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Harris County Sports & Convention Corp

The timeline for the Astrodome

Work will get started after the Rodeo.

Soon to be new and improved

According to Ryan Walsh, executive director of the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation and NRG Park, the final phase of asbestos abatement is scheduled to get underway at the Dome next week and should continue until the end of the year. The work is being done by county engineers deep in the walls of the disused landmark.

“That work will take several months up until the rodeo moves in,” Walsh said Wednesday.

Construction on the project is expected to end in February 2020 and Walsh said this week that soon he will receive a more detailed construction schedule for the months and years ahead.

After the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo concludes its 2019 season more intensive work is expected to begin on the Dome. The rodeo has “gate to gate” coverage of the NRG complex during rodeo season.

I for one am looking forward to seeing what this finished product looks like. I’m also looking forward to an end of the griping about what has and has not happened to and for the Dome, what should have happened instead of this plan, etc etc etc. Not that any of that is likely to happen, but I still look forward to the end of it.

Hey, look, it’s another Astrodome proposal

Meet A-Dome Park.

A Houston architect is touting a new idea for the Astrodome’s overhaul, urging the county to avoid an indoor park concept and instead strip the structure down to its bones.

The concept, dubbed “A-Dome Park,” is being advanced by James Richards and Ben Olschner, architects who previously worked at Herzog & de Meuron, the firm behind London’s Tate Modern and the Olympics stadium in Beijing.

As Richards sees it, Harris County’s current plans for the stadium — essentially, an indoor park and events space — aren’t particularly unique, especially given the proliferation of world-class parks in Houston and abundant event space that already exists at the NRG Center complex.

[…]

Richards, who moved to Houston in 2014, isn’t a fan of the current concept, with its emphasis on indoor activity, and he thinks the 2013 vote is a testament to the fact that Harris County residents aren’t either.

He believes that despite the region’s brutal summer heat, few Houstonians will want to spend their free time within an indoor park — especially given the relatively mild weather Houston enjoys the rest of the year — and he’s skeptical that the plans for vast amounts of plant life inside the facility are realistic. He also doesn’t think restaurants and others vendors on the first floor of the Dome (part of the ULI proposal) will actually be financially viable, based on the number of people who will visit the indoor park on a regular basis.

So instead, Richards and his partners on the “A-Dome park” proposal are envisioning something totally different. The idea isn’t to just preserve the Astrodome but to highlight — and even expose — the architectural elements that made it world famous.

Richards wants to strip the structure down to its steel bones. The idea is to remove the non-structural surfaces of both the Astrodome exterior and interior, leaving only the dramatic steel frame, which would be painted to prevent decay. The plan, Richards argues, highlights the innovative engineering that went into the dome structure itself while also creating a space that offers a completely unique experience.

The A-Dome Park website is here, and you can see plenty of pictures of the proposal at the Urban Edge post. If some of this sounds familiar, it’s because it is similar in nature to Ryan Slattery’s strip-the-Dome-to-its-skeleton idea from 2013. The first comment on the Urban Edge post deals with that, so good look and see what you think. I’m not enough of a design nerd to comment on the merits of one versus the other or the current Harris County plan. I will just say again, generating ideas for the Dome is easy enough – I’ve long since lost count of the plans and proposals that have been floated, and every time anyone writes about the Dome more people will chime in with “what about this…” suggestions. The hard part is finding one proposal that can get enough support to be politically and financially viable, since the stumbling block all along has been how to pay for it. Maybe this is it, maybe the county’s plan is it, maybe it’s something else, who knows? I’m sure Judge Emmett would like to have whatever it is in motion by the time he steps down. Swamplot has more.

Under the Dome

The latest plan to save the Dome takes a step forward.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Harris County Commissioners Court moved forward on Tuesday with one piece of the Astrodome revival that needs to happen whether or not the park plan is achieved, according to County Judge Ed Emmett.

The court asked for an internal cost assessment for building two floors of underground parking, or a large underground storage facility, beneath the ground floor of the Astrodome.

[…]

Edgar Colon, an attorney who serves as the appointed volunteer chair of the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation, has been managing this undertaking. He estimated the task force of engineers, architects, designers, cost estimators and financial advisers has logged more than 200 hours on Astrodome conversion planning.

