If successful, the months-long negotiations between the city and Harris County could provide a solution for problems that have vexed both sides for years, including redevelopment of the Reliant Astrodome, construction of a new jail and a new professional soccer stadium.
But that could be a very big if, according to numerous city and county officials. All the factors that led the two bodies to disagree before are still at play, as well as a new wrinkle: that the success of the plans would depend on the use of tax increment reinvestment zones, or TIRZs, a financing vehicle typically used more to generate economic development than pay for major capital projects.
“I’ve never been a big fan of the TIRZ,” said County Judge Ed Emmett, who said he will wait to see the completed proposal before deciding whether to support it. “It assumes that property values are going to go up and are going to be worth a certain amount, but as we’ve seen with the downturn in the economy, maybe it doesn’t work out the way it’s supposed to work out.”
Emmett said the public must be assured that the use of TIRZs is not just a means to circumvent a public bond election, given that one of the possible projects that could come from the negotiations — a new jail — was rejected by voters last year.
The city-county proposal involves four TIRZs: two that already exist near downtown and two the city would create for use by Harris County. City and county officials stressed that the negotiations have been dynamic and that the TIRZs are really more of a mechanism for development possibilities.
The first step, and the most advanced in the negotiations, would be for the county to join the East Downtown TIRZ near the George R. Brown Convention Center. Using TIRZ tax money and bond proceeds, the city and county would pay $20 million for the infrastructure improvements around a new soccer stadium for the Houston Dynamo that also could be used by Texas Southern University. The stadium itself, which would be jointly owned by the city and county, would be built by the Dynamo with $60 million in private funds.
The second element involves the county joining one existing TIRZ and the city creating another, both in the general downtown area. Tax revenue and bond sales would not be committed to any specific project but eventually could be used for a new county administration building or joint booking facility that would allow the city to close its two jails. The city has budgeted $33 million for the joint booking center in its five-year capital improvement plan.
The last element would be the creation of a TIRZ around the area of Reliant Stadium that eventually could include the redevelopment of the Astrodome. The area, close to the booming Texas Medical Center, is likely to see numerous major development projects when the economy picks up steam again, city and county officials said.
The Dynamo Stadium deal, which has been in the works for over two years now, should be straightforward and non-controversial. If Commissioners Lee and Garcia, in whose precincts the affected area is, want this to happen, it will happen. The jail stuff, you know the score. If it’s simply a replacement facility, I’m okay with the idea; if it’s an expansion, I’m not. Who knows what the Dome stuff will be about, but I do agree that the area, which has already seen a lot of new development projects, will continue to be very active. We’ll see what the details are and what they do with it.