it likely will never be. Any billionaires out there want to take a crack at this?

Meanwhile, today is the day that the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation votes on what it wants to recommend to Harris County to do about the Dome. Here are some more details about what they might have in mind.

Officials on Monday said it does not involve a specific project or proposal for what to do with the empty stadium, but rather a timeline for making a decision.

“This vote is not project specific or project related,” said Willie Loston, the agency’s executive director.

Loston said they have “established a timeline for within which any number of decisions could be made” and that “All the options are still there, but we’ve laid out a timeline for that to basically come to a head.”

What kind of timeline?

Loston declined to specify, saying only that “it’s probably a good time to try and bring this debate to an end” with the city bidding to host the Super Bowl in 2017 and the county receiving pressure from the Houston Texans and Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo to do something with the decaying structure well before then or risk losing out.

A spokesman for Harris County Judget Ed Emmett, noting that you never know what’s going to happen until it happens, said they are expecting a vote on a timetable that will result in the Sports Corps. essentially shoving the ticking clock into the hands of the Harris County Commissioners Court this summer.

Joe Stinebaker said the timetable is June, when the county adopts its capital projects plan, meaning the Sports Corps. would gather and analyze proposals on what to do with the dome and present the best ones to commissioners court late that month.

We’ll know soon enough what they have up their sleeves. Before we get to that, however, Hair Balls notes that the original report of forthcoming action by the HCSCC wasn’t quite accurate.

“[The Chronicle’s report] was just wrong,” Kevin Hoffman, HCSCC’s deputy executive director, told Hair Balls. “There’s a lot of speculation in the community regarding it, but we’ve been very careful and diligent in trying to get accurate information out.”

Joe Stinebaker, the director of communications in the Harris County judge’s office, was at least a bit softer in his judgment of the original story

“[They] got it kind of wrong,” Stinebaker told Hair Balls.

While we wait for a retraction — which, hey, might not come; that’s the blessing of anonymous sourcing — we’ll try to detail for you what’s actually going on with the HCSCC this week. The board will indeed meet this week, coming together to decide the next step on potential movement on the Dome. But there’s no “unspecified plan” that the public has thus far been kept in the dark about. Rather, according to Hoffman, the board will be looking for a resolution on a time-frame to have a set of plans to move to the Commissioners Court by June 25th, when the court will hold its annual Capital Improvements hearing.

“This is just the beginning of process — the process is going to be moving towards having something to present the Commissioners Court” by June 25th, Hoffman said. “We want to have the opportunity to put something before them, something well-thought-out that can either address a public purpose or have some private financing associated [with] the resolution.”

While Hoffman did say that there would be a vetting process involved with certain proposals — they’re not simply going to shunt every idea directly to the court — Stinebaker confirmed that he believed HCSCC would present both private and public proposals on June 25th.

“I think it’s a fairly legitimate expectation … that they’re going to evaluate and determine feasibility of privately financed proposals — to build hotels, to build indoor ski slopes — and they’ll say by June 25th, they’ll have everyone’s stuff on record,” Stinebaker said. “They’re also going to collate public use recommendations, how county taxpayers could pay to convert it into an open-air park, or an indoor festival venue. Or, No. 3 — they could say that it could be torn down.”

And the reason why it’s all happening now is so that there could be a ballot item this November to finalize the plan and have the community ratify it, whatever it may be. That’s faster than what we had heard before, which suggested HCSCC would make its recommendation by the end of this year, for a vote sometime in 2014. Maybe the county is taking the concerns about the Super Bowl bid more seriously. Speaking of which, and just because it amused me, I want to note that former Secretary of State James Baker has been told by the NFL that he can’t participate in the city’s presentation to the owners because he’s a celebrity and his presence might make them too starry-eyed to be able to objectively evaluate the city’s bid for Super Bowl LI. Or something like that. Good thing we weren’t planning to send Beyonce to make our case, I guess.

UPDATE: If you can get past the embarrassing typo in the headline, this Chron editorial calls for instant runoff voting to determine the Dome’s fate. I’m not sure that would provide more political cover for whatever gets decided than a “normal” vote would, but I do agree that this isn’t a straight-up yes or no question. It’s a choice between renovation (plan to be determined), demolition, and going back to the drawing board if neither the recommended renovation plan nor demolition is seen as acceptable. As such, a different approach to the referendum may be the best way to go about it.