He said Emmett took the lead, and the late Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee also took great interest in the process.

Under the broader plan, the Astrodome would remain county property, and the park inside it would be a county park. The conservancy would help raise the funds for the project and assist in designing it.

By the end of June, Colon said, the plan for the conservancy’s structure and its role in developing an indoor park should be finalized.

But first, Emmett wants to address the more pressing matter of raising the floor of the Astrodome to ground level and making use of the 30 feet of space underneath it.

“My first goal is to put the Dome into usable condition, whether it be for the rodeo for their food court or the Offshore Technology Conference, or for festivals, gatherings or merely for picnickers in the park,” Emmett said.

“The Dome’s a building. We can’t just leave a building sitting there unusable.”

See here for the background. Basically, the plan is a public-private partnership overseen by a conservancy, similar to Discovery Green, but with more moving parts. Among the attractions of this setup would be the ability to fundraise as a non-profit, which would sidestep the need to put another bond issue before the public. I can’t wait to see what the structure of the conservancy will look like. One presumes the incoming County Commissioner (the Dome resides in Precinct 1) will take a lead role in getting this off the ground, and one presumes that Judge Emmett, who is known to want to retire after this term is up at the end of 2018, will want to have it well in motion by then. KUHF has more.

Is this the plan that will save the Dome?

Maybe.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

A few months ago Ed Emmett had a breakthrough moment about how to save the Astrodome, a goal he’s been chipping away at for the better part of eight years. The Harris County judge was driving out of the county administration building lot headed straight for the historic 1910 courthouse in downtown, and he thought, “There’s a building we completely re-purposed without bond money.”

Meanwhile, the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation was mulling over a 38-page report by the Urban Land Institute outlining details for transforming the Astrodome into an indoor park with 1,200 parking spaces underneath it. What remained unclear was how to fund it.

And that’s where Emmett’s idea comes in. His plan has now become the blueprint for a public-private partnership overseen by a conservancy that would unite the city, county, the sports and convention corporation and other governmental entities with private investors to revive the Astrodome without requiring voter approval. Under the conservancy model, Emmett said, the Dome would earn tax credits, which would help significantly with covering expenses for renovation.

The details for the partnership – and who will commit to covering what percentage of the costs – are being discussed in meetings between representatives of various stakeholders, including during a session on Tuesday and another one scheduled for Friday.

The finished funding plan will come before county officials likely before year’s end, and, if the majority of the five-member Commissioners Court backs the proposal, the Astrodome revival will commence.

[…]

The two newest commissioners, Jack Cagle and Jack Morman, said in interviews Tuesday that they might ultimately support a conservancy to oversee a Dome project; however, neither could say for certain without reviewing the actual proposal.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said he would want to hear comments from the public, adding that “a plan that does not involve taxpayers’ money is certainly going in the right direction.”

Commissioner El Franco Lee expressed wholehearted backing for Emmett’s new strategy.

“I support and am pushing for the conservancy approach,” he said. “It gives philanthropic givers an opportunity to participate, and it takes us down the road much faster by doing some creative things.”

Lee said participants in the conservancy discussions are fully aware that the majority on Commissioners Court does not support taxpayer money going toward the Astrodome project, and he said the planning group will certainly keep that in mind as it crafts a proposal.

“At this point, I’m very optimistic,” Emmett said, “that it’s going to happen without a bond issue. That’s the direction we’re moving in. People seem to be coalescing around the idea of re-purposing the Dome as a green space, adding parking underneath, and adding a conservancy to oversee the upper parts.”

That’s the key right there, no bond issue, which would mean no vote need be taken. I mean, there’s not a whole lot of reason to be optimistic about any further Dome-related votes, so avoiding that would be a big deal. As Judge Emmett notes, this is the same concept that the Houston Zoo and Discovery Green use. That would require some kind of board that would be responsible for management and – more importantly – funding, with some operations money coming from the county and likely the city. I expect that would be easy enough to work out. This makes so much sense that you have to wonder why no one thought of it before. Better late than never, I guess. What do you think about this? Texas Leftist has more.

Who will pay for Super Bowl stadium improvements?

