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More on the New Dome Experience

The Chron’s subscription site story adds some more details to the news about the New Dome Experience.

[Harris County Judge Ed] Emmett said that if the court signs off on the plan next week, it likely would ask the county budget office to look for alternative ways to pay the $194 million tab, which includes asbestos abatement, to minimize the amount of any bond referendum put to voters.

County Budget Chief Bill Jackson said last week that millions potentially could be generated via naming rights deals, building use fees and auctioning off various salvaged building parts, including the seats.

The cost estimate is about $80 million cheaper than a similar plan the agency presented to Commissioners Court last year. Loston said the primary reason the price tag is lower is because the plan does not involve renovating the below-ground space.

Rodeo Chief Operating Officer Leroy Shafer said the sports corporation’s proposal seems like a modified version of the one submitted last year, which he said the rodeo was involved in crafting.

“So, on the surface, it appears to be something that is in line with our lease covenants and something that we would have no opposition to,” he said.

Shafer said the rodeo remains concerned about the future of the aging Reliant Arena, but is “excited that movement is taking place.”

“We’re excited about this recommendation,” Shafer said. “But we were excited about the recommendation when it went to Commissioners Court last year, too. So, we still have to wait to see where this goes.”

Those who submitted reuse plans to the sports corporation said they were disappointed their ideas were not selected but glad officials were not pushing demolition.

“We’re very happy that there’s no intention or recommendation to demolish the Dome, and that was our principal objective,” said Chris Alexander, project director of Astrodome Tomorrow, which submitted a $1 billion plan to turn the stadium into a “tourist mecca” with retail and restaurants and an educational facility. “Obviously, we had our own proposal. We think it’s a great proposal, and we still intend to take it directly to Harris County.”

See here for the initial New Dome announcement. I’m not exactly sure what Chris Alexander means by taking his idea “directly to Harris County” – lobbying Commissioners Court? Advertising his solution as a better alternative? Something else? I don’t see anything on their webpage or Facebook page to suggest what that might mean.

The idea of salvaging the Dome as a way to defray costs was raised last year by demolition experts and reported in the Chronicle. It’s good that Harris County is thinking along those lines – it really wouldn’t make any sense to do otherwise – but it’s not something that was just thought up.

There was that $270 million plan from last year to create a New Dome Experience, which did not get an endorsement from Judge Emmett and never went anywhere, in part due to concern that the economy wasn’t good enough yet to put a $270 million Astrodome bond referendum on the ballot. (As Swamplot reminds us, the same basic idea of a multi-purpose facility goes back even further than last year.) I inquired with Judge Emmett’s office about the difference between this year and last year, and besides the obvious fact that this year’s proposal is a lot cheaper and the economy is in better shape, the process has played out more fully, which wasn’t the case then. Now clearly, some people think this process has taken way too long, but I agree with that assessment. It feels different to me, like everyone is more engaged, and even if none of them were ready for prime time, the fact that 19 private proposals were submitted says a lot.

Not all reactions to the HCSCC announcement have been positive. After Hair Balls posted a straightforward account of the announcement, John Royal went on a rampage about it.

The Corporation unveiled its grand plan on Wednesday, and in doing so, stated that no qualified private plans had been submitted, so it had to cobble together its own plan. A plan that essentially repeated warmed over plans that the Corporation had tried to pass off on suckers in the past. The difference being that this time the cost was an outrageous $194 million that, somehow, the public will be forced to fund.

Amazingly, there are sheep out there who think that not only is this a good plan, but that the costs are reasonable and doable. Those costs will be doable of course because taxpayers would be paying for it.

But being a doable plan doesn’t make it a good plan. Creating more convention and exhibition space that will only be used during the Rodeo, the Offshore Technology Conference, and the occasional Super Bowl at a cost of $194 million isn’t reasonable or doable. It’s idiotic. It’s moronic. It’s the work of imbeciles who, over past years, have also offered up proposals for turning the place into an aquarium, a movie studio, a hotel, and a theme park, to name just a few ideas.

[...]

Then again, this whole fiasco has never been about saving or refurbishing the Dome. It’s always been about saving face. About finding some way to get cowards on Commissioners Court off of the hook. Tear it down? Well only if there are no other options. Rebuilding it with taxpayer funds so as to guarantee the revenue streams of the Texans and the Rodeo, well, if that’s the only option. And if this plan is put on the ballot and the voters stupidly support it, then how can the Commissioners be blamed because it’s what the public wants.

The Dome is an architectural wonder that deserves much better than what the county’s not-so-benign neglect has delivered. Unlike its next door neighbor, the Dome is a building with character and personality. It defines a Houston from a past era, a Houston that was forward thinking and was on the leading edge of the space race. But Houston’s now like Reliant Stadium, a stale, sterile rip-off of ideas generated by outsiders who care less about Houston’s past, present, or future – much like Minute Maid Park is just a poor imitation of many things done so much better.

If any building should be demolished to make way for parking it should be Reliant Stadium. If there’s any body of people who should be replaced along with Reliant Stadium, it’s the worthless fools who make up the Commissioners Court, who are more concerned with reelection than they are with doing what’s right by the Astrodome and with the citizens of Harris County.