Feeling good about the Super Bowl bid

The city of Houston has submitted its bid to host Super Bowl LI in 2017, and they feel pretty good about their chances.

Houston’s competition will be San Francisco or Miami – the city that fails to get the coveted Super Bowl L.

League owners will vote on both Super Bowls on May 22 in Boston.

For now, Houston officials are confident but cautious because they know there are more steps in the process to host the first Super Bowl at Reliant Stadium since 2004, when New England defeated Carolina.

“We feel really good about our chances,” said Ric Campo, chairman of the host committee. “We believe Houston will be hard to beat.”

[…]

Campo, chairman and chief executive officer of Camden Properties, pointed out the numerous improvements the city has made or will make before 2017.

“The east-west light rail will be completed in 2014,” he said. “We’re building a new 1,000-room Marriott Marquis that’ll be a bookend to the Hilton-Americas. We’ve got Discovery Green.

“The NFL requires at least 19,000 rooms in the city. We have more than 20,000, including 6,000 downtown.

“For fans and visiting teams, it’s going to be the ultimate experience. We’ve got world-class buildings and incredible venues for the NFL Experience and Super Bowl Village.”

Don’t forget our nationally-known restaurant scene now, too. It’s a little funny to think how much has changed since Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004. We’ve been confident about our chances from the get go. We’ll see if our optimism is warranted.

The general feeling around the NFL is that San Francisco, with its new stadium in Santa Clara, will beat out South Florida for Super Bowl L. South Florida is trying to get $400 million for stadium improvements.

At the league’s spring meetings in Phoenix last month, officials from South Florida met with the owners and asked for help.

“The mayor of Miami was trying to get the NFL to make a commitment that if they passed this referendum there, they’d get a Super Bowl,” Texans owner Bob McNair said in Phoenix. “The league would not make that kind of commitment.

“They had no assurance that if we voted them a Super Bowl that they would get the money. I think the governmental bodies in South Florida are going to have to move first and say, ‘OK, we’re going to approve the stadium, and we’ll take our chances on the Super Bowl.’

“It’ll be interesting to see what happens in Miami that will impact our chances of getting the Super Bowl. If they don’t get improvements to their stadium, I think that’ll work against them.”

You would think that after the debacle that was the financing of Marlins Stadium that the Dolphins would be tarred and feathered for making such a request, but this is Florida. You have to grade on a curve.

In related news, via Swamplot the city also put in its bid to host the Summer X-Games for the next three years. (See here for more on that.) We won’t know the answer for that until August, though we will know if we make the next round of cuts shortly. We have a lot more competition for this, including Austin and Fort Worth. Wouldn’t it be cool to get both bids?

County disputes cheaper Dome demolition price tag

It’s on.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Harris County officials on Thursday disputed an estimate released this week showing it would cost $29 million to implode the vacant Reliant Astrodome and build a 1,600-space parking lot in two and a half years.

The figure, calculated by local firms Linbeck Construction and Walter P. Moore and Associates after a three-month study commissioned by the Houston Texans and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, is less than half the estimated price tag released last year by consultants hired by the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., the county agency that runs Reliant Park.

During a media tour of the 48-year-old condemned facility on Thursday, Sports Corp. Chairman Edgar Colon suggested that the latest estimate did not take into account all the costs that would be incurred in blowing up the behemoth structure, on which the county still owes some $30 million in construction debt but has sat vacant since 2000 when the Houston Astros moved to Minute Maid Park downtown.

“There’s more to it than just $29 million,” Colon said. “You have to look through it, the things that they exclude explicitly. I’m not challenging the credibility of their experts, I’m just saying that we have to have our own experts look at those numbers.”

Linbeck Vice President John Go said the firms stand by the findings of the study and the price tag.

“The Houston Texans and the Rodeo asked us to develop a methodology and a report that will stand up against questions because they knew that someone might question it,” Go said, noting that Walter P. Moore was the structural engineer when the stadium was built in the mid-1960s and again when it was expanded in 1989.