Gotta say, I’m with Steve Radack on this one.

If the NFL has its way, luxury boxes and club seats at NRG Stadium will undergo major upgrades at the expense of Harris County or its tenants before Super Bowl LI arrives in Houston in 2017.

But if the decision is up to Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack, using public funds to improve suites for corporate executives and billion-dollar companies would be a non-starter.

“I’m not about to vote to spend a single dollar of county money updating these luxury suites,” Radack said.

With 21 months to go until the sporting event that launches Houston onto the world stage for one glorious Sunday, much work still remains to prepare for the big party. One of the most significant tasks appears to be dressing up NRG Stadium. The price for seating updates and other improvements could rise as high as $50 million, including $5 million to enhance the facility’s WiFi capacity, sources previously have told the Houston Chronicle.

Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s senior vice president of events, said Monday that upgrading the stadium’s WiFi is something the bid committee has agreed to do. In terms of sprucing up the seating, he said he noted on a recent visit that NRG “is in a very good place at this stage in its stadium life, but there are opportunities to upgrade that are common across Super Bowl stadiums as they prepare and continue to make sure they are state-of-the-art.”

O’Reilly said the burden for the costs of upgrading the facility rests with Harris County or its tenants – the Texans and the rodeo. But so far, none of the parties involved has volunteered to pick up the tab. County officials seem resolute that they won’t be forking over any funds.

Jamey Rootes, president of the Texans, explained that the team is 13 years into its 30-year lease and O’Reilly was merely noting “that there could be some improvements that would help Houston put its best foot forward.”

“Anything that as a fan you might come into contact with might be a factor because you’re going to be in that facility for a long time,” Rootes said.

[…]

For NRG Park, the question of fixing up the premises comes down to a landlord-tenant issue under glaring stadium lights.

The county, through its sports and convention corporation, serves as landlord to NRG’s tenants, which include the Texans and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. [Commissioner Jack] Cagle said WiFi costs are “currently a responsibility of the current tenant.”

“WiFi wasn’t really around when our contracts were set up,” Cagle said. “It’s not one of our landlord responsibilities. We have a contract that is in place, and perhaps that needs to be renegotiated.”

See here for the background. The “landlord-tenant” characterization sounds right to me. I can see the case for upgrading WiFi – who installed it in the first place, if it wasn’t there originally? – and of course if there are actual repairs to be made, that’s a landlord responsibility. But if we’re basically talking about fancier party decorations and accoutrements, that’s on the tenant. Stand firm, y’all. Paradise in Hell and Campos have more.

More on the ULI Astrodome plan

From Tory Gattis:

This was not a presentation of, “well, if the all the stars line up you might be able to make this work.” The theme was more, “this is an absolutely incredible opportunity and you would be fools to not seize it.” In fact, Tom Murphy, former mayor of Pittsburgh, was the anchor speaker and threw down the gauntlet, challenging us to step up to the plate, think big, and make this happen.

[…]

Here are my thoughts on aspects of it:

  • Brilliant putting 1,500 to 2,000 parking spaces in two levels at the bottom of the dome’s bowl, which makes it a lot easier to sell to the Texans and Rodeo. In general, they said they bent over backwards trying to accommodate their needs, as well as the OTC.
  • They smartly called for refreshing the different tenant agreements at NRG Park, rather than just trying to stay within their limits that never envisioned re-purposing the dome.
  • Clever idea of making a good part of the interior green space removable like the turf trays at NRG Stadium. That allows it to be converted to hard floor space for events like the OTC, or a dirt floor for the Rodeo.
  • They did look at using it for fixed-seating concerts/events, but determined there were already plenty of venues in Houston for that, so that functionality was not included. There certainly may still be concerts in there, but they will be more of the festival lawn variety.
  • They very explicitly did not recommend a replacement for the NRG/Reliant Arena, whose functionality they believe can be included inside the revamped Astrodome. Boom – $150 million saved right there! That may give the Rodeo a little heartburn, but – as I’ve said before – it’s the right call.
  • In any discussions of finances for this, that $150 million savings of an Arena replacement should absolutely be factored in, including communications with the public. They mentioned a ballpark potential cost number of $200 to $300 million (a bargain compared to similar scale projects elsewhere, they said), which means the Arena savings gets us more than halfway there!
  • They believe it might be possible for operating costs to be covered by revenues, so it won’t be an ongoing burden. The capital costs are the trickier part, although they laid out a lot of options there.