It’s doubtful that Commissioners Court reads this blog, but if they do, please say no to this abomination of a plan that is set to do nothing more than rip-off taxpayers while continuing to enrich the Texans, the Rodeo. Let’s defund the damn Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation.

And while this opinion might not be the popular one, I urge this. If somehow this supreme folly ends up on the ballot, please vote no.

I presume Royal means that the HCSCC are the “imbeciles” in question, but they weren’t the ones who offered up the movie studio or hotel/convention center ideas; they both came from the private sector. Royal avows his love of the Astrodome and his desire to preserve it, but it’s not clear to me how he would like to see that happen. What do you want the Astrodome to be, and how do you want it to get there? I mean, if all one cares about is that the building continues to exist, then the current plan of not-so-benign neglect works pretty well, and at a bargain price. Anything else is going to cost money, most likely nine digits’ worth. That’s been the problem all along, as we well know. I understand the grumbling about the 19 private proposals being dismissed in favor of the HCSCC’s publicly-funded option, but I haven’t seen any of those 19 proposers claiming that they had financing, or at least the promise of it, lined up. I trust Royal isn’t advocating for public money to be spent on a privately-owned project, but then I don’t know what he’s advocating. Nobody has to like the HCSCC plan – most likely, you’ll get your chance to vote on it in November – but if you don’t like it and don’t want the Dome to be demolished, then what do you want? And how would you pay for it? We’ve been asking these questions for a decade. If there were an obvious answer, we’d have figured it out by now.

Also not a fan is the Chron editorial board.

Of course the HCSCC’s public option was going to win – it promulgated rules that disqualified anything else. So instead we watched a well-rehearsed script as the corporation went through the motions of soliciting private ideas, considering them under the impossible guidelines set and then inevitably striking them down. The HCSCC instead falls back on a public plan that seems strikingly similar to the one proposed in May 2012 – a proposal notably rejected at the time by County Commissioner Steve Radack. Mischief, thou art afoot.

It is hard to grasp this proposal as anything but another kick of the can, getting us closer to an apparently inevitable destruction of the Dome all while looking like we’re doing the right thing.

This isn’t a convention center. It looks to us like a lamb that the county seeks to sacrifice without appearing like butchers. We’ll see it on the ballot only with the intent of it being voted down. How long until the first voices from within county government condemn this plan as too expensive? Or unnecessary? Or requiring extra study? After all, why would a plan rejected a year ago suddenly become the best idea?

And once voters strike down the rather convenient convention idea, HCSCC has explicitly said that the next step is demolition. This has been the stated scheme since April. If public option fails, there is no room for another vote, no looking for new plans, only demolition. HCSCC says it’s going to fix up the Dome into a new experience, but this feels more like the fix is in.

County commissioners need to come out and say now whether they will support this plan or not come election day. The voters of Harris County deserve transparency from them as well as from the Rodeo and the Texans, two other very interested parties that play in a tax-subsidized facility. We’re afraid opponents will bide their time until election season and suddenly let loose a parade of horribles about every aspect of this Dome decision process, and it’ll be too late to do anything different.

I think we’ve already answered the question about why the plan rejected a year ago is now being touted as the best idea: That plan is now $75 million cheaper, and the economy is in better shape, thus making a publicly-funded solution more feasible. Maybe that lower cost estimate is unrealistic, but the Chron isn’t making that claim. The point about Commissioners Court supporting this plan is a good one, one for which I presume we will get an answer on Tuesday. If Commissioners Court adopts the plan unanimously, and a campaign team gets assembled to pass the subsequent ballot initiative, would that satisfy the Chron’s objections? Of course there will be the usual suspects in opposition because that’s what they do, but if there’s an honest effort to convince the public that this is the right time and the right plan, I don’t see any reason to complain. And if it does get voted down, maybe that’s what the public actually wants. We won’t know until we ask, right?

I don’t think this is the platonic ideal of a plan for the Astrodome. There are a lot of details to be filled in, and even at the lower price it’s fair to wonder why we’re recycling an old idea. How many events do we really think this new facility will be used for, and how many of them would have been held at a different county-owned facility if this one didn’t exist? I was asking those questions myself last year. For all his unfocused ranting, John Royal is correct that the lease deal with the Texans and the Rodeo have hamstrung this process and will limit the usefulness of the New Dome. Again, though, that would be true of any option besides turning the place into a parking lot. The one thing I know is that we’ve talked about this for a long time. There’s never been a consensus about what to do with the Dome, which is why there have always been plenty of ideas for it, however wild and crazy many of them are. If nothing else, this gives us a chance to find some kind of consensus. I for one am ready to stop talking and start doing something. Campos has more.

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2 Comments

  1. [...] by the public, but in the end the idea that was incorporated into the ballot item was a familiar one, borrowing from past ideas to turn the Dome into a multi-use facility that can be further adapted [...]

  2. [...] Chron had previously expressed concerns that the process was rigged to set up a situation where demolition was inevitable but blame for the [...]

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