I rather doubt there’s anything seriously wrong with the methodology used in this estimate. Even County Judge Ed Emmett admitted after the Rodeo/Texans report came out that the previous estimate of demolition costs by the county had been too high. His complaint was that the report didn’t present any other options for what to do with the Dome, and that until the question of what to do with it is settled it’s premature to talk about demolition. When might we get a decision from Comissioner’s Court about what to do?

Pressed by reporters, Colon declined to give a firm time line for when the agency may bring a proposal to commissioners but said he hopes it does not take more than five years.

Colon said part of the reason the decision has been delayed is that interest from developers in rehabilitating the site dropped off during the recession, but he said it is increasing again with the improving economy, and the Sports Corp. is receiving and evaluating new ideas.

“What I think is that it’s in the best interest of the taxpayer to continue to explore all the options in order to make a decision,” said Colon, who brushed off concerns raised by the Texans and Rodeo that the aging, vacant Astrodome would hurt Houston’s chances of getting to host the Super Bowl in 2017.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell dropped that hint about converting the Dome into parking at the NFL owners’ meeting. Commissioners Court hasn’t indicated they’re in any rush to make a decision, so I guess they’re not too concerned about that, either. All I know is that at this point we’re in agreement that demolishing the Dome won’t be that expensive. The question is what if anything are the viable alternatives to demolition. It would be nice to get some answers to that sooner rather than later. Hair Balls and Campos have more.

Maybe it wouldn’t be so expensive to demolish the Dome after all

Hey, look! It’s another What To Do With The Astrodome study! Woo hoo!

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

The Houston Texans and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo have commissioned a study showing it would cost $29 million to demolish the 48-year-old stadium and build a 1,600-space parking lot, less than half what consultants hired by the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp. estimated it would cost to tear down the defunct facility.

The most recent cost estimate to tear down the 9.14-acre structure and build a plaza in its place was $64 million, cited in a report released last year by consultants hired by the sports corporation, which runs Reliant Park. A 2010 study said demolition, asbestos removal and construction of a plaza would cost $78 million.

Rodeo Chief Operating Officer Leroy Shafer said the parties wanted to calculate a lowest-cost option to present to Harris County Commissioner’s Court.

“We’re not recommending this option over any other option, but we didn’t feel there was a viable, low-cost option and we think this will do that,” Shafer said. “We hope the commissioners find this information helpful as they evaluate options to deal with the Astrodome and move Reliant Park forward for the citizens of Harris County.”

[…]

According to an executive summary, the study offers three options for demolishing the Dome: implode it for $7.3 million; dismantle it for $11.8 million; or partially dismantle and blow up the building for $11.8 million. A separate estimate puts the cost of imploding the Dome and building a 1,600-space parking lot at $29 million.

“It is our professional opinion the Reliant Astrodome can be decommissioned and demolished safely and the site be readied for a new purpose,” local firms Linbeck Construction and Walter P. Moore and Associates wrote in a March 15 letter attached to the study.

County Judge Ed Emmett said he was “disappointed” with the study because he thought it was going to contain more extensive recommendations.

“I was hoping that this was going to be a meaningful look at alternatives, but instead this was just a pricing on tearing down the dome, and if commissioner’s court makes that decision, we’d probably do that pricing ourselves,” Emmett said, adding that the Texans “and the Livestock Show & Rodeo to a lesser extent have made it clear that they would prefer that the dome be demolished.”

While acknowledging the discussion about what to do with the dome has lasted for too long, Emmett said, “We’re not going to be rushed on it.”

Well, that much is for sure. The $64 million demolition price tag always did seem too high. I’m not crazy about putting in more parking – there has to be some better use for the land than that – especially since the extra space is really only needed a few times a year. But whether this has an effect on Houston’s bid to host Super Bowl LI or not, we do need to quit fooling around and figure this out. Forget the studies and set a deadline for redevelopment proposals – the economy is good enough now that someone ought to be able to get financing for one of the many schemes that have been floated in the past – then either pick a winner or put out bids for demolition. No one is being served by dragging this out. If nothing else, the Dome itself deserves to know what its ultimate fate will be. Swamplot has more.

No Dome referendum yet

If you’ve been waiting for a chance to vote on the fate of the Astrodome, you’ll just have to keep waiting.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Harris County officials unveiled options for the future of the long-vacant Astrodome last summer, with some members of Commissioners Court saying voters might be presented with a bond referendum last November, or perhaps this May, to fix it.

November is long gone, however, and there will be no vote in May either, with the deadline to present a ballot item passing today with no action from Commissioners Court. County officials have said voters would need a say because the price tag on any renovation plan would require selling bonds.

[…]

Texans owner Bob McNair suggested a plan for the Dome might be nice when he named former Secretary of State James Baker III to head the city’s Super Bowl bid committee last month, telling the Associated Press, “We should just do everything we can to make our bid as attractive as possible, and that includes making Reliant Park as attractive as possible.”

Commissioners acknowledge they’re no closer to placing an item on the ballot, however.

“We have waited for ideas for years and years on the Dome. It wouldn’t surprise me if we wait years and years more before something happens,” Commissioner Steve Radack said.

“I’m not in a huge rush because I don’t think we have the ideas and enough accurate information right now to really be able to present something to the voters.”

Radack said even if voters approved bonds for a Dome fix he wouldn’t support selling them now because doing so would force a tax increase.

See here and here for the previous updates, and here for some of the things people want to see done with the Dome. The good news is that by waiting, people have come to acknowledge that demolition may need to be an option, so a more honest conversation about what to do can be had. It’s also the case that with the economy in better shape there are more potentially viable proposals out there to do some kind of renovation/transformation, so it’s more realistic to hope for an alternative to demolition. Of course, in the meantime we continue to pay a bunch of money each year to maintain something that isn’t being used. In any case, you can keep thinking about it for awhile longer, because Commissioners Court isn’t ready for you to vote on something yet. Hair Balls has more.

The Summer X-Games

Another sporting event that could be coming to Houston.

The Harris County-Houston Sports Authority is making a bid for ESPN’s action sports event, an annual competition that began in 1995.

“It’s definitely another feather in our cap,” said Janis Schmees, the CEO of Harris County-Houston Sports Authority. “It’s a useful event, it’s a great timing because we have a brand new skate park that we just broke ground on. There, it attracts a younger crowd. Even in the Olympics they’ve added snowboarding because they’re trying to keep the youth excited about the Olympic movement. I think that up and coming generation loves the X Games.”

[…]

The winner will host the event over a three-year span from 2014 to 2016.

“The three year model allows for the event to grow and develop in the region and identify efficiencies over the course of the hosting period,” said Deane Swanson, ESPN’s senior director of event management, X Games, in an e-mailed statement.

Representatives from HCHSA traveled to Aspen, Colo., last month during the Winter X Games to meet with officials of the games. ESPN representatives have also made a site visit. Reliant Stadium, BBVA Compass Stadium and the Lee and Joe Jamail Skatepark are among possible venues for the games.

Los Angeles, which has hosted several Summer X Games, saw a $50 million economic boon from the 2010 games, according to economic research and consulting firm Micronomics. That figure came from a $12 million influx from increased tourism, $6 million related to the television broadcast production and $12 million from direct spending associated with the games. It also factored in the monetary value of having 31 hours of live programming throughout the games.

Yeah, yeah, economic impact projections, ’nuff said. This would still be a cool thing to have. We’re in a much better position to compete for this sort of thing now, too. Final bids are due on April 2, and the decision will be announced in August.

Sports Authority gets sued

MBIA, the company that insures the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority’s bonds, has filed a lawsuit to force the Sports Authority to collect more money to pay its obligations.

If MBIA must cover payment shortfalls and cannot reimburse itself from the authority’s reserves, the amount owed to the insurer will accumulate with interest. In such a scenario, MBIA officials have said, hotel and car rental taxes would be tied up for years paying off MBIA when those dollars could have been put toward local projects had the bonds been paid off on time.

Authority Chairman Kenny Friedman said MBIA’s urgency is driven by a desire to skirt its obligation to pay the bonds, an accusation the insurer denies. The authority bought bond insurance for a reason, Friedman said, and added that neither the stadium homes of the Texans, Rockets and Astros – which the authority was created to finance – nor the land under them are at risk.