Overall it was far better than I had hoped or expected.

From CultureMap:

The plan calls for an oak-lined promenade leading from the METRO light rail station on Fannin to the Astrodome, which will be repurposed into the “world’s largest room” on the third floor of the structure — “a grand civic space in which to shine,” said Amy Barrett, a South Carolina urban planner.

The grand space could be used for a variety of functions including, but not limited to, a park, sustainable farm, farmer’s market, festivals and museums with an educational component. The top area of the Dome could include a viewing area as well as an Adventure Park, with zip-lining, hike-and-bike trails and indoor rock climbing.

The plan calls for the first two floors of the Dome to be converted into a parking garage for more than 1,500 cars, including spaces large enough for horse trailers and large vehicles, providing a source of steady revenue. Other sources of income could come from naming rights to various areas of the complex, sponsorships and admission charges for the Adventure Park and other attractions.

Additional funding sources could include solicitations from philanthropic organizations, federal and state grants, joining the city on a TIRZ district, seeking a share of hotel occupancy taxes, and a county bond issue, if necessary, ULI panelists suggested. They were hard to pin down on the potential cost of the project, although one said it could be in the $200 million to $300 million range.

“Our conclusion is that the Astrodome can and should live,” said Los Angeles real estate developer Wayne Ratkovich, who chaired the panel. “We believe that the Dome can serve all of Harris County and beyond. It can be a scene of many more historic moments and the home of many activities that will enhance the quality of life for all Houstonians.”

The panel made special efforts to address the concerns of two major tenants at NRG Park — the Texans and the Rodeo. They emphasized that the repurposed Dome could provide additional opportunities for the Texans on game day and for the Rodeo during the month of March. A Rodeo representative said they were studying the plan; a Texans representative declined to comment.

“The work really begins now,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett. “The main thing about this morning’s announcement from the ULI is they unanimously came back and said the dome needs to be saved. Yes it’s usable. Now go do it. That begins the hard work. The rodeo has to be part of that. The Texans have to be part of that. But the community at large has to be part of that. That building — the dome — belongs to the taxpayers of Harris County.”

Emmett added that he gave this plan “almost 100 percent” chance of succeeding and awaits the final report, which is due within 90 days. “At that point we can really go out and start seeing other entities and say, ‘Here’s the concept,'” he said. “It will be a constant conversation between me and the commissioners from now on. In the meantime we are proceeding with the washing of the building and cleaning it up.”

See here for the background and here for the full Urban Land Institute report. What I like about this is that they’ve directly addressed the concerns that the Rodeo and the Texans have brought up before, because getting those entities on board will be critical to success, and while there’s still a lot of “could be used for” language there’s also a lot of specifics. Tying the space in to the Rodeo and football game day experience is a good idea as well, and I have to agree in looking over the document again that it’s got some bold, big-thinking ideas. I got a little excited imagining it, and that’s not something I’d have said before. We just might finally have a winner here. What do you think? Next City has more.

Urban Land Institute report on the Astrodome

Is this, at long last, The Plan for the Astrodome?

The iconic, yet aging Astrodome is worth saving from the wrecking ball and could find new life as a massive indoor park and green space, a national land use group said Friday.

A panel of experts with the Urban Land Institute released a preliminary proposal for the former Eighth Wonder of the World that would convert it into a public space that includes an indoor lawn, outdoor gardens with a promenade of oak trees, and exhibit space for festivals and community events.

It would also include a play area with zip lines, trails and rock climbing walls.

“The Astrodome can and should live on,” said panel chairman Wayne Ratkovich, president of Los Angeles-based Ratkovich Co., which specializes in urban infill and rehabilitation projects.

The panel that included urban planners, designers and economists from around the country, spent this week interviewing stakeholders and Houstonians about the former home of the Houston Astros. It presented its preliminary findings at a public meeting at the NRG Center and will present a final report to Harris County within 90 days.

