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Is it finally time to do something with the Dome?

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.

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6 Comments

  1. John says:

    Anyone know why the costs are $128mm to destroy it? I just googled and Texas Stadium (Dallas) only cost $6mm to implode. I would think you could charge people to take and remove seats etc from the Dome, kind of like a garage sale and the implode the shell.

    I just see the $128mm referenced but no details since it is all coming from HCSCC. I personally think it needs to go, off the top of my head I can’t think of one sports stadium that has been retrofited (sp) for anything once a team left. Fact is no private company will buy/invest in it unless you take away some of Bob McNair’s precious parking lots.

    My prediction- the county does nothing and continues to pay the bonds/interest and whatever yearly costs. Because none of the commissioners have any courage to make a real decision

  2. Cynthia Neely says:

    The former Compaq Center, now Lakewood Church, was a major sports stadium and home of the Houston Rockets. It was successfully converted into another use by Houston’s Irvine Team with expert structural engineer, Lorrie Foreman at the helm. Some of these giant buildings CAN be repurposed but it takes innovation and creativity, not to mention bucks. However, it would only take a small amount, relatively speaking of course, to get the Astrodome operational on a very basic level so that it could begin generating revenue. That revenue, applied to it’s current $4.4 bond debt/insurance/utilities/maintenance annual bill, could at least make it self-supporting and on it’s way towards revenue-generating.

    Since the Astrodome was the very first of all such buildings, that is the foremost reason it should be cranked back up and somehow running. It changed the world of architecture forever and its enormous interior could allow it to become the world’s greatest multi-tasking structure.

    Ms. Foreman, the aforementioned engineer, stood in the center of the field with me once a couple of years ago and said at least 500 cars could be parked UNDERNEATH the existing field. She is a structural genius (also resonsible for the Hobby Center conversion from the old Music Hall) and yet the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp heard her ideas and are still sitting on their hands.

    Thank you for publishing some of my column. These last few years have been especially hard for many of us taxpayers and to see our elected officials drag their feet and continue wasting our tax dollars by doing nothing to help generate revenue from a potential money-maker is sickening. They should be held accountable. Tomorrow is Commissioners Court. I do hope there will be reporters and citizens asking for immediate action.

    Leaders are supposed to lead, not pass the buck back to taxpayers. They’ve had plenty of time.

  3. John says:

    Complete forgot about the Summit, but also that was a unique situation.

    1) the COH basically gave Lakewood the property for nothing

    2) the Dome is so much more massive and I am not sure any football stadium has ever been retrofitted

    3) if the County does find someone to take it they will basically have to sell it for a dollar since all of the liabilities of getting that place fixed are huge

    but I still stand by my prediction that the Dome is collecting dust in 5 yrs with the County having done nothing. I thought all along they should have removed the roof and made it the home of the Dynamo

  4. […] County Judge Ed Emmett said at the beginning of the year that something needs to happen, and he reiterated his call at the State of the County address. According to the story, he wants to have a bond referendum on […]

  5. Jeff says:

    A few years ago, the Reliant staff put out a bid for proposals. I was the person who suggested renovating the dome into a mall/hotel/waterpark/convention center/theater/concert venue. My bid price was in line with current standards. My plan was a good one. I was one of seven people in the world to submit an actual plan for redevelopment.
    After that the “Astrodome Redevelopment Corporation” was formed. Their plans were a mystery until recently. “Their” plan was amazingly the exact same as my copyrighted plan, which they did not know was copyrighted. Since then one of the principals, Michael Surface, has been indicted on felony charges for bribery and other crimes. The “ARC” has stopped their attempt to use the plan, even though they had just received permission from the Rodeo and Reliant, and approved their plan for an exit from the highway straight to the Dome. Their attempt to pilfer my plan has still gone unnoticed. Notice how quiet it has been around this issue. My plan is still the only idea that makes any sense.
    Think about it, between the events at Reliant Stadium, the Rodeo, and the draw from having an indoor water park, this building could remain busy all year round. It would bring income and jobs to the area. It would generate sales tax and realty value and taxes for the city.
    Sure, it is a large undertaking. Until recently, the Reliant staff has hidden the fact that public funding was available for the renovation. This was disclosed by Michael Surface, the same man now indicted. See the article concerning the corruption here: http://swamplot.com/the-corruption-trials-behind-the-astrodomes-lost-decade/2011-03-07/
    If you want the Astrodome to shine again, voice your opinion.

    I believe that the people of Houston have the right to know what is going on. The positions filled at the Reliant Stadium offices are county positions. The people who fill these seats were not ignorant to the origin of these plans, nor were they ignorant to the fact that the “Astrodome Redevelopment Corporation” was formed long after “their” plans were submitted by another individual. Who was in charge of this? Who allowed another corporation to be formed and use another individuals plans? Why was the individual who originally had the plans not asked for his help moving forward? Who stood to make a profit from this? Why was the originator of the plan not compensated for the county’s use of the plan? Who all has turned a blind eye, or seemingly so, in this matter? This business reeks of unethical treatment. The people who are responsible for the fraudulent misrepresentation of fact should be held responsible. Remove the offending parties, replace them with innocent and ethical parties. Only then can this project, or any project at the Astrodome, move forward.

  6. Jeff says:

    In response to John, the cost of imploding the Astrodome would be enormous because of the scope of the project. It is an enormous sturdy concrete structure. It is post-tensioned from a central pier. To give you an idea how strong this is, in downtown Fort Worth they attempted to blow down some post tensioned grain storage silos. They used tons of dynamite and barely made a dent in them. Calculating the amount it would take to actually destroy the structures and the dangers to the surrounding buildings, they decided to let them stand. Reliant Stadium stands very close to the existing Astrodome, and would be in danger of being hit by flying debris, or having it and the entire area covered in asbestos dust. The amount of asbestos in the building requires either separate removal, or somehow tenting the entire structure in order to meet federal specs. The structure is not just the part that is visible from the exterior. It is a very large undertaking, whether renovated or destroyed.

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