“It’s a frivolous lawsuit. I think it’s designed to get them some perceived PR advantage,” the agency’s chairman said. “We’re the third-largest county in the country and we’re not going to be bullied by a second-rate insurance company. What MBIA is looking for is a bailout, and it’s just not something we’re going to do.”

It was MBIA’s 2009 downgrade that strained the authority’s reserves in the first place, Friedman said.

After MBIA’s downgrade, $125 million in variable-rate bonds the authority sold to help build Reliant Stadium were converted into a loan due in 2014 rather than the original 2030. The authority since has struggled to make much larger payments under this “term-out,” and MBIA has had to cover shortfalls seven times, including last November, reimbursing itself each time from the authority’s reserves. Three term-out payments remain.

Again with the “Kenny Friedman” stuff. Did I miss a memo or something? Is there a new style guide out that says the name “J. Kent Friedman” is, like, so 2012? First this and then David Ward – where will it end?

Ahem. See here for the background. I don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong, but I do know that if MBIA prevails, the price of tickets and parking at Reliant will go up, because the current tax levied on tickets and parking, which is where the revenue to pay off these obligations comes from, are lower than the law allows them to be. You Texans and Rodeo season ticket holders might want to keep an eye on this.

Reliant gets its new scoreboard

As expected, and in time for the next push to get a Super Bowl in Houston.

Not what they bought

The state-of-the-art digital scoreboards will be manufactured by Mitsubishi Electric’s Diamond Vision Systems Division and installed for the 2013 season in place of the current end-zone scoreboards.

County and Houston officials, as well as Texans owner Bob McNair, believe the new scoreboards, which will cost a total of $16 million, will enhance the city’s bid to host Super Bowl LI.

At the NFL’s May meetings in Boston, owners will vote on cities that will host Super Bowls L and LI. The Texans are a finalist for Super Bowl LI with the city that loses Super Bowl L — San Francisco or Miami.

Initially, McNair and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo will pay for the scoreboards, but they will eventually be reimbursed from Reliant Stadium’s repair and replacement funds that are collected from the hotel-motel tax and long-term auto rental tax.

See here and here for the background. Now we wait to see if there’s a payoff to the investment.

Rodeo buys part of old Astroworld site

Unclear what this means.

Rest in peace

The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is acquiring half of the old Six Flags AstroWorld property for $42.8 million.

The organization’s board of directors on Thursday authorized show officials to acquire 48 acres of the former amusement park site to diversify its investments, the nonprofit announced in a news release on its website.

The land, which is near Reliant Park, is used for tailgating at Texans games, and for several years the rodeo has had an agreement to use the property for patron parking.

“This actually is a piece of land that’s next door,” RodeoHouston chief operating officer Leroy Shafer said. “Immediately, we know we can park there. … We can do some improvements to the parking that will help us more with the inclement weather.”

[…]

The rodeo’s acquisition abuts Chuck Davis Chevrolet and generally runs north to south from Loop 610 to West Bellfort. It includes a pedestrian bridge that crosses over the loop to the Reliant Park parking lot.

Here’s the HLSR press release. The story notes that this land last changed hands in 2010. In 2007, the owners at that time sought the creation of a municipal management district to help pay for infrastructure, which included the possibility of extending the Main Street rail line into the property. What all this means for any future development on this site is unknown, but I for one hope it doesn’t mean 48 more acres of parking lot. Surely there’s a better use available than that. Swamplot has more.

Could this be the catalyst for Astrodome redevelopment?

Maybe.

A new beginning?

The city of Houston and Harris County are preparing to create a mammoth, two-part economic development zone covering more than 11 square miles along the South Loop and at the northeast end of downtown.

The plan stems from a deal the two governments struck three years ago to secure a new soccer stadium east of downtown for the Dynamo, and it could pave the way for long-discussed capital projects, such as the redevelopment of the Astrodome or a city-county inmate booking center.

[…]

Reliant Park will be included in the southern portion of the zone, which could pave the way for redevelopment of the Astrodome, which has not been home to a sports team in 12 years and has been deemed unfit for occupancy since 2009. Also within that portion of the zone would be the 104-acre former home of AstroWorld.

The northern portion of the zone includes an area near the current County Jail complex, where a joint city-county inmate booking center, rejected by voters in 2007, could be built.

[Commissioner El Franco] Lee said his colleagues on Commissioners Court first must agree to join the Greater Houston Zone but said the Dome may be the largest beneficiary if the plan is approved.

Every option to renovate the Dome, presented as part of a Reliant Park master plan earlier this year, ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Simply razing it would cost an estimated $64 million.

“The biggest issue was dollars, and that will remain an issue, so having a buildup of those kinds of dollars will make it just that much more attractive to do on a large scale,” Lee said. “This can be a source of funds that does not put a strain on any existing revenues to do existing things.”

Basically, this is a big TIRZ, and the genesis of it all is the Dynamo Stadium deal. City Council has to draw the boundaries under state law, and Council will take the first step on this plan when they vote on whether to set a public hearing to seek input on the plan. Once that happens, I figure things will move quickly. How long till the County is in a position where it can finally do something about the Dome, that remains to be seen.

Maybe the fourth time will be the charm

The city of Houston is once again bidding for a Super Bowl.

If everything goes according to an ambitious plan devised by city and county leaders, Houston will host its third Super Bowl in 2017.

The NFL informed the Texans and the city on Tuesday that Houston will be one of two finalists for Super Bowl LI, to be played in February 2017.

At the conclusion of the league’s winter meetings in Chicago, commissioner Roger Goodell disclosed that San Francisco and South Florida had been selected to bid on Super Bowl L. Goodell said the runner-up will compete with Houston for Super Bowl LI.

[…]

Houston’s Super Bowl bid is a joint venture among the Texans, the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Harris County/Houston Sports Authority, and Reliant Park.

Houston wants the 2017 Super Bowl because the Final Four is here in 2016, and two big events like that two months apart is a lot. Previous attempts to land Super Bowls XLIII, XLIV, and XLVI all came up short.

The owners will vote in May on the two games. The first vote will be between San Francisco and Miami for 2016, followed by a second vote between Houston and the 2016 runner-up for the next year.

“I think the chances are really good,” said Janis Schmees, executive director of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority.

The 50th Super Bowl in 2016 will be a special-anniversary celebration. If San Francisco wins, the game will be played at the 49ers’ new stadium in Santa Clara. That stadium is set to open in 2014. If South Florida wins, the game will be played in the Miami Dolphins’ stadium, which still faces questions about possible renovation, including a partial roof.

We know that the owners love awarding the Super Bowl to cities that have built new stadia – this is, after all, mostly why Houston got the game in 2004 – so if you want to see this happen, you should root for San Francisco to win the bid for 2016. We’ll see if the optimism is warranted this time.

The bid is in for the NCAA Champions game

We are officially bidding on the new Champions Bowl, the 2014 replacement for the BCS Championship Bowl, for Reliant Stadium. We heard about this in July, and it makes sense that Houston was solicited for a bid and that we’d go through with it. Mostly I’m noting this because I was amused by the following in the story:

The bid for the Champions Bowl is for 12 years and includes being a semifinal site four times, said Heather Houston, executive director of the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.

Houston declined to disclose the terms of the bid – a joint effort between the city of Houston, the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority and Lone Star Sports & Entertainment – but said “it’s really competitive.”

“We’re really honored and very proud of the bid that we’ve put forth,” Houston said. “We feel like it’ll stack up against any other market.”

Part of the reason for submitting a bid, Houston said, is the city’s “proven track record” of hosting a postseason bowl game and major sporting events. Reliant Stadium was the site of the 2004 Super Bowl and the 2011 NCAA men’s Final Four. A bowl game, currently the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, has been played at the stadium since 2006.

“We felt like we have just as strong a chance as anyone else,” Houston said. “The only thing we don’t have going for us is the history, but we have a lot of other things that make up for that.”

Am I the only one who read that and had a brief moment where it seemed like the city of Houston had come to life and begun speaking for itself? I’m thinking this is one of those time when the Chron should have adopted the NY Times style guide and referred to the spokesperson as “Ms. Houston”, which might have made the whole thing seem a bit less surreal. Be that as it may, I hope the bid is well-received.

Houston to compete for new college football championship game

Sure, why not?

The city of Houston and Reliant Stadium plan to make a push to host college football’s new football championship game, the head of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority said Tuesday night.

“We decided we want to aggressively pursue this opportunity for Houston,” said Janis Schmees, the executive director of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority. “We want the decision-makers to know Houston is serious about hosting.”

With the support of local business and community leaders, Schmees said a bid committee has been formed and met Monday to discuss the next steps in the bid process.

That was from last week. I was looking for more information on this – there’s nothing on the HCHSA webpage and nothing useful on their Facebook page – but a little Googling found this:

No. 1 will play No. 4, and No. 2 will play No. 3 on Dec. 31 and/or Jan. 1. The sites of those games will rotate among the four current BCS bowls — Rose, Orange, Fiesta and Sugar — and two more to be determined. One of the new sites will likely be wherever the newly formed bowl created by the SEC and Big 12 is played, Slive said.

The Cotton Bowl, played at the $1.1 billion Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, has long wanted to be part of the BCS and is expected to make a strong push to be in the semifinal rotation.

The winners of the semis will advance to the championship on the first Monday in January that is six or more days after the last semifinal. The first “Championship Monday,” as it was called in the BCS release, is set for Jan. 12, 2015.

The site of the title game will move around the way the Super Bowl does, with cities bidding for the right to host.

And this:

The semifinal games will be played in a rotation among six bowl sites and the championship game will be offered to the highest bidding city, like the NFL does with the Super Bowl. At this point, only two games are guaranteed a spot in the semifinals rotation: the Champions Bowl (which will pit the Big 12 against the SEC) and the Rose Bowl (which pits the Big Ten versus the Pac-12). The ACC is close to finalizing an agreement with the Orange Bowl, which would also become one of the three contract games included in the rotation.

The commissioners will take bids to host the other three bowl games that will be part of the semifinals mix. The Fiesta Bowl and Sugar Bowl will probably be considered, but a source told ESPN.com that commissioners probably favored having the additional games in the Southeast, Texas and the West Coast.

Under the 12-year agreement approved by the presidents on Tuesday, each of the six bowl games would host a semifinal game four times. But a source told ESPN.com that there might be one or two more opportunities for hosting semifinals because the Rose Bowl might prefer to host its traditional Big Ten-Pac-12 matchup, instead of being included in the semifinals rotation four times.

So you have to figure that Houston and Reliant will have as good a chance as anyone. This new setup is in place through 2025, so there will be plenty of opportunities to bring the game to Houston. No clue at this point what the deadlines are or when host cities will be announced; my guess is we won’t know much till next year at the earliest. Plenty of time to get a good bid together. We’ll see how it goes.

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.

The Grand Prix is back

For those of you who are into that sort of thing.

Will not be competing

After a six-year hiatus, the Grand Prix of Houston will be returning in 2013.

With city and race officials on hand, IZOD IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard announced Wednesday at Redstone Golf Course that Reliant Park will host the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix of Houston on Oct. 4-6, 2013.

“What a great day,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett. “Racing is the No. 1 spectator sport in the world. Now everyone will see how wonderful a city this is.”

In addition to a five-year race deal among Mi-Jack Promotions (owner of the Grand Prix of Houston), Reliant Park and the IZOD IndyCar Series, there’s a four-year sponsorship deal between MJP and Shell Oil Co.

With the deal will come an economic boost, something that has been missing since the race was canceled after the 2007 event.

“The judge was up here, the mayor’s office was up here because they know what this brings,” said Chuck Kosich, general manager of the Shell and Pennzoil Grand Prix. “The last year, (the Grand Prix) was audited by the state at $36 million. That was when you had two racing leagues. Now that we are down to one racing league, we think it is going to be bigger and better.”

Mostly what I’m thinking about is the noise noise noise noise, but maybe that’s just me.

Reliant drainage deal?

Will wonders never cease?

There may be a resolution to the spat over whether the county has to pay the city drainage fee imposed on Reliant Park – an annual bill of $353,000.

Tuesday’s Commissioners Court agenda includes an item that authorizes the Public Infrastructure Department to negotiate with the city on the Reliant Park drainage fee.

But Mayor Annise Parker hinted last week that a deal is already in the works that would have the Harris County Flood Control District provide services in lieu of cash from the Reliant Park property.

As the story notes, the Clear Lake City Water Authority has the same deal with the city – their customers don’t pay the drainage fee, but in return the Authority agrees to do an equivalent amount of drainage-related work inside the city. Seems eminently reasonable to me, much better than venting one’s spleen through the legislative process. If this actually goes through, I promise to refrain from insulting Steve Radack for an entire week. We all must make sacrifices for the greater good.

From the “And I wish for a pony, too” department

Hey, you know that annual UT-A&M game that’s not going to be played again any time in the near future? Let’s bring it to Reliant Stadium!

Why not have Texas and Texas A&M meet at Reliant Stadium every Thanksgiving? It would be a bigger draw than the bowl game played here each December. While many of the fans would be local alumni from both schools, a good number would travel to Houston for the big game. Depending on how the ticket draw is managed by the schools, one plausible scenario could have the schools’ top athletic donors, along with the students of both universities, receiving top priority for tickets, similar to how the Texas-Oklahoma game operates. This almost certainly would mean a huge chunk of the fans would come from outside the Houston area.

Think of the added revenue for hotels, restaurants and retailers around the week of the game. And the national television coverage wouldn’t hurt, either. The eyes of Texas, indeed America, would be ours for three-plus hours. While New York City has the nation’s attention every year with its famous Thanksgiving parade, there’s no reason Houston couldn’t capitalize on the football passions of Longhorns and Aggies. We could revitalize a tradition, and have an annual national television audience all to ourselves.

I view this as an almost-bowl game for our city, with each school’s band taking part in the city’s Thanksgiving Day parade, and perhaps even the Uptown holiday celebration. (Are you paying attention, area merchants?) The upside is huge, and has many potential local tie-ins.

Yes, I agree that if UT ever decides that it wants to play A&M in football again that it would be a boon for the city of Houston if you could convince them to play it here. Why they would want to give up a home game every other year, and what benefit they would derive from that arrangement, is apparently left as an exercise for the reader. But hey, wishes are free, so knock yourself out. I trust you’ll forgive me if I don’t mark any dates on my calendar just yet.

County will seek legislation to evade drainage fee payment for Reliant

As expected.

Harris County Commissioners Court today voted unanimously to instruct the County Attorney and the Legislative Relations office to work with the Texas Legislature to adjust current law to compel the City of Houston to collect and immediately remit to Harris County all city sales tax revenues collected at county venues like Reliant Park that are not currently committed to retiring stadium debt.

Commissioner Steve Radack, who had earlier complained that the city had imposed a drainage fee on Reliant and other county facilities that generate income, declined to comment on the issue when it came up for consideration at the commissioners court meeting.

“It’s pretty self-explanatory,” Radack said.

[…]

“Commissioner Radack I want to commend your innovative approach to try to bring this to the forefront,” Commissioner R. Jack Cagle, said adding his concern that the city is not working cooperatively with the county. “When we get into the mud to where one governmental entity decides that they want to start taxing, or laying fees, on another governmental body, the end of that game, I think is a very bad place to go, that I don’t think we need to be in….I would much rather, if the city is having financial difficulties that they ask for our help instead of laying a fee on us.”

Sure didn’t take Cagle long to pick up that Commissioner attitude, did it? The city isn’t looking for a handout, it’s seeking to collect a fee it’s rightly owed. Why should Reliant Stadium be different than other properties for which the government is acting as landlord for profitable private enterprises? I don’t understand why the concept of the county handing the bill to its very well-off tenant the Houston Texans, who would not be in that lovely facility if it weren’t for the generosity of the taxpayers, is so hard for Commissioners Court to grasp.

The city, for its part, says it will fight back by seeking legislation to exempt city residents from paying property taxes to Harris County. While I appreciate the feistiness, as well as hearing my own complaints about the city-county relationship echoed back, I don’t see this as a credible threat. The county, on the other hand, managed to get its legislation through one chamber this year, and unless someone takes a stand for the city I would not be surprised to see them succeed at getting their petty little wish fulfilled in 2013. I’m beginning to think litigation is the only viable option, if only I could think of a legal theory to pursue in court. Houston Tomorrow has more.