A few days ago, a woman named Cynthia Neely took to CultureMap to demand that we Do Something about the Astrodome.
Regardless of whether you love or hate the Astrodome, the building is owned by the county and in effect belongs to all of us taxpayers. And you are paying for it.
Consider these options:
- It would cost about $128 million to tear it down — that’s $128 million of public funding (which includes the existing $40 million bond debt that has to be satisfied no matter what is done).
- To repair the Dome just enough to become habitable (and able to produce at least some revenue), the Sports and Convention Corp says it would cost $30 million (though some reports say less).
Hmmm …$128 million to end up with nothing versus $30 million to stop the bleeding and still have an historic building with both revenue and jobs potential.
The Commissioners have allowed it to deteriorate, not protecting our investment — even though it is likely the county’s biggest asset; the Astrodome’s doors were slammed shut in July 2008 due to fire code and building inspection violations.
Had somebody been on the ball, these problems would not have come as a surprise. Modifications could have been made all along to maintain its certificate of occupancy and thereby its ability to create revenue. It could have been self-supporting, or on its way towards being self-supporting, and not have wasted at least $3 million in taxes every year to do nothing.
Instead, since the Astrodome has been permanently closed in 2008, taxpayers have forked over a minimum of $9 million for it to collect dust. If the Commissioners had begun correcting those violations three years ago, some of that money could have gone into repairs, not down the toilet.
Most property owners and landlords who have the means fix their leaky roofs, have their furnaces checked before turning on each winter, repair a broken window to keep the rain out, and that kind of thing. It’s called upkeep. It is the responsibility of the County Commissioners to do the same, particularly since we are entrusting them with our money. It is their fiduciary responsibility.
Neely, in case you’re wondering, had previously been with the company that had proposed turning the Dome into a movie studio. I don’t know if she had a wire on this or what, but it appears that someone was listening.
Harris County should move this year to renovate the Reliant Astrodome into a special events arena, County Judge Ed Emmett told a Greater Houston Partnership luncheon audience Friday.
Emmett said he favors a “minimalist” approach that would see the Dome’s roof replaced, its seats removed, its shell intact, and grass laid down. He did not have a cost estimate for the idea.
“Anything we do to or with the Dome is going to be expensive, but it really is time to move forward,” he said during the annual State of the County speech to roughly 1,100 people at the Hilton Americas-Houston Hotel. “I think we owe it to future generations to preserve the Dome as a gathering place for special events.
“The taxpayers have to be engaged early in the process, for it is their Dome,” he continued, “but now’s the time to make a decision.”
Houston’s major festivals could be held at the Dome, he said, rather than in a less-than-ideal spot around downtown’s City Hall, where property is hard to secure at night.
“I think people would flock to it,” Emmett said. “Is that a revenue generator, enough to pay for the Dome? No. It would have to be a decision that the community said, ‘You know what? We want this to be part of our community.’”
Emmett said he hopes Commissioners Court will reach a decision “in a matter of months” to be presented to the voters of Harris County, perhaps a year from now, in a bond referendum.
The main thing I take away from this is that Judge Emmett, at least, no longer thinks getting a private investor to turn the Dome into a movie studio or convention center/hotel or whatever is viable. A corollary to that is that the fabled three options are no longer in play – the Emmett Option is far more minimalist than any of them. It’ll be interesting to see how the County Commissioners react to this – Steve Radack is quoted expressing skepticism about spending money on the Dome while the economy is still weak; none of the others were quoted having a reaction. Beyond that, I don’t have any strong feelings about this as yet. I don’t have the sentimental attachment to the Dome that many people have, Judge Emmett apparently included, but we have always needed to do something about this sooner or later. The only real complaint I have about this is that we’re still paying off bonds from the Dome’s 1987 facelift. It would be nice to be off the hook for this thing once and for all.
Anyway. The West U Examiner has some good coverage on this and the rest of Judge Emmett’s State of the County address, which you can read in full here. As I have called on Judge Emmett to push back against looming cuts in mental health services by the Legislature, I’m glad to see this from his speech:
Harris County is home to the world’s greatest medical center, a hospital district that is a model for the nation, and many neighborhood clinics and organizations supported by thousands of dedicated people. Yet we have far too many residents with no medical home, so they come to our emergency rooms. That is tragic and costly. Fortunately, the Greater Houston Partnership, working with the Houston Galveston Area Council, is working toward a regional concept to provide better care for more people at lower cost in the long run. Ultimately, the Legislature and, to a degree, the federal government must provide the framework to make a new system, but Harris County will be a driving force.
Now is not the time to cut funding for such efforts. Now is the time to move forward.
While on the subject of health care, mental health issues are a top priority to be addressed. Let me rephrase that. We have a lot of Harris County residents who suffer from mental health conditions, and we must do a better job of caring for them. Far too many of these people end up in our county jail – time after time. The cost of incarceration and treatment in a criminal justice setting is staggering compared to proper preventive care and treatment.
Now is not the time to cut funding for mental health programs. Now is the time to move forward ‐ fully funding those programs so that the taxpayer reaps huge benefits in the long run and our residents receive better care.
From your lips to the Lege’s ears, Judge.
Finally, I note that while Judge Emmett spoke about the need to do something with the Dome a little more than a month ago, his press release in advance of the State of the County address gave no indication that it was going to be a topic for discussion. Way to keep us all on our toes, dude.