The study by the non-profit education and research institute was paid for by the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation and a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which named the Astrodome a National Treasure in 2013.

While the costs and details were not firm, the panel agreed that the structure is worth saving. The panel proposed a public-private funding structure that would include a mix of philanthropy, historic tax credits, hotel occupancy tax funds, money from tax increment reinvestment zones and county funding, possibly in the form of a bond proposal.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who previously proposed an indoor park idea, said he did not know if the proposal would require a bond initiative to fund. Yet, Emmett said, the proposal has an “almost 100 percent chance” of succeeding.

“They unanimously came back and said, ‘The Dome needs to be saved. Yes, it’s usable. Now, go do it,'” he said. “Now begins the hard work.”

Ideally, Emmett said, a portion of the park project would be completed in time for 2017 when Houston hosts the Super Bowl at NRG Stadium.

You can see the presentation here. The ULI got involved in September. The plan is basically a synthesis of a number of ideas that have been advanced before, and there is a lot to like about it. As has always been the case, the question is how to fund it, and how to get public support for it if it comes to a vote. The one bit of recent polling evidence that we have is not positive on that latter point, but we haven’t had a plan that everyone with a stake in it has bought into and worked together to sell. If Commissioners Court and the Rodeo and the Texans and the preservationists are all on board and pulling in the same direction, we could have something. I don’t know how big an “if” that is yet, but we’ll see. What do you think of this?

A second chance to get a piece of the Dome

There’s going to be another Astrodome memorabilia sale in the near future.

This one is not for sale

The Harris County Sports and Convention Corp. is considering selling more seats out of the Astrodome after raking in $1.5 million late last year during two online auctions and a walk-up “yard sale” at NRG Center where thousands of nostalgic fans waited hours in line to buy seats, swatches of Astroturf and a slew of other memorabilia salvaged from the world’s first domed sports stadium.

Net proceeds from the sales in November and December totaled nearly $650,000, meaning they cost almost as much to put on as they brought in. County officials, however, said the haul far exceeded their expectations.

“We were just hoping for it to be able to pay for itself, but it did much more,” said Kevin Hoffman, deputy executive director of the sports corporation, the county agency that runs NRG Park, the South Loop sports complex where the dome is located.

[…]

Hoffman said the sports corporation now is considering having at least one more sale of Dome seats, but is not sure it will be allowed by the state historical commission, which last month postponed its vote on whether to make the 49-year-old stadium a protected landmark while the county continues searching for a private company or coalition to redevelop it.

Under state law, the owner of a building under consideration for so-called “state antiquities landmark” status cannot make significant alterations to the structure during the application process, or after designation, without permission from the commission.

Since the seats have already been removed and are sitting in storage I’m not sure what the problem with selling them might be, but I suppose we have to let the process work. The first memorabilia sale was a big success despite some major logistical issues. This story says there were 7,000 pairs of seats sold in the first event, which presumably includes the online auction, though the stories at the time indicated it was 2,400 pairs. I’m not sure what accounts for the discrepancy – perhaps it’s just that they’ve continued to sell more seats online – but in any event there are another 4,000 pairs left. Funds from that sale went to cleanup efforts after partial demolition of walkway towers and ticket booths, and funds from this next one would be used for maintenance and upkeep. I’ll keep my eye out for further updates on this.

Appeals court revives MBIA lawsuit against Sports Authority

Here we go again.

A lawsuit against the agency that pays the debt on Houston’s sports stadiums is back on following an appeals court ruling.

Last April, a state district court judge ruled that a bond insurer could not sue the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority or the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp., saying they were immune from such legal action as government agencies.

MBIA Insurance Corp., with the National Public Finance Guarantee Corp., sued the Sports Authority in January 2013, asking that the cash-strapped agency be forced to collect more money to cover its obligations, including additional parking and admissions taxes at Reliant – now NRG – Stadium, and seeking damages for other alleged breaches of contract. The sports corporation, the county agency that manages NRG Park, also was listed as a party in the suit.

In an opinion issued last week, a three-judge panel from the First Court of Appeals ruled that the Sports Authority had waived its immunity when it entered into an agreement with MBIA – now National – that provided that the company, which insures $1 billion in bonds, would guarantee regularly scheduled principal and interest payments on them.

Upholding part of state District Court Judge Elaine Palmer’s decision, it also ruled that the sports corporation was not liable because the company had not accused it of breach of contract.

Sports Authority Chairman J. Kent Friedman said it has not yet decided whether to ask the First Court for a re-hearing, to appeal to the Texas Supreme Court or to “go ahead and try the case.” Deadlines to request a re-hearing or appeal are next month.

“I continue to be very confident in our position in the litigation,” he said. “All it really did is allow them the right to proceed with their lawsuit.”

See here, here, and here for the background. The Court’s opinion is here, and if like me your eyes glazed over after about five seconds, you can skip to the end and confirm that the bottom line is that the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority does not have immunity and thus can be sued, but the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation does have immunity as Judge Palmer ruled and thus cannot be sued. The matter is now back in the 215th Court, pending a decision by either party to appeal the part of the ruling they didn’t like. Also, I’m glad to see that we seem to be done with that “Kenny Friedman” business, and J. Kent Friedman is once again being called “J. Kent Friedman” as well he should be. So there you have it.

Rename this!

Whatever.

Just plain Astrodome, thanks

Reliant Park will soon be called NRG Park and Reliant Stadium NRG Stadium, after NRG Energy, the parent company of one of the largest electric retailers in the Houston area.

County sources say NRG, which acquired Reliant’s retail operations in 2009, is planning a rebranding effort that will involve swapping out every sign bearing the Reliant name.

A related item is expected to appear on the next meeting agenda of the board of the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., the agency that runs the county-owned park.

The long version of the story is here. They can name it whatever they want, but that doesn’t obligate anyone else to call it what they name it. The Astrodome is still the Astrodome, not the Reliant Astrodome and certainly not the NRG Astrodome. The building that now houses Joel Osteen’s church will always be The Summit. The airport north of the city is plain old Intercontinental, the big building near the Galleria with the waterwall is the Transco Tower, and that lawn you need to get off is mine. I’m glad we had this opportunity to clear this up. Link via Swamplot, and Hair Balls has more.

Back to private investors for the Dome

Sure, why not?

We still have the memories

Commissioner El Franco Lee, whose Precinct 1 is home to the county-owned Dome, said Commissioners Court is “not under any time constraint” in deciding what to do with the vacant stadium.

“The only constraint we’re under is spending any public money,” Lee said.

[…]

Lee noted that about $8 million worth of cleanup work, including asbestos removal, is underway to prepare the Dome for redevelopment or demolition and said that work would be sufficient to prepare the structure for the Super Bowl.

“We’ll be ready for that,” Lee said. “That’s a pretty low bar to meet.”

A memo to the court from the county engineer states that “no major activity can occur until asbestos removal is completed” by next September.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said Tuesday the Super Bowl is “a critical date” when it comes to the Dome’s fate but said the county will allow private parties another shot.

“People continue to come and say, you know, if you give us a little time we’ll have $100 million or $200 million or whatever, and I think Commissioners Court is of a mind that if they show up here and they’ve gone through the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp. and they have the money and they want to convert it, then we’ll certainly listen to ideas,” Emmett said.

[…]

Private funding is “the only thing you got left, and that is where we wanted to be in the first place,” Lee said.

Emmett said he, too, is hopeful, even while noting the private sector has “had 10 years to come up with the money” to no avail.

The “we’re in no rush” meme appeared immediately after the election, so this is no surprise. Private funding has always been the preference, since it (theoretically, at least) reduces the county’s exposure and most likely avoids the need for any further input from the voters, who needless to say can sometimes go off-script. There’s already a proposal to turn the Dome into a fitness center, with a promise from the proposer that given a couple months’ time he can scare up $200 million or so to do it. Not sure how I feel about that particular idea, but then like all of the others that preceded it, it’s unlikely to ever become anything more than an idea. If we wait around a little longer, and all indications are that we will, I’m sure plenty more ideas of varying levels of practicality will turn up. The question is what will happen if one of them comes with enough money to make a go of it.

So what happens now with the Dome?

It’s mostly dead, but I suppose it’s not all dead just yet.

We still have the memories

The board of the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., the county agency that runs Reliant Park, passed a resolution in April saying that if a vote were to fail, the agency would ask Harris County Commissioners Court to allow it to “prepare a plan to decommission and subsequently demolish the Reliant Astrodome.”

“That still stands,” said Willie Loston, sports corporation executive director. However, he said, “there’s nothing we have to do now. We’re awaiting direction. That’s the bottom line.”

All eyes now are on the five-member Commissioners Court, which holds the power to determine the fate of the vacant stadium, which has served as nothing more than a storage facility since city inspectors declared it unfit for occupancy in 2009.

[…]

“We said before the vote that absent a vote to transform the Dome into something useful that didn’t bankrupt the county or the taxpayers, then the likely result would be for the Dome to come down, but that’s not my decision – that’s the decision of Commissioners Court,” Emmett said this week.

Asked about demolition on Tuesday, Emmett said the event center plan was “the only option that was viable and, so if the voters rejected the only viable option, then I wouldn’t know where to go next.”

Strictly speaking, I don’t think Commissioners Court is required to authorize demolition at this point. Someone check me if I’m wrong, but I see no reason why they couldn’t choose to pursue another bond referendum next year, perhaps with one of the creative and unfunded plans that had been rejected. I also see no reason why they couldn’t continue to seek out a private investor, or just leave things as they are. They won’t do nothing, but it won’t surprise me if they take a little time before moving forward with something.

What that something is, even if it is the threatened demolition, remains unclear.

County engineers have estimated it would cost $20 million to demolish the dome and create an “open space.”

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, who voted against the bond and predicted its failure, said he plans to push an idea to turn the dome into a detention pond after it is torn down, eliminating the need to fill in the hole – and the cost – and exempting the county from having to pay a controversial city drainage fee.

“We spend millions every year digging holes, so why would we spend $200 million covering up a pretty good hole that can help with flooding? It makes no sense,” he said.

If that happens, then I believe the very least we can do to commemorate what used to be there is to come up with an appropriate name for what follows. Something like “Lake Hofheinz” or if you prefer formality, the “Judge Roy Hofheinz Memorial Retention Pond”, for instance. Or maybe just call it “Radack’s Hole”. I think The People should be left to settle the question on this, too. Feel free to leave your own suggestion in the comments. Houston Politics, PDiddie, Swamplot, Burka, Mean Green Cougar Red, and Hair Balls have more.

On the uses of the New Dome

So it’s looking pretty good for the Astrodome renovation referendum. But what exactly will we get if it does pass? In particular, will the New Dome be economically sustainable in a way that the current one is not?

To date, Harris County and Reliant Park officials have offered little more than verbal assurances the New Dome would be an economic winner.

The closest thing to a fiscal analysis that has been released since the Harris County Commissioners Court voted in August to put the bond proposal to voters came a month later on a single sheet of paper brought to a Houston Chronicle editorial board meeting. Projections on the paper show a converted Astrodome would generate $1.9 million a year – $4 million in revenue, minus $2.1 million in expenses.

The $4 million includes usage fees, concessions, parking and revenue from “incremental” naming rights. The $1.9 million net income likely would be spent on utilities or other operating costs, but officials say they are certain the facility would pay its own way.

“The goal, at the very minimum, is to break even,” said Edgar Colón, chairman of the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., which devised the New Dome plan.

Consultants the sports corporation hired to devise various reuse plans found last year that “all options have operating shortfalls,” including a multipurpose facility virtually identical to the New Dome plan.

A sports corporation list of potential uses of the New Dome spans more than four pages. Major events include fan parties during the Super Bowl and NCAA Final Four, as well as Wrestlemania.

The list of new prospects, everything from a Star Wars Convention to the Junior Olympic Games, is much longer than the one of existing events that could locate there, which includes only the annual Offshore Technology Conference and the Mecum Auto Auction.

The OTC, which has outgrown Reliant Center, has said it would use the New Dome.

The economic argument officials make the most is akin to “Build it and they will come.”

“You put together a facility that is unique in the world and then you go out and sell it, and that’s what we have here,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who said the new venue would spur hotel and other development in the area.

[…]

Even if the New Dome is not an economic boon, Emmett has suggested that expecting it to break even is not a reasonable goal, comparing it to a public park.

“There are a lot of things that government does that provides an asset or a service to the taxpayers that doesn’t necessarily pay for itself,” he said in his September newsletter.

The “public park” angle is interesting, and it makes some sense. I don’t recall it being brought up before now, which is the sort of thing that can come back and bite you afterward. I look at it this way: The current Dome is costing us something like $2 million a year, and we’re getting no use out of it. If what we build winds up costing less, never mind breaking even, and we get some use out of it, it’s a win. If it does wind up breaking even, so much the better. People clearly find value in the preservation of the Dome, which is a part of Houston’s identity in a way that few other things are, and if we wind up with something that costs a few bucks a year, that’s what we chose to do. Houston Politics has more.

Want to buy a piece of the Dome?

Now’s your chance, but act fast.

This one is not for sale

Five hundred pairs of upper-deck “rainbow gut” seats and old Astrodome space helmets worn by the grounds crew nearly 50 years ago are among the items up for grabs Saturday during a sale and auction at Reliant Center.

Larger Dome items, like turnstiles and dugout benches, are headed for auction, while smaller items will be sold at a fixed price.

Registration for the 9:30 a.m. auction begins at 7 a.m. The sale of seats and turf begins at 8 a.m.

The roughly 500 pairs of upper-deck seats – some of which still had years-old peanut shells stuck to the sides from fans – will be sold for $200 per pair. There’s a limit of four pairs of seats (eight seats total) per person.

For those looking for a piece of history on the cheap, a 12-inch-by-12-inch piece of turf will go for $20. Again, there is a limit. Buyers can take home only four squares of turf per person.

The auction is run by Reliant Park officials and the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., which manages the county-owned Reliant Park.

Proceeds from the event will go to the Astrodome renovation project.

Note that this partial disassembly is necessary whether the Dome referendum passes or not. Recall also that the sale of Astrodome memorabilia was built into the estimates for the Dome renovation project, so by buying that upper deck chair you’re helping the preservation cause. Who out there plans to make a bid for something? Swamplot has more.

Who’s advocating for the Dome?

Some old familiar names are getting back in the game.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Tuesday after the Commissioners Court meeting name-dropped two former county judges — Jon Lindsay and Robert Eckels — who will lead the charge on a campaign to garner support for an Astrodome renovation project.

A $217 million bond referendum to turn the vacant stadium into a massive, energy-efficient convention hall and exhibition space will appear on the ballot this November.

“You know, I know former Judge Eckels, former Judge Lindsay, people at the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., are talking about it,” Emmett told reporters. “Now, how it gets formed, they have to wait and see.”

Lindsay confirmed on Wednesday that he and Eckels, who will serve as treasurer, are, indeed, planning to lead the charge. He said they have had one meeting with the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., which conceived the renovation proposal, and are planning another for next week.

“All I can say right now is we’re working on it and trying to get organized,” Lindsay, first elected in 1974, said, describing the effort as “preliminary.”

He said that Edgar Colón, chairman of the sports corporation, the county agency that runs Reliant Park, likely would chair the campaign.

I believe this is the earlier story to which that refers. Eckels and Lindsay, who offered some warnings about the two of them being a bit out of shape for fundraising and campaign-running, are likely as good as anyone to do this. They know the county and they ought to be credible to a large segment of the electorate. Both Judge Emmett and Commissioner El Franco Lee will be on board with them as well. Honestly, I don’t know that you could have gotten a better team, all things considered.

More from that KHOU story:

“I think it’s going to take some sort of organized effort,” said Bob Stein, the Rice University political science professor and KHOU analyst. “Bond proposals of this sort usually succeed when there’s an overwhelming majority of campaigning and spending on behalf of a bond.”

Emmett said a number of people have talked about leading the effort, but nobody’s grabbing the ball to run with it.

“Typically, right after Labor Day is when things crank up,” Emmett said. “And so we don’t know who all is going to be involved, frankly.”

Among people who’ve watched with dismay as the dome has fallen into disrepair, this only fuels suspicion that a failed bond election will give county leaders political cover to destroy the dome. Even a Houston Chronicle editorial recