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Astrodome Studios

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.

Once again mulling the fate of the Astrodome

Am I the only one who noticed the omission in this story about the current state of the Astrodome?

Debt and interest payments will amount to more than $2.4 million this year, according to a payment schedule for the higher debt estimate. The Astrodome’s manager estimates it also will cost $2 million for insurance, maintenance, utilities and security.

The debt likely would have to be reckoned with in any deal to redevelop the Astrodome, said Willie Loston, executive director of the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation, which the county created to run the Reliant Park complex.

But no deal to restore what once was known as the “Eighth Wonder of the World” is likely to be affected by $32 million, Loston said.

“Practically anything that would be done with the building would be some multiple of that,” Loston said. “It’s not enough to make or break a development proposal.”

Not a word is mentioned about any specific redevelopment project. Nothing about the planetarium, the movie studio, or the convention center. Does that mean all these ideas are now officially dead, and that the most likely but still only spoken about in whispers outcome is this? You tell me.

That story was also about Commissioners Court finally getting around to the matter of the Dynamo Stadium deal. As expected, they approved it.

County Judge Ed Emmett emphasized that the Dynamo deal differs sharply from past stadium projects in which taxpayers picked up a much greater share of the tab.

“This is a team building its own stadium,” Emmett said.

Nor does the Dynamo deal cost any general fund money, Emmett and other county officials reaffirmed. Instead, a redevelopment zone will be created around the stadium so that future increases in tax receipts in the neighborhood will be funneled back into the project.


Much remains to be done before construction begins in October for a planned 2012 opening.

“This is, practically speaking, an agreement to agree,” said David Turkel, who as director of the county’s community services department is negotiating the deal with the city.

The Dynamo and the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority must negotiate a lease for the soccer team’s use of the stadium. The city and county must also formally approve the creation of the redevelopment zones.

It’s still a significant step forward, and it ought to be a lot easier from here now that the basic framework is in place. Enjoy the moment, Dynamo fans, it’s been a long time in coming.

Yet another Astrodome plan

It’s a convention center, it’s a movie studio, it’s a planetarium.

Add a planetarium to the myriad ideas for what to do with the Reliant Astrodome, Houston’s iconic stadium whose future has hung in uncertainty as officials and entrepreneurs have proposed new uses ranging from a casino to a movie studio.

The latest idea, a study of which was proposed by Commissioner El Franco Lee, is to turn part of the 44-year-old Astrodome into a planetarium or a medical or science institute, leaving additional space for some other public use. Commissioners Court will vote Tuesday on whether to spend $50,000 for a feasibility study of the idea.

“The Astrodome is a world-recognizable space and we want to put it to the highest and best use,” Lee said Friday. “We have been on the cutting edge of several technologies from aerospace to medicine and we would be looking at an educational venue that highlights that.”

Well, there’s a certain poetry to the idea. I have no idea whether this is something that could become self-sufficient, but it’s probably worth spending the money to do the feasibility study. At least we might get a definitive answer one way or the other, unlike the other concepts, which have been in limbo for what feels like forever.

Judge Ed Emmett, who had been skeptical of plans to pay for the convention hotel, said he supports the planetarium idea because it focuses on public use. It also would leave space in the facility for other features, such as a gathering space for festivals or concerts.

“My main interest is to turn the Astrodome into something that can be used by the public,” Emmett said. “The question of funding is always going to be an issue, but basically cleaning up the dome and using it as an open space that you put other things into is very different than turning the whole thing into a hotel.”

County officials this summer will begin seriously to study the various ideas and eventually could take the question of what to do with the Astrodome to voters.

“We waited to see what happened in the legislative session and we will begin to talk about all this,” Emmett said. “At some point, if we come up with enough ideas that are public use, we might ask voters.”

I’m glad there’s momentum to get something official put forward. I’ll be very interested to see how a vote might go – it’s not clear to me that there’s that much more support for preservation than there is for demolition. The longer this goes on, the smaller the share of the population that actually has fond memories of the Dome in its glory. I wouldn’t count on nostalgia to give any future renovation proposal that much of a boost.

Pity the poor Astrodome

These sure are bad days for the old icon, aren’t they?

The Astrodome will not host the rodeo’s nightly country-western dances next month, or any other special event for that matter, as city code violations that would cost millions to remedy threaten to keep the doors shut indefinitely.

It would cost Harris County $3 million just to make enough repairs to host rodeo-related events on the playing field of the iconic stadium, said Willie Loston, executive director of the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp. Tackling the entire list of violations the city identified last year would cost several times that amount.


The trouble began about a year ago, when dome officials could not produce a valid certificate of occupancy during their annual fire inspection, senior fire inspector Joe Leggio said. The county ultimately had to apply for a new certificate, which triggered an inspection by city building code officials.

That inspection and a follow-up inspection by the city fire marshal’s office identified about 30 problems, including malfunctioning sprinkler and fire alarm systems. Those violations are considered life threatening, so the fire marshal could have ordered the building shut down. Instead, the county voluntarily relocated the three dozen employees of the management company that runs Reliant Park who had offices there and agreed not to host any public events.

The sprinkler system has since been fixed, and the county has a contract to replace the problematic fire alarm panel, said Loston, whose group manages the Reliant Park complex for the county.


Susan McMillian, an executive staff analyst in the City of Houston’s Department of Public Works & Engineering, said standards are based on what the building is designed to be used for, not how it currently is being used. However, most of the inspection would be based on codes in place when the stadium was built in 1965.

It is not clear why the sports and convention corporation could not produce a certificate of occupancy despite operating with no problems for decades. County Judge Ed Emmett asked the County Attorney’s Office on Friday to look into the fire marshal’s authority to inspect the dome and what codes the stadium should be expected to follow.

Leggio said the city has always inspected the Astrodome and has always used the proper codes.

I would assume the fire marshal has – or at least, should have – the authority to inspect the facility because if a fire broke out there, it would be the Houston Fire Department that’d fight it. I don’t know what things are like at the Dome now, but I can say that when I saw Lyle Lovett and Bob Dylan perform there a few years ago during the Rodeo, it was depressing how rundown it looked and felt. One way or another, this situation needs some kind of closure.

The dome’s future has been uncertain since Reliant Stadium opened next door in 2002. Many residents oppose razing a structure long billed as the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” but a proposal to convert it into a luxury hotel has faltered amid financial snags.

What, no love for the movie studio concept? Maybe that’s the more realistic scenario these days.

A peek inside Astrodome Studios

So we know that one of the ideas for what to do with the Astrodome is to convert it to a movie studio. But what might that look like? Swamplot has a sneak peek. We may be hearing more about this in the next month or so. Check it out.

UPDATE: ‘stina has more.