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It’s time for another Astrodome redevelopment effort

Astrodome redevelopment for a new generation.

Ready and waiting

Nineteen years after the Astrodome last hosted an event, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving Houston’s most famous building hopes to finally develop a renovation plan that will actually come to fruition.

The nonprofit Astrodome Conservancy is seeking the public’s input to craft a pitch to Harris County Commissioners Court, which oversees the building.

Beth Wiedower Jackson, the group’s president, said the goal is to develop a realistic proposal that can garner the support of local leaders and the public, as well as the other tenants of the NRG campus: the Houston Texans and Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo.

“When we have this collection of creative ideas and feedback from the public of Harris County, we will then step back and create a community-supported vision for the future of the Astrodome,” Weidower Jackson said.

The key to any redevelopment plan will be paying for it.

That has always been the case, and it is even more so since County Judge Linda Hidalgo and Commissioners Court are not in the Astrodome renovation business any more. Judge Hidalgo has said she is ” open to proposals that would allow the Astrodome to serve a public purpose that include significant funding from private sources”, and so here we are. The URL you need to know if you’re interested is future-dome.com, which redirects to the Astrodome Conservancy website, where you will find a survey you can take and information about the project and upcoming meetings. I wish them the best of luck.

You will eventually need a COVID booster shot

Just get used to the idea.

More than 28 percent of Texans 16 and older are now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, having received either one shot of the Johnson & Johnson or two of Moderna or Pfizer. But as scientists continue to study the virus and emerging variants, they’re concluding that even the fully vaccinated may need booster shots to stay protected.

“It might be necessary because of waning immunity,” said Dr. Wesley Long, an infectious disease expert at Houston Methodist Hospital. “It might be necessary if we have a variant strain of COVID that maybe the original vaccines doesn’t protect against as well.”

So far, it’s looking probable people will require a booster shot around the holiday season. But there are still many unknowns.

Although the coronavirus pandemic has ravaged the globe for a year now, clinical trials for the vaccine haven’t been around as long. The most recent data from vaccine manufacturers show that the shots offer at least six months of protection, but researchers won’t know until the end of the year whether immunity lasts a full 12 months.

[…]

To test whether patients have lost protection, public health agencies and vaccine manufacturers will likely keep a close eye on the rate of hospitalizations and deaths. If people lose immunity, it’ll likely taper off gradually rather than come to an abrupt end.

“One of two things can happen: We may lose protection against all COVID-19 symptoms, the mild and the severe, which would be a problem, right?” said Dr. Hana El Sahly, an associate professor of molecular virology and microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine. “Or it might be that we only lose protection against the mild symptoms, but retain protection against the severe symptoms.”

Researchers are still studying how SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is similar to other respiratory illnesses. While the disease has drawn some comparisons to influenza strains, the vaccines may work differently than flu shots, which require new vaccines every year to fend off emerging strains.

Even if the COVID-19 vaccine goes the way of the flu shot, experts say it’s not a bad sign.

“People shouldn’t be surprised, and it doesn’t mean that the original vaccines are a failure at all,” Long said. The vaccine will still keep people from dying and help them avoid the hospital.

Yeah, I’ve seen news stories about the likelihood of needing annual COVID shots, like one needs annual flu shots, for some time now. One reason for this is that there are new variants emerging with regularity.

College Station is best known as the home of Texas A&M University, but as of this month, researchers have confirmed it’s now the birthplace of a new COVID-19 strain.

Only one student has tested positive for BV-1, named for the Brazos Valley. They were diagnosed with COVID-19 on March 5 and experienced mild respiratory symptoms. A second test on March 25 turned up positive results, worrying researchers the variant would cause a longer infection in young adults.

“We do not at present know the full significance of this variant, but it has a combination of mutations similar to other internationally notifiable variants of concern,” Ben Neuman, a Texas A&M virologist, said in a statement. “This variant combines genetic markers separately associated with rapid spread, severe disease and high resistance to neutralizing antibodies.”

Viruses mutate, it’s what they do. So far, the known variants have all still been controlled by the existing vaccines, but eventually one or more of them will be more resistant. As long as there continues to be a significant population of people who wish to be a reservoir for the virus (read: anti-vaxxers), the virus will have plenty of opportunity to do its thing. As for the rest of us, vaccinations are all around us.

Walk-in COVID-19 vaccine clinics are now all the rage in Houston, as larger allocations and dwindling demand change the scarcity-fueled dynamic of the past several months.

“Now, there is more supply than there is demand,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo during a Monday afternoon news conference at NRG Park. “That means we have more vaccines than we have people willing to get them.”

As of Monday, 44 percent of Texans have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. In Texas, vaccine administration is beginning to plateau at 250,000 doses per day, while vaccine manufacturers produce more doses a week, with 14.5 million shipped nationwide every week as of mid-April.

Harris County’s vaccine site, NRG Park, has abandoned the waitlist system that frustrated residents who found it difficult to schedule a time slot in advance. While the site, run jointly by the county and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, still recommends scheduling an appointment ahead of time to guarantee a dose, anyone age 16 or older can arrive on foot or by car during operating hours for a shot.

In addition, St. Luke’s Health is operating a walk-in clinic at Texas Southern University this week. Michael E. DeBakey Veterans Affairs Medical Center offers walk-up vaccines for veterans, caregivers and spouses.

Get your shot if you haven’t already. Make sure everyone you know gets theirs. And then be ready to do it again, sometime in 2022. This is the world we live in now.

Get your shot at the airport

I applaud the creative thinking, which we will continue to need.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Parking lots at Bush and Hobby airports soon will be home to mass vaccination clinics for the Houston Health Department, as the supply of shots continues to ramp up.

City Council unanimously approved lease arrangements at the airports Wednesday.

The site at Bush’s The Parking Spot opened Tuesday under a short-term lease agreement, with some 6,665 people scheduled to get shots there this week. It is not clear yet when the Hobby location of The Parking Spot will open for vaccinations, although the request for council action said it is necessary “for this operation to begin immediately.”

[…]

Mayor Sylvester Turner said he hopes the number of doses coming to the city will “exponentially increase” since the state has opened the eligibility requirements. If that happens, he said the city can open “many more locations” for people to get a vaccine, along with mobile sites that move around the city to reach people who have trouble leaving their homes.

“Please go and get the vaccination where you can, or sign up to receive it,” Turner said. “The goal is to increase the number of sites.”

The request for council action on the airport leases said the Health Department anticipates receiving a large number of vaccines on a more routine basis.

The new sites would double the number of the city’s main vaccination sites, according to the Health Department. It also operates clinics at Delmar Stadium and the Bayou City Event Center. Those four sites are designed to ramp up to 3,000 doses per day, six days per week, when the supply allows. The clinics at Bush Airport, Delmar and Bayou City Event Center are giving out between 1,000 and 2,500 doses per day currently.

The city has also benefited from a federal vaccination site at NRG Stadium, capable of giving 6,000 shots per day. The Health Department said it will consider continuing that site when the Federal Emergency Management Agency demobilizes it, likely sometime in April.

The city also uses health centers, multi-service centers and partnerships with clinics, pharmacies, churches and other groups to distribute the vaccine.

As the story notes, the airport parking lots are a lot less busy now than they usually are, for all the obvious reasons. The city owns the airports, which minimizes the cost involved, which will be covered by federal grant money anyway. The city and Harris County have also asked FEMA to keep the NRG site open at least through the end of May. We’ll see how they respond.

Basically, the city of Houston and Harris County seem to be doing everything they reasonably can to get as many shots into arms as possible. Equity remains an issue, which County Judge Lina Hidalgo brings up.

As Harris County crossed the threshold of one million COVID-19 vaccine shots into the arms of local residents Thursday afternoon, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo pleaded with local vaccine providers to do a better job of getting doses to the county’s hard-hit minority communities.

Even though she acknowledged that hitting the million dose mark is “wonderful news,” she said during a Thursday press conference that only 12.1 percent of Harris County residents have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, compared to the 11 percent of all Texans that were fully-vaccinated as of Tuesday.

Hidalgo also pointed out how Black and Hispanic residents still aren’t getting vaccinated at the same rate as white and Asian residents, and challenged other local vaccinators to follow Harris County’s lead by making a concerted effort to change those trends.

“We’ve been going door-to-door in the hardest hit communities to get folks to register for our waitlist, but we need other providers in Harris County to join the effort more forcefully,” Hidalgo said.

“Every organization that administers vaccines in this county has a moral responsibility to reach the hardest hit residents,” she continued.

Again, I think the city and the county have done pretty well here, and I’d bet we would not be above the state baseline for vaccinations if that were not the case. There’s always room for improvement, and since the Black and Latino populations tend to be younger than the Anglo population, the opening of vaccine eligibility to all should help even things out a bit as well. It is up to all providers to do their part.

Vaccination progress

Making progress.

One in eight Harris County residents 16 and older have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccines, according to state and local data.

A Chronicle analysis found that the first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines have gone to 12.4 percent of the county’s population in that age range, or 447,861 people.

That number is expected to rise as the Federal Emergency Management Agency opens a vaccine supersite in Houston at NRG Park. The site can vaccinate 42,000 people per week, targeting residents in high-risk ZIP codes.

Federal regulators are also likely to authorize the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, boosting vaccine supply at a critical time, when some say the inventory does not match demand. On Wednesday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it had reviewed the pharmaceutical giant’s trial data and determined it was consistent with the recommendations of the emergency use guidelines.

That’s about nine percent of the total population in Harris County, and a bit less than half of these people have gotten both dose. With the one-shot Johnson and Johnson vaccine on its way, we should really make a dent in the numbers quickly.

The super sites should help, too, even if people had to wait longer than they expected on the first day.

Lauren Lefebvre, regional director for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said late Wednesday that there were a variety of reasons for the delays. Some people had issues with the electronic codes required to check in for appointments, and officials may tweak some of their procedures to decrease the amount of paperwork required to enter.

Traffic issues were further exacerbated by cars arriving early or late. Lefebvre said FEMA expects to add more workers in the coming days, and some of the traffic routes could change around the stadium to ease the flow of cars trying to enter.

The city and county have made vulnerable populations — including the unhoused, and those without Internet or the ability to travel — a focal point of their pandemic response. The NRG site is drive-in only, which has raised concerns about equitable access.

Houston Health Department Director Stephen Williams added that the NRG site is only one part of the city’s broader vaccination efforts, and will open up availability for “other providers, many of which are located in hard-hit areas but have been unable to keep up with demand.

“Of course we’re trying to target those individuals who are most vulnerable, but (NRG) is not exclusively for individuals that are most vulnerable,” he said. “Having an additional 6,000 slots to see people is a really good thing for Houston and Harris County — and we don’t want to minimize the value of that — but it isn’t everything.”

Yes, more is still needed. But we’re way ahead of where we were in January, and the curve is sloping upward.

We can get back to vaccinations

Federal vaccination super site opening this week.

COVID-19 vaccination efforts are about to significantly ramp up next week in Houston.

The region’s first vaccination “super site” will open on Tuesday at NRG Stadium, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced on Twitter Friday afternoon.

The site will vaccinate 42,000 people per week for three weeks, Hidalgo said.

The site is one of three in Texas backed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The two other Texas super sites are located in Dallas-Fort Worth at AT&T Stadium and Fair Park, the Houston Chronicle reported.

The opening of the super site means Houstonians who signed up via the city or county’s vaccine waitlist should keep an eye out for updates on when they may be able to schedule an appointment. Residents who have yet to sign up for either waitlist are encouraged to do so.

See here for the background. COVID vaccinations pretty much came to a halt last week, which puts a bit of a crimp in the pace to get 100 million vaccinations administered in the first 100 days of the Biden administration, but they had been running ahead of pace and should be able to get back on track. Sure is nice to be able to type and read those words and nod along instead of scoffing, isn’t it?

The home stretch for the World Cup

We will soon learn whether or not Houston gets to host 2026 FIFA World Cup games.

Houston’s bid to be one of the 10 host cities in the U.S. for the 2026 World Cup is entering the stretch run.

Since the World Cup was awarded to the U.S. Canada and Mexico in 2018, the number of potential host cities has been narrowed down to 23 candidates. Three from Mexico, three from Canada and 10 from the U.S. will make up the pool of host cities, and Houston is making a strong push to lock down its spot on the list.

“We are as qualified, if not more qualified, than any other city to host this event when you look at our bid package across the board,” said Chris Canetti, the president of Houston’s bid committee. “We have very few weaknesses and very many strengths.”

Mexico and Canada’s host cities are confirmed: Mexico City, Monterrey and Guadalajara in Mexico and Montreal, Edmonton and Toronto from Canada. This leaves 17 American cities to battle it out for the right to host the Cup.

FIFA has laid out a set of tasks for each city to complete throughout the year. In the next 30-40 days, Canetti said, the committee will meet with FIFA and representatives from the Harris County Houston Sports Authority to go through the plan to host matches at NRG Stadium. In the second quarter of the year, there will be another meeting between the city and FIFA to discuss general issues around Houston’s plan. In the third quarter, there will be a two-day site visit. And in the fourth quarter, FIFA will make its final host city choices.

Canetti said Houston is as prepared as any other city to make a great impression on FIFA, and knowing the city has done well hosting major events in the past confirms as much to him.

Each of the last two updates I have on this came at around this time in each of the last two years, so we’re right on schedule. Note that this process started in 2017, so no one can say that it was rushed. I for one would love to attend one of these games, so I’m rooting for us to make the cut. We’ll know in a few months.

Vaccines at the stadia

Good. Everyone has a role to play in getting us all vaccinated.

The NFL is telling the federal government it will make the remaining of the league’s 30 stadiums available as COVID-19 vaccination sites, joining the seven facilities already administering the vaccine.

In a letter to President Joe Biden obtained by The Associated Press on Friday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said many of the stadiums should be able to get vaccination efforts moving quickly because of previous offers to use stadiums as virus testing centers and election sites.

The seven clubs already using their stadiums as vaccine sites are Arizona, Atlanta, Baltimore, Carolina, Houston, Miami and New England.

“We look forward to further discussion with your administration as well as your partners in state and local governments to advance this effort,” Goodell wrote to Biden in a letter dated Thursday.

Goodell said the offer on vaccination sites was made in conjunction with the NFL inviting 7,500 vaccinated health care workers to attend the Super Bowl for free Sunday. Kansas City is playing Tampa Bay in the Buccaneers’ home stadium.

If we can get supply ramped up enough, we should be in a better position to actually get the shots into people’s arms. Every little bit helps.

The Harris County Election Security Task Force

I hadn’t realized that this was a thing, but it was and I’m glad it was.

A task force formed to ensure the security of the November election in Texas’ biggest county has found no evidence of wrongdoing after finishing its work.

The Harris County Election Security Task Force was made up of the Harris County Precinct 1 constable’s office, the district attorney’s office, the county attorney’s office and the county clerk’s office. In a report published Friday, the task force said it “received approximately 20 allegations of wrongdoing that needed to be elevated to the level of a formal investigation.”

“Despite claims, our thorough investigations found no proof of any election tampering, ballot harvesting, voter suppression, intimidation or any other type of foul play that might have impacted the legitimate cast or count of a ballot,” the report says.

[…]

The task force operated from Oct. 13 through Nov. 3, which was Election Day, according to the report. Undercover officers made 6,311 visits to 122 early voting and 806 Election Day polling sites. The task force responded to 77 calls for service. And it used four explosive-detecting K-9 units to to make 323 sweeps of polling locations, as well as “continual sweeps” while voters dropped off ballots at NRG Stadium on Election Day. (The task force found no explosives.)

“We all worked together to ensure our elections, which are the lifeblood of democracy, were free and fair and that any and all allegations were thoroughly investigated,” Ogg said.

The report is here, and it’s an easy read. This is good from a pragmatic perspective, in that it was good for the various law enforcement agencies to work together and coordinate efforts, and it was good from a transparency perspective, as each incident is detailed along with the response and resolution. You should read through the incident reports, which begin on page 8 and are the bulk of the document. Incident #2 was the subject of some fever-swamp “reporting” on right wing websites – a fellow Democrat who had come across one of those stories emailed me about it early on, and I noted in my reply to them the various ways in which it sounded like BS – while incident #22 was the Aguirre situation, which the report noted was referred to the DA’s office. The fact that in addition to responding to calls from the public, the task force made regular proactive checks on voting locations to ensure their safety was retroactively reassuring to me. It also had an actual, positive effect, unlike the fear-mongering and snipe hunting our state leaders engaged in. Put this down as another innovation from 2020 that we should keep on doing in the future.

No fans (at first) for the Texans

You’ll have to watch the Texans’ home opener on your teevee.

Fans will not be allowed to attend the Texans’ home opener against Baltimore because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Texans play the Ravens on Sept. 20 at NRG Stadium after beginning the season Sept. 10 in a nationally televised game against the defending Super Bowl-champion Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium.

The Texans will continue to monitor the COVID-19 situation and rely on recommendations from team and NFL medical experts before they decide on fans being able to attend the second home game on Oct. 4 against Minnesota.

They’ll make a decision about Game 2 later.

Team president Jamey Rootes said they will wait before making a decision on the second home game Oct. 4 against Minnesota.

“That’s a tough decision,” Bill O’Brien said Saturday in a Zoom conference call. “I know Cal (McNair) and Jamey came to that decision because it’s in the best interests of the health and safety of our fans and where we are right now with this virus.”

The Texans have sold out every home game in team history. O’Brien talks often about the fans who give them a home-field advantage.

“It’s tough,” he said. “You think back to the Buffalo (playoff) game last year, the crowd was such a big part of that win for us. And many, many other games since I’ve been here that they’re really willed us to win. We won’t see them in September, but (we hope) to see them soon.”

The Texans developed a plan months ago for a limited number of fans to attend games. Based on Friday’s decision, the first time they’ll have a chance to implement that plan will be against the Vikings.

Well, they can always pipe in crowd noise and add cardboard cutout fans, if they want. For those of you who just have to see a game live, there’s always road games, if you can’t wait that long.

When the Texans open the regular season against the Kansas City Chiefs, the defending Super Bowl champions plan to have fans in the stands at Arrowhead Stadium.

The Chiefs announced Monday that they plan to have a reduced capacity of 22 percent to start the season.

[…]

The Chiefs said they made their plans in consultation with the NFL, medical professionals and local government officials.

The Chiefs said they have implemented enhanced cleaning and sanitation procedures, including social distancing, hand sanitization stations, cashless pay for transactions and mask requirements except when actively eating and drinking. The Chiefs ask fans to bring their own masks upon entering Arrowhead Stadium, but will provide commemorative masks to all fans attending the first three home games.

Who could turn down that opportunity?

Still waiting to see which cities will get to host World Cup games

Houston’s right in the mix, and after that we’ll see.

This time last year, former Houston Dynamo president Chris Canetti began to find his stride after leaving the team in late 2018 to lead the Houston 2026 World Cup Bid Committee.

This time next year, he hopes the committee and the city will be preparing to host those World Cup matches, which will be played in 16 cities across the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Canada and Mexico will host three games each. The other 10 host cities will be chosen from a pool of 17 American venues which include those in Seattle, Atlanta, Dallas, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

“We’re expecting U.S. Soccer and FIFA to be making a decision on the final 10 cities … at some point this year, so all focus is on that,” Canetti said.

[…]

While the Houston Dash and Dynamo host home games at BBVA Stadium (capacity: 22,000), the committee has proposed NRG Stadium (capacity: 71,995) to host Houston’s matches, although it’s not large enough to be eligible to host any semifinal or final matches.

Canetti and his staff spent 2019 assembling a board of directors, raising private funds to cover the cost of the bid process and developing their plan to differentiate Houston from the other U.S. cities.

In 2020, he’s expecting to receive more detail that outlines when meetings and site visits to Houston will occur.

“We’re waiting to hear from them in terms of what the guidelines may be on a site visit. How long will they be here? Will they be here a day, two days, three days? What do they expect to do and see when they’re in town?” he said. “Based on that information, we’ll be able to draft and develop an entire itinerary for them to showcase the city. It’s hard to say exactly what that entails until we know what the expectations are.”

See here for the last update, which was indeed a year ago at this time. Not much more to say here – Houston is very well suited to host this event, but the competition is stiff. I wish we knew more about when the decision will be made. Nothing to do but wait.

What’s going on with the Astrodome?

It’s on the back burner for now.

Still here

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

FIFA World Cup update

Still a year away from a decision.

Houston is among 17 American cities vying to become one of 10 host cities selected when the finalists are trimmed by 2021. The 2026 World Cup will also include 10 games each in Canada and Mexico. A host city would get six games during the 32-day event.

Bid committee president Chris Canetti is hopeful of Houston’s chances but sees the addition of [John] Arnold as another boon for the bid.

“One of the things that we’re going to need to do as a committee here and as a city is raise funds,” Canetti said. “So when you agree to host a World Cup, there’s an expense that comes with it. This is really the same exact formula that existed when the Super Bowl came a couple years ago, so to have someone like John who’s so well-respected in the community, so well-connected in the community … it’s really important to us to be able to open some doors.

“When you look at Houston as a package, we’ve got everything in place,” Canetti said, referring to the city’s recent history hosting national events and its broad infrastructure. “We look at it as, ‘What’s going to put us on top with the decision makers and let them know that Houston belongs.’ And we think being funded is a great thing.”

Committee members believe Houston’s preparation has helped distinguish the city from its competitors. Still, it’s a cautious optimism. And to an extent, they see the potential for collaboration.

“FIFA’s indicated that they have a preference for some geographic concentration to make travel easier for both teams and fans, so … Dallas and Houston can work together, and they can be complements rather than an either-or situation,” Arnold said, pointing to Houston’s relative proximity to Guadalajara, Mexico City, and Monterrey, three Mexican cities included in the joint bid among Canada, the United States, and Mexico. “The geographic spread of cities will be important, the amount of fan support and community support that each city can show and demonstrate will be important, and I think the culture of soccer that each city shows will be important in that process.”

See here for the previous update. Houston really does have a lot going for it, including a track record of doing well hosting other big sporting events. The World Cup would be bigger still, thanks to the number of matches and influx of international fans, but it’s nothing we can’t handle. Here’s hoping for the best.

The timeline for the Astrodome

Work will get started after the Rodeo.

Soon to be new and improved

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

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

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

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

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

Final Four returns to Houston

Mark your calendars.

The NCAA announced Monday that Houston and NRG Stadium will host the 2023 men’s Final Four. College basketball’s marquee event will be held April 1 and 3.

It will mark the fourth time the event will be held in Houston, joining 1971 in the Astrodome and 2011 and 2016 at NRG Stadium.

[…]

The NCAA also announced Phoenix/Glendale (2024), San Antonio (2025) and Indianapolis (2026) will host Final Fours.

The latest announcement joins a growing list of major sporting events that will be held in the city over the next several years. Houston will host a 2020 NCAA Tournament men’s basketball regional, the College Football Playoff national championship game in 2024 and is among 17 cities vying to host as part of the winning North American bid for the 2026 World Cup.

“Houston’s on a roll,” said Janis Burke, chief executive officer for the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority. “We keep getting bigger, better and stronger when you look at our footprint.”

I’m always happy for Houston to get these events. I think by now it’s very well established that we have good facilities and we do a good job with them. It’s a little hard to believe now, but Houston was a total no-go zone for 15 years for big sporting events. Between the 1989 NBA All-Star Game at the Astrodome and Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004, as far as I can tell from googling around there was bupkis. New stadium construction and downtown revitalization have turned that around completely. That may change again – Houston did host several events in the 1980s, so perhaps there is another dry spell in our future. I kind of doubt it, though. Good for us.

The World Cup and its possible infrastructure effects

Assuming Houston does get to be a host city for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, that could spur some major projects, for transportation and recreation and who knows what else.

Houston will not receive final word on the bid until 2020 or 2021, but officials remain optimistic the city is a strong competitor for what could be six to eight American cities, each hosting five or six matches over 30 days. That means weeks of hotel stays, restaurant and bar sales and other expenses for visitors.

Ultimately, that could pay off with long-term projects in Houston. Part of the city’s pitch to selectors is use of a new green space east of the George R. Brown Convention Center, a long-sought cap for Texas Department of Transportation’s plans for a redesigned and buried Interstate 45. Though TxDOT plans to spend $7 billion redesigning and widening the freeway, it cannot spend federal or state highway money on park space capping the buried sections.

A local World Cup committee, however, could focus on fundraising and organize and plan a park, [Doug Hall, vice-president of special projects for the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority,] said.

“The World Cup Local Organizing Committee would help raise funds for such a legacy project if it becomes a final part of the plan,” Hall said in January when officials were finalizing the city’s bid. “The Sports Authority’s tax funds can only be used on voter-approved projects and all monies are currently pledged to the existing sports stadiums.”

[…]

Only the spot along the convention center has been mentioned as a possible legacy project of a World Cup hosting. Preparations for the World Cup coming to Houston would also include numerous other upgrades and close coordination with Metro because public transit would be crucial to any events.

Metro and local organizers are already discussing some alternatives, officials said, though it will be years before final plans are prepared. In preliminary discussions, Metro has said transporting around half of the 75,000 people expected to attend soccer matches at NRG Park will require extensive bus service, along with possibly running light rail vehicles in couplings of three, as opposed to the typical two vehicles per trip.

Metro is also researching with NRG Park officials a more permanent redesign of its rail stop near NRG Park to provide shelter and possibly seating for passengers as they wait in sometimes long lines as trains depart after events packed to capacity. During major events such as Houston Texans football games and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, riders can sometimes wait 30 minutes or more for room on the train.

Some transit officials during a January discussion said a World Cup event could also spur additional coordination with the city about dedicated bus lanes in more parts of Houston, and perhaps even more.

“I am thinking that would require additional light rail,” Metro board member Troi Taylor said of the potential deluge of visitors for the World Cup.

We’re far enough out from 2026 that anything Metro might propose for the 2019 referendum could be completed by then, though anything that would require federal funds would be up against some very tight deadlines. I suppose work could be mostly done on I-45 by then as well, though I wouldn’t want to bet on that. It’s hard to know without knowing what the specific plans may be, but for sure we should be talking about it now, and working to build consensus for what we can. Anything that develops into a big political fight is a lot less likely to get done.

Here comes the FIFA World Cup

Three cheers for the three nations.

In a long-anticipated vote on Wednesday, the joint bid of the U.S., Mexico and Canada defeated Morocco, its only challenger, as 200 national soccer federations cast their ballots to cap FIFA’s annual Congress.

The three-nation bid captured 134 votes, with Morocco earning 65 from the panel and only Lebanon choosing neither option.

“This is an incredible, and incredibly important, moment for soccer in North America and beyond,” said Carlos Cordeiro, the president of U.S. Soccer.

The 2026 tournament will feature an expanded field of 48 teams — as opposed to recent editions having 32 — and will mark the first time in FIFA’s history that a three-nation bid has been awarded the showpiece event.

The joint bid’s plans call for 60 of the 80 games to be played in the United States — including all matches from the quarterfinals onward — while Canada and Mexico host 10 apiece. The final is expected to be played at MetLife Stadium, just outside New York.

See here and here for the background. I had previously said that if Three Nations won the bid that Houston would get to be a host city, but that’s not quite true, as this story notes:

In an agreement announced when the bid launched last year, the United States will stage 60 of the 80 matches, including all from the quarterfinals on, while Mexico and Canada will get 10 apiece. Twenty-three cities, including Washington and Baltimore, are in the running to become the 16 match venues. In all likelihood, 11 of the 17 proposed U.S. sites will make the cut. A decision is not expected for another two years.

[…]

Mexican venues under consideration are Monterrey, Guadalajara and Mexico City. Canada narrowed its list to Montreal, Toronto and Edmonton.

The U.S. metro areas in the running are Atlanta (Mercedes-Benz Stadium), Baltimore (M&T Bank Stadium), Boston (Gillette Stadium), Cincinnati (Paul Brown Stadium), Dallas (AT&T Stadium), Denver (Sports Authority Field), Houston (NRG Stadium), Kansas City (Arrowhead Stadium), Los Angeles (Rose Bowl and the new NFL stadium), Miami (Hard Rock Stadium), Nashville (Nissan Stadium), New York (MetLife Stadium), Orlando (Camping World Stadium), Philadelphia (Lincoln Financial Field), San Jose (Levi’s Stadium), Seattle (Century Link Field) and Washington (FedEx Field).

Given Houston’s track record with Super Bowls and Final Fours, not to mention international friendly soccer matches, I feel good about our chances, but there are no guarantees. In the meantime, US Soccer is involved in a bid for the 2027 Women’s World Cup as well, so who knows, maybe we’ll get a twofer. Slate and ThinkProgress have more.

Houston makes final cut for FIFA 2026 bid

Now it’s up to FIFA.

The Houston Dynamos might have to make some room: Space City has been included in the bid to host the 2026 FIFA World Cup.

On Thursday, officials announced that Houston is one of 23 cities that are a part of the “United Bid,” a joint bid by Canada, Mexico and the U.S. to host the World Cup.

If the bid is successful, Houston could see international teams battling it out at NRG Stadium.

“Canada, Mexico, and the United States have joined together to deliver a United Bid that offers FIFA and its member associations the power of unity, the promise of certainty, and the potential of extraordinary opportunity,” John Kristick, Executive Director of the United Bid said in a news release.

See here for the background. The original list had 49 venues in 44 cities, so it was about fifty-fifty for Houston to make the cut. At this point, if United Bid wins, we’re in. I’ll definitely buy some tickets if we do. US Soccer has more.

The Sports Authority at 20

A few stadia, a little mission creep. Where has the time gone?

As the Harris County Houston Sports Authority celebrated its 20th anniversary Monday night with a reception for current and former directors and board members, it moves into its third decade as a considerably different agency than the one that came into being in 1997.

While the city-county agency continues collecting and distributing the hotel-motel and rental car taxes that funded the billion-dollar construction cost of Minute Maid Park, NRG Stadium and Toyota Center, its more visible function these days is as a sports marketing arm that hopes to bring another NCAA Final Four, an MLB All-Star Game, the Pan American Games and other events to the city.

J. Kent Friedman, the board’s current chairman for more than a decade, jokes while that his predecessors – former Texas Secretary of State Jack Rains and Houston developer Billy Burge – presided over an eventful construction boom from the late 1990s into the early 2000s, his role is considerably less glamorous.

“We’re like the folks with the broom walking behind the elephant,” Friedman said.

It’s a pithy quip for a time frame that involves less flying dirt but still confronts Friedman and executive director Janis Burke with significant decisions and negotiations as the authority hopes to squeeze more years out of three buildings that are, in terms of their initial lease agreements, middle-aged.

Basically, at this point the mission of this committee that was originally formed to get NRG Stadium (née Reliant Sstadium), Toyota Center, and Minute Maid (née Enron) Park built encompasses three things: Handling the bond finances for said stadia, negotiating lease extensions for the occupants of same, and trying to bring big sporting events to Houston. They’ve done a pretty good job with the latter, and I suppose if they didn’t exist some other organization would have to be formed to do that work. I hope they do at least as good a job with item #2, because I don’t want to think about what might happen in the event one of those venues is deemed uninhabitable by its tenant. So good luck with that.

(The story mentions in passing the litigation with HCHSA’s bond insurer, saying they are “three years removed” from it. The last story I saw was that an appeals court had reinstated the lawsuit, which had been previously dismissed. Doesn’t sound like a resolution to me, but I’m too lazy to google around and see if there are further updates.)

Houston part of bid for 2026 FIFA World Cup

Nice.

Houston and NRG Stadium are on an official list for cities and venues that may be considered to host a FIFA World Cup match if the event comes to North America in 2026.

The United Bid Committee of the United States, Mexico and Canada began its outreach for cities to declare interest to serve as a host city by sending Requests for Information to 44 cities throughout the continent.

The list is comprised of 49 stadiums in and around 44 cities that will be considered for inclusion in the official bid that will be sent to FIFA by March 16, 2018.

The list includes 37 stadiums in 34 U.S. cities. Other Texas stadiums are the Cotton Bowl, AT&T Stadium and the Alamodome.

[…]

After cities declare their interest, the UBC will review the submissions and will issue a short list of cities by late September. The UBC will then provide more detailed bid documentation to the cities and conduct meetings to discuss questions as candidate cities prepare their final bid, which is due in early January.

The UBC plans to include 20-25 venues in its final bid to FIFA.

See here for a list of potential host cities and stadia. Basically, for NRG to get one or more games, we would have to make the cut for the final bid, which looks like a strong bet at this time, and then the North America contingent would have to be awarded the event by FIFA; Morocco is the other bidder in competition. The 2026 Cup is the first one with the expanded 48-team field, so there will be more games to be played. FIFA will make its announcement around the time of the 2018 Cup.

How much will the county get repaid for Super Bowl activities?

Quite possibly not very much, as it turns out.

After the New England Patriots stunned the Atlanta Falcons with a storybook comeback in Super Bowl LI, after the crowds drained away and the national spotlight left Houston, Harris County officials turned to organizers and asked to be repaid for security and around-the-clock support, part of $1.3 million the county spent on America’s biggest sporting event.

The answer, so far: Don’t count on it.

Super Bowl Host Committee officials say they would like to reimburse taxpayers but are not obligated to because the county did not, in its offers of support for the weeklong event, negotiate that it be compensated or repaid by organizers. The city of Houston did and has been repaid $5.5 million by the host committee.

Now, five months after the game, the back-and-forth has some local leaders questioning the costs borne by the county for the game, which was in the county-owned NRG Stadium at no cost to the National Football League, and whether the county will provide similar support in the future.

“It is very shortsighted,” said Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle. “There will be future events, future Super Bowls.”

County officials could not say why they did not negotiate a repayment agreement when they decided to support Houston’s bid for the Super Bowl in 2013 – instead offering a resolution of support for the game guaranteeing some assistance at no cost to the NFL. It is unclear if the county asked the host committee for a guarantee of compensation or reimbursement then.

A spokesman for Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said, as far as Emmett was concerned, a resolution like the county passed in 2013 would “never be used again.”

“The judge has now made clear that, before any future Super Bowls or major events like these transpire at a county-owned facility like NRG stadium, that there is going to have to be some type of an agreement where the county receives a share of the revenue from that,” said Joe Stinebaker, Emmett’s spokesman.

The debate over public spending for professional sports has gained steam in recent years as governments find themselves stretched to cover essential services and taxpayers are more aware of their support of multi-million dollar businesses, said Mark Conrad, director of the Sports Business Program at the Gabelli School of Business at Fordham University.

Conrad said the NFL “does not have to be nice” and will continue to push for any public support it can get.

“If I would predict, I would think the county is going to be eating the million dollars-plus,” Conrad said.

Keep this in mind the next time someone tries to tell you that the county is better-organized than the city. One can certainly argue that neither the city nor the county should have to enter into such detailed, technicalities-laden negotiations with a multi-billion-dollar private enterprise for payment of these relatively paltry sums. The NFL could just pay for everything up front, or the city and county could just handle it themselves on the grounds that the investment is worth it. But this is the way it is, and the county is at the end of the reimbursement line because they didn’t dot all their I’s. Let that be a lesson going forward.

More on the Whitmire Astrodome bill

I still don’t care for this.

All this and antiquities landmark status too

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett voiced concern Tuesday that a bill filed by a veteran state senator jeopardizes the county’s plan to revitalize the Astrodome, adding that county representatives would continue to try to persuade legislators to support the $105 million project.

Emmett said state Sen. John Whitmire’s bill, the Harris County Taxpayer Protection Act, was misleading and that Whitmire’s statements that some Astrodome renovation funds could be spent on Minute Maid Park or the Toyota Center were “demonstrably incorrect.”

“This bill is an example of state government making it more difficult for local government to do its job,” Emmett said.

[…]

At a press conference Tuesday in Austin, Whitmire and other state senators from the Houston area gathered to express their support of legislation that would effectively block – or at least delay – Emmett’s plan.

Whitmire noted that voters four years ago defeated a $217 million bond package that would have renovated the Astrodome and transformed it into a street-level convention hall and exhibit space,

“With the dire problems we have with home flooding, too few deputies, roads still in disrepair … I have to represent my constituents and say, ‘Go back and get voter approval,'” Whitmire said. “This puts in a very good safeguard that the public vote be honored.”

Whitmire was joined Tuesday by Democratic Sens. Borris Miles and Sylvia Garcia and Republican Sen. Paul Bettencourt, whose districts include parts of Harris County.

“This is a vote that the public expects to take,” Bettencourt said. “They’ve taken it in the past.”

Garcia took issue with the county’s plans to spend $105 million to create new parking before deciding how the Astrodome would be re-purposed. Voters need to hear the entire plan before any construction starts, Garcia said.

“I’ve always loved the Astrodome. I would assist the county commissioners court and anybody who wants to keep it alive,” Garcia said. “However, I don’t think this is the right way to get there.”

See here for the background. I guess I’m in a minority here, but I still disagree with this. When the time comes to spend money on NRG Stadium improvements, as some people want us to do, will we vote on that? (To be fair, not everyone is hot for Harris County to spend money on NRG Stadium.) If bonds are floated, sure. That’s what we do. (*) If not, we won’t. I don’t see why it’s different for the Astrodome. And however well-intentioned this may be, I’m still feeling twitchy about the Lege nosing in on local matters. I can also already see the lawsuit someone is going to file over the language of the putative referendum, however it may turn out. So I ask again, is this trip really necessary? I’m just not seeing it.

(*) Campos notes that we did not vote on Mayor White’s pension obligation bonds, as apparently there’s a state law that doesn’t require it. I’m sure there’s a story that requires at least two drinks to tell behind that. My assumption that we always vote on borrowing authority may be wrong, but my point that we don’t usually vote on general revenue spending still stands.

Super Bowl security

There will be a lot. You may or may not get to hear about it.

When an expected 1  million people descend on Houston for 10 days of Super Bowl concerts, contests and championship football, they will be protected – and watched – by a security operation built on secrecy, technology and the combined efforts of dozens of agencies.

Unlike in recent Super Bowls, however, the public here won’t likely see lines of officers with fatigues, military-style rifles and armored vehicles.

The message for visitors? Relax and enjoy the fun.

“We don’t think we need to display a heavy militaristic presence to provide a safe environment,” said Executive Assistant Houston Police Chief George Buenik, who heads the event’s public safety committee. “We are keeping it a lower visible presence, meaning we are not going to be displaying all of our resources and assets, just like we are not getting into numbers or specifics. A lot of our security plan is what we consider confidential.”

[…]

The hype, media attention, massive crowds and more than 100 million expected television viewers make for an over-the-top party but also offer a unique challenge for law enforcement.

Keeping such events safe has grown even more complex in recent years, with the proliferation of terrorist attacks and new technology and social media that can connect or inspire like-minded persons.

The Houston events will be spread out across the city, from the football game at NRG Stadium to live concerts, fan festivals and other events at Discovery Green and the George R. Brown Convention Center 13 miles away.

Lakewood Church – which sits between the two sites in a former indoor sports arena near Greenway Plaza – will host an NFL Gospel Celebration.

Law enforcement agencies have been preparing for the events since not long after Houston was selected in May 2013 to host the big game.

Delegations have been sent to the last three Super Bowls to learn and figure out what might be done differently in the Bayou City. Houston has experience with big crowds, having previously hosted the Super Bowl in 1974 and 2004 and other big events.

The city is expected to spend about $5.5 million, mostly for security, but that is expected to be reimbursed by the game’s host committee.

The federal government also is covering some security costs, with the FBI; Homeland Security; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and other agencies participating, though those details are – not surprisingly – not available.

Local preparations have included combing through NRG Stadium and other Super Bowl-related venues and installing additional surveillance cameras in key areas, but authorities decline to reveal exactly what they are doing.

NRG Stadium will be surrounded by a special zone, where police will control foot traffic and commercial vendors. And the nearby Astrodome – which originally had been considered for special events – will remain shuttered.

Flight restrictions will be in place for certain aircraft, and a “No Drone Zone” is expected to be declared, as it has for previous Super Bowls.

And local law enforcement officers are racking their brains to think of new threats they might have missed. Representatives of various local, state and federal entities gathered in recent days in a conference room at NRG Stadium to think up new scenarios and how they would respond.

I don’t remember what the number of visitors for Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004 was. I do remember that the number far exceeded the total number of seats available in Reliant Stadium, enough to make me wonder what these people were traveling for, if they couldn’t see the actual game. What I’m getting at is that I don’t know if that “one million people descending on Houston” estimate is realistic or not, but based on past history it is a lot higher than you might think. Regardless, I’m sure we’re all relieved to know that the city will be reimbursed for its police and other Super Bowl security-related expenditures. My general advice to avoid the area at all costs unless you really have to or really want to remains in effect.

The Complete Transportation Guide To Super Bowl LI

For which the tl;dr version is don’t drive in or near downtown if you can at all help it.

More than 1 million people are expected to converge on downtown Houston during the week leading up to Super Bowl LI on Feb. 5, officials emphasized Tuesday as a transportation guide for the festivities was unveiled for visitors and locals alike.

[…]

The transportation guide – part of a #KnowBeforeYouGo social media campaign – details options for efficient movement around downtown, Midtown, the Uptown-Galleria community and areas surrounding NRG Stadium, the game venue. The manual can be found at www.housuperbowl.com/transportation – which is an area of the Houston Super Bowl Host Committee website.

Among new features for 2017:

There will be prepaid downtown daily parking available beginning in January via the committee’s app for motorists to reserve spaces for light rail passes.

Super Bowl Live downtown will feature a bike valet for those who prefer to travel on two wheels.

Free shuttles will circulate in downtown and Midtown; an Uptown-Galleria area link to downtown from Feb. 1 to Feb. 5 is $2 each way.

A game-day shuttle between the Galleria area and NRG Stadium will be $2 each way.

Metro will have extended rail hours from Jan. 28 to Feb. 5 beginning around 4 a.m. and running until at least midnight daily.

Click here for the official guide. My advice, if you work downtown, is to take the week off. I’m already getting a cold sweat thinking about how many tourists I’m going to have to dodge in the tunnels at lunchtime. A staycation is sounding pretty damn good the more I consider it. If you must come downtown, Metro or a bike are your best bets to not be part of the problem. The Press and Write On Metro have more.

No Astrodome laser light show for the Super Bowl

Alas.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Organizers have nixed a proposal to use high-tech lasers to project dazzling images of Houston’s culture and history onto and through the roof of the Astrodome during Super Bowl LI.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said the NFL turned down the proposal — the brainchild of two recent Rice University graduates — over security concerns of having people enter and exit the dome around game time.

“We made all the intros and this, that and the other, but it wasn’t a great surprise,” Emmett said. “The NFL once they locked down that whole campus out there, they just don’t want people coming in and out.”

[…]

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said the league had looked into the light show idea “but are now considering lighting the outside of the building for the entire week and on Super Bowl Sunday.”

“We have not finalized plans, but this remains under consideration,” McCarthy said.

Emmett said officials were briefly considering holding a reception in the dome during Super Bowl festivities, but that’s not happening now, either. He said the Dome will mostly be used for storage and staging purposes during the sporting event.

A Super Bowl host committee spokeswoman said “there will be no official events at the Astrodome” during Super Bowl weekend, and said she had no information about how the Astrodome might be used during Super Bowl weekend or why the light show was nixed.

See here for the background. Too bad, this sounded like a fun idea to me, but you know how the NFL is. Maybe some of us can get together before the game, hold up lighters, and sing “Another Brick In The Wall”. It’s the thought that counts.

Does it matter why infrastructure was improved?

I say no, but maybe that’s just me.

In the days leading up to the nation’s biggest sporting event, thousands of visitors will use Broadway to travel from the airport to downtown hotels and other spots. Work on gravel paths, trees and lighting is expected to be done by the end of the year, one of a series of projects across the Houston area aimed at polishing the city’s image.

It’s an effort that Hollinquest, 57, can appreciate. But she can’t help but think about the discolored, sagging second-story walkway in her apartment that isn’t being fixed.

Others living along the street talk about speeding cars putting pedestrians at danger, or the shooting that recently happened a block away from the corridor in daylight. They represent the real problems that will likely remain even after millions of dollars in infrastructure and beautification projects are completed, a juxtaposition that hasn’t gone unnoticed by residents.

“It’s a shame they want to improve stuff just because the Super Bowl is coming,” said Hollinquest.

Such spending raises a question of priorities, said Victor Matheson, a professor at Holly Cross in Worcester, Mass., whose research has questioned the economic impact of events like the Super Bowl.

Matheson acknowledges that the Super Bowl brings in necessary investment to neighborhoods that might not otherwise occur. But it tends to be in areas frequented by tourists.

[…]

The east side of downtown is being transformed with the investment of roughly $300 million in hotel taxes by Houston First, the city’s convention agency. A renovated George R. Brown Convention Center is having its façade opened up with walls of glass offering sweeping views of Discovery Green park and a reinvented Avenida de las Americas below, with the street shrinking from eight lanes to two to better accommodate pedestrians and restaurants boasting sidewalk patios.

The convention center and the adjacent Partnership Tower – a 10-story edifice, also built by Houston First – offer a good view of the new 1,000-room Marriott Marquis and an accompanying parking garage, which benefitted some from hotel tax revenue.

The area around NRG Stadium has also seen significant work. A redevelopment authority for the area around the stadium has raised more than $3 million for road maintenance, new sidewalks, trees, other greenery, new signs and LED street lights.

The city’s public works department is also carrying out $7.7 million in repairs on 3.8 miles of roads around the stadium – chiefly Main, Fannin, Cambridge and Westridge – either by laying fresh asphalt or replacing damaged portions of concrete streets.

I get that areas that are more visible to visitors are being prioritized, and that the areas that are getting worked have mostly needed it for a long time and still need more than what they’re getting. You do have to wonder how long some of this stuff would have been left undone had it not been for the Super Bowl. But in real life stuff gets done only because of some external stimulus all the time. Sometimes events do change priorities. And in this particular case, the cause of the changed priorities was also the source of some of the funding to pay for it. Most of what is being done will last well past the game itself. I say the fact that it all got done is what matters.

Time once again to talk about the Super Bowl and its economic impact

We’re less than 100 days out from Super Bowl LI here in Houston. I don’t know how much people who are not directly involved in the planning and execution of it are thinking about that.

The economic benefits of hosting a Super Bowl and other major events have long been a matter of debate, however. Houston’s host committee has yet to release its impact analysis, but these reports typically estimate that Super Bowls generate economic activity in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Academics who study such events generally find the added activity, with all the costs taken into account, is much smaller.

“I can’t tell you whether there will be a zero net impact or a modest positive one,” says Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College who has long studied the sports industry, “but it’s not going to be large.”

Houston, though, may be better prepared to benefit from the Super Bowl than other cities, for several reasons. First, there isn’t much winter tourism in Houston to displace, as in other Super Bowl cities such as New Orleans and Miami, so the net gain here is much greater. Second, Houston’s hospitality industry needs the business, with new hotels built during the shale boom struggling with lower-than-expected occupancy rates as business travel declined.

Third – and perhaps most important – the city really could use a period of prolonged exposure to show business leaders and the millions watching at home that it’s not just a stodgy oil town like it was in the early 2000s.

[…]

The accounting firm PwC has estimated the economic impact of the Super Bowl since 2003, pegging the game’s value to Houston in 2004 at about $130 million in direct spending. It estimated that the last Super Bowl, number 50, was worth $220 million to the San Francisco Bay Area.

Cities have gotten better at making the most of Super Bowl week, said Adam Jones, a PwC analyst. By planning events within a relatively small radius so visitors spend more time on experiences than getting to them, cities can capture greater returns.

Houston has done that, with NFL Live at Discovery Green — a 10-day music and food-filled festival open to the public — only a few minutes from NRG Stadium via light rail or taxi. Additional bus and shuttle lines will be available should guests want to venture to the Galleria as well.

“What we’ve seen within the past five years is communities going out, learning what has worked, what hasn’t worked in cities that preceded them,” Jones said. “We continue to see year over year improvement in the model.”

University of Houston economist Bill Gilmer looked at additional tax revenues generated during the 2004 Super Bowl, about $5 million, and estimated the 2017 edition would bring in an extra $6.6 million in sales taxes for the city plus another $2.2 million in hotel occupancy taxes and $6.8 million for Metro.

Longer-term benefits are harder to measure. The city’s tourism promotion arm, HoustonFirst, said it was able to go after bigger conventions when the Hilton Americas was completed in 2004. That added 1,200 rooms directly connected to the convention center, and the Marriott Marquis will have a similar effect. The city booked a record number of room nights for future conventions in 2015 and expects to break the record again this year, according to HoustonFirst.

We’ve discussed this a few times before. I’m sure that the economic benefit of hosting a Super Bowl is generally overstated, but I do think there is a benefit, and I do think it’s possible that cities have learned from past experiences and academic study to maximize the benefit that is available to them. As the story notes, Houston doesn’t have much tourism trade to displace, but we do have an extensive food-and-drink sector of our economy that will surely enjoy having all these out-of-towners around. The spending that has been done on infrastructure is spending that needed to be done, and which will be a public good long after the Super Bowl people have gone home. In the end, someone will put out a number, and we can make of that what we will. Whatever that number is, I expect the city of Houston will look back on this experience and decide that it was worth it.

The Reliant Stadium area is ready for its closeup

For the Super Bowl, of course. Gotta look pretty, you know.

Currently, the area surrounding NRG Park, which includes NRG Stadium and the Astrodome, is “functional” but hardly an impression-maker for a throng of out-of-town guests, said Ed Wulfe, chairman of the Stadium Park Redevelopment Authority.

“The Super Bowl was the motivating factor the area needs,” he said. “The land around the stadium will be a focal point for the world.”

[…]

The work will focus on McNee Road, between Main and Kirby Drive; along Main, between McNee and Murworth Drive; and near the yellow parking lot on Main.

NRG will provide new branding and way-finding signs at each of the Main Street entrances. Harris County will build a new sidewalk along the south side of McNee with trees, landscaping and fencing. LED lights will be added along McNee and Murworth. TxDOT will add new sidewalks, landscaping and trees to the esplanades.

[…]

TxDOT also has plans to update the South Main corridor with more landscaping using a $310,000 grant from Keep Houston Beautiful. The agency plans to save 31 oak trees from work underway along Post Oak Boulevard and replant them in the area near the stadium.

Construction has begun and the work will continue into January.

Harris County has also been working on street repairs and striping of several streets in the NRG Park area in preparation for the Super Bowl, scheduled for Feb. 5.

(Yes, I know, it’s NRG Park now. Just assume I’m one of those annoying people who still talks about “the Summit” and “Transco Tower”, and move on.)

As the story notes, some of this work was initiated by Commissioner Gene Locke, who took the radical step of spending county money on infrastructure that was also in the city of Houston. I don’t work out that way anymore, so I can’t say what the transformation will look like, but at least as of when I last worked in that area in 2013, there were definitely some streets and sidewalks that needed work. I’m glad to see it happening.

Harris County to fix some Houston roads

Some good news from the inbox:

Gene Locke

Gene Locke

As part of an agreement approved by Houston City Council today, Harris County Precinct 1 will pay for additional street improvements worth millions of dollars within the Houston city limits by year’s end. This is a continuation of an arrangement Mayor Sylvester Turner and outgoing Commissioner Gene Locke negotiated earlier in the year. A total of $45 million of projects are planned.

“Houstonians are more concerned about seeing results than they are about which governmental entity is paying for them,” said Mayor Turner. “This is government working together to meet the needs of our shared constituents. It is city/county cooperation at its best.”

Harris County has already started work on about seven miles of City streets, including work around NRG Stadium in anticipation of Super Bowl 51. City Council’s vote today clears the way for another five plus miles of City streets to be totally reconstructed or overlaid with asphalt by Harris County in the next four months.

The following City street segments were included in today’s council action:

  • Amboy/Wayne from Liberty Road to Quitman
  • Carr Street from Mills to Quitman
  • Hiram Clarke Rd. from Beltway 8 to W. Fuqua
  • Lee Street from Semmes to Jensen
  • Noble Street from Jensen to Semmes
  • Ruth Street from Scott Street to dead-end
  • Scott Street from Elgin to Old Spanish Trail
  • Semmes Street from Lorraine to Campbell
  • Sumpter Street from Semmes to Jensen
  • Waco/Hirsch from I-10 to Clinton Drive

Council’s previous action included:

  • Ardmore from Holcombe to Holly Hall
  • Bellfort from SH 288 to MLK Blvd.
  • Buffalo Speed Way from W. Fuqua to Anderson Road
  • Crosstimbers from IH 45 to Shepherd Drive
  • El Rio from IH 610 to Holly Hall
  • Holly Hall from Fannin to SH 288
  • Homestead Road from Laura Koppe to Parker
  • Knight Road from IH 610 to Fannin
  • McNee from South Main to Kirby
  • Yellowstone from SH 288 to Scott

In order to facilitate this agreement, the City must temporarily transfer these streets to the Harris County Road Log. Once the work is finished, the streets will be transferred back to the City’s jurisdiction for ongoing maintenance.

Here’s the Chron story on this. The second list contains the streets around NRG Stadium. This is the fulfillment of a promise Commissioner Locke made a few months ago, and kudos to him for it. I hope we see more of this from Commissioner Ellis next year and afterward.

The dry run for the Super Bowl

It went pretty well.

In less than a year, the Super Bowl is expected to draw almost twice as many as the 70,000 out-of-towners who flocked here for the Final Four. More than 1 million are expected to come downtown and to NRG Park from the Houston region, presenting even greater logistical and security challenges than those posed by the Final Four.

For Super Bowl planners, the NCAA Tournament was a test to see if, after 13 years, Houston is ready for the return of America’s most popular sporting event.

“We were helping them; they’re going to help us big time, make sure that we’re ready for our event,” said Ric Campo, chairman of the Super Bowl Host Committee, of Final Four planners. “There’s a lot of great lessons to be learned. You always can learn from on the ground in terms of what works and what doesn’t.”

Organizers said the Final Four affirmed Houston’s ability to host high-profile sporting events, with dozens of city and county agencies working together to manage traffic and crowds. Approximately 75,000 people attended the semifinals and the championship games, organizers said. About 165,000 attended the maxed-out Discovery Green concert. Organizers said the value in having a free concert outweighed the possibility of having to turn people away.

More than 55,000 went to a Final Four Fan Fast – featuring games and sports – at George R. Brown Convention Center.

“The surprise would be that for the most part, things went as we had planned,” said Doug Hall, president and CEO of the Final Four local organizing committee. “You never take that for granted in the event business.”

[…]

The Final Four also highlighted how the Super Bowl will be different. Instead of four days of activities, the Super Bowl likely will span 10 days, mostly focused on downtown, Campo said, including an expo in George R. Brown Convention Center with player and football events and Houston history and culture in the streets.

Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s senior vice president for events, said the NFL will release a more detailed schedule of events in the summer.

Campo said there will be 50 percent more street space available. While some 3,500 volunteers worked the Final Four, Super Bowl organizers are hoping to recruit up to 10,000 volunteers. So far they are about halfway to that total, but Campo said the window to sign up is closing.

“You need to get involved before it’s too late,” he said.

I doubt that Houston will have any difficulty being ready for the Super Bowl. We’ve done it before, and several other major sporting events as well. The light rail system, which was brand new and had multiple issues with cars not knowing how to stay out of its way back in 2004, is mature and running mostly smoothly. Downtown is a lot more visitor-friendly than it was in 2004. Basically, as long as the weather cooperates, all should go well.

Lots of people took the train to the games

Nice.

HoustonMetro

After handling more than a quarter-million rail trips over the four-day NCAA Final Four period, Metro is calling it a slam dunk.

“These are numbers are fantastic for us,” spokesman Jerome Gray said.

Metro said 255,700 rail boardings occurred from Friday until Monday. That’s roughly 87,000 more for the four days than the system would typically carry. The figure also does not include about 4,500 people who hopped buses from NRG Park that ferried them downtown to relieve rail demand after the basketball games on Saturday and Monday nights.

The totals are also significantly higher than Metro reported in 2011, prior to opening three new segments of light rail in the area. Five years ago, about 148,300 people used light rail for the four days of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

One reason riders reported a smoother trip to and from the basketball games that increased Metro’s ability to carry people is the light rail expansion, which meant the agency had more cars, Gray said.

In 2011, Metro would have owned 18 rail cars. Today, more than 60 were available, though Metro operates roughly three times as much distance via rail.

Metro’s press release has a bit more detail:

Major events located downtown helped increase ridership on the Red Line by nearly 50 percent. This year the Red Line saw 219,000 passenger trips compared to 148,000 for 2011.

“Seeing 255,000 boardings on rail during the four day event is very impressive and shows what can happen with an expanded system,” said METRO President and CEO Tom Lambert. “This success comes on the heels of record Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo ridership and it shows METRO is a key travel option.”

During the 2016 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, more than 1.5 million boardings were taken on light-rail, compared to 1.3 million last year, a 23% increase.

So that’s 36,000 boardings on the other lines as well. I’m not sure if that includes the North line extension or if that’s counted with the Red line overall. It’s pretty good no matter how you look at it. Honestly, I don’t know why you wouldn’t take the rail to one of Houston’s stadia if it’s at all an option. Park near a station if you need to, or make like you would for the airport and have someone drop you off and pick you up, and ride the rest of the way in. It’s way cheaper than parking at the stadium, and you don’t get stuck in traffic at either end. It just makes sense. KUHF has more.

Final Four weekend was pretty good for Houston

We’ll take it.

Beyond the basketball court, the Houston economy appears to be the big winner of the Final Four.

Across the city, several restaurants, bars and hotels reported big boosts in customers and cash flow, as an estimated 70,000 out-of-town basketball fans arrived for the NCAA men’s basketball championship. Organizers say those fans could spend $150 million in a city that could use a lift as a prolonged oil slump persists.

“I feel like it’s exceeded expectations,” said Rachel Quan, vice president of external operations for the Houston Final Four Local Organizing Committee.

Many local officials and business leaders said they view the Final Four as something of a test-run for next year’s Super Bowl. The city is sprucing up to accommodate the thousands of expected visitors with a slew of development projects – from road improvements around NRG Stadium and Hobby Airport to building the Marriott Marquis that will connect with the George R. Brown Convention Center.

The benefits of hosting major sporting events -weighing costs and crowds versus the visitor spending and promotion – have long been debated. At times, the city struggled over the weekend to accommodate the swarms of Final Four visitors. Concerts at Discovery Green in downtown were so busy that police were forced to turn people away, leading some to complain of poor planning.

The Final Four alone might not create a wave of economic growth, but is the culmination of events like the Super Bowl and the annual Offshore Technology Conference next month that have the greatest potential impact, said Barton Smith, professor emeritus of economics at the University of Houston.

“Collectively, it can be a very important part of the Houston economy,” he said.

I’ve made plenty of fun of economic impact projections for sporting events, but this at least is talking about something that has already happened, and whatever you think about those projections, it’s a different matter when a business like Phoenicia reports a big increase in sales during the period in question. As always, you still have to be careful about accepting numbers like these on their face, as some folks might have stayed home instead of going out or otherwise not spent money that they would have if there hadn’t been a big event crowding the streets and clogging up traffic. We also don’t know how much the city had to spend on maintenance, overtime, cleanup, and what have you – that figure is never taken into account in these stories. But overall it seems that local businesses got a boost from the weekend’s activities, and that’s always a good thing. Let’s hope we get more of the same from next year’s Super Bowl.

Got some free time next January?

The Houston Super Bowl Committee wants you.

As Houston prepares to host the Super Bowl next year, the Super Bowl host committee is seeking volunteers to pitch in for the big game.

The committee seeks up to 10,000 volunteers and has begun its online application process.

“Volunteers will play a critical role in the success of Super Bowl LI, here in Houston, in 2017,” host committee president and CEO Sallie Sargent said. “The positive experience our visitors will have will be in large part due to the interaction they have with our volunteers.”

The ideal candidate will have a passion for football, the city of Houston and Southern hospitality, according to the host committee.

During a 10-day period leading up to the Super Bowl, volunteers will be required to work at least three shifts consisting of six to eight hours for staff volunteers and eight to 10 hours for volunteer supervisors.

Key dates are from Jan. 27 to Feb. 5 next year. To volunteer, go here, or send an email to [email protected] AS to whether or not you should do this, I’ll let Dan Solomon weigh in:

Snark aside, it’s both understandable why a person might want to volunteer to help with the Super Bowl—it’s the friggin’ Super Bowl! What a neat thing to be a part of!—but it’s also obvious that this is a rip-off. Extremely profitable entities shouldn’t be recruiting volunteers to do work that they should be paying people for—that’s not just good advice, it’s labor law. Organizations from the NFL to Super Bowl Host Committees to SXSW skirt minimum wage requirements all the time, of course. (This year’s Super Bowl changed its position and agreed to pay a small portion of its volunteers, who were providing manual labor to set up the halftime show, after a news report from ABC.) Still, the idea of volunteering to make even more money for an already extremely profitable organization is a bit more palatable when those who are helping out can actually go to the event. It might not be entirely legal that SXSW volunteers are rewarded with badges, access to screenings/showcases/panels, and maybe the chance to pick Ryan Gosling up at the airport, for example, but you can certainly see the reciprocal nature of the relationship. The 10,000 Houstonians who are going to be doing Lord knows what over the 10-day period that surrounds Super Bowl 51, meanwhile, appear to be getting a uniform.

Still, they’ll probably get away with it—and they’ll probably find the recruits they need too. In San Francisco, where the host committee sought 5,000 volunteers (everything is bigger in Texas), they managed to wrangle two-thirds of the people they needed in just a week. But when people question whether the Super Bowl is really the economic boon to a local economy it’s made out to be, the fact that 10,000 temporary jobs that could get money circulating in the area are instead filled with arm-waving volunteers is probably part of your answer.

So there you have it. Note that volunteers do not get a ticket to the game – seriously, 10,000 Super Bowl tickets is worth more than its weight in gold or crack – so set your expectation levels accordingly.

Gene Locke is reportedly seeking the Commissioners Court nomination

Please see update at the end of this post. There is new information at the bottom.

Remember this?

Gene Locke

Gene Locke

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Friday named Gene Locke, a former city attorney and mayoral candidate, to complete El Franco Lee’s term on Commissioners Court.

Locke, 68, a senior partner at the Andrews Kurth law firm, served as city attorney under the late Mayor Bob Lanier in the 1990s and ran for mayor in 2009, losing in a runoff to Annise Parker.

“I plan to be a hands-on, on the ground, let’s get with the program commissioner, which means that I will follow in El Franco’s footsteps,” Locke said.

He added: “This precinct belongs to El Franco Lee, and anything that I do over the next several months is dedicated to him.”

Asked if he intended to run for the post in November, Locke said, “My intention is to go back to the practice of law and enjoy my family.”

As Carl Whitmarsh first noted on Friday, and others confirmed to me at the Saturday HCDP County Executive Committee meeting, Locke is now seeking to be named as El Franco Lee’s replacement on the ballot in December, thus allowing him to run for a full four-year term. I don’t know what may have changed his thinking – the obvious answer is that being County Commissioner is an amazingly sweet gig, and who wouldn’t want to keep doing it? – but something did. One of the tidbits I learned at that CEC meeting on Saturday is that there are about 130 Democratic precinct chairs in Commissioners Precinct 1, so that’s the target electorate he needs to work to get that job. Getting a headline about using county resources to help fix some city streets (*) is a nice thing that would no doubt help with March and November voters, but the pool to fish in is quite a bit smaller than that. We’ll see how he approaches it.

Meanwhile, Rodney Ellis and Dwight Boykins, who were both at that CEC meeting, remain the most visible-to-me contestants for that job. According to the discussion thread on Whitmarsh’s Facebook post, former City Council candidate Georgia Provost, and SD13 committee chair Nat West are also throwing their hats in the ring. Another thing I learned at the CEC meeting is that in order to be considered for the replacement nomination, one of those 130 or so precinct chairs needs to make a motion to nominate you. So we won’t really know who is and isn’t in play until June 25, the day the Precinct Executive Committee meets. Stay tuned.

(*) – Am I the only one who thinks it’s weird that a story about Commissioner whose precinct is almost entirely within the city of Houston proposing to use some of his infrastructure funds on city streets (among other things) is newsworthy? What else do these funds get spent on if city streets aren’t normally included? It’s all still Harris County, isn’t it?

UPDATE: Commissioner Locke called me to say that while he has been asked to consider seeking the nomination, he has not made any decisions. He is considering it, and he said that being Commissioner offers him a platform on which he can do a lot of good, but he also reiterated what he said in that earlier story about having grandchildren he loves spending time with. The bottom line is that he said he has not made any decisions about seeking the nomination.

Who will pay for Super Bowl stadium improvements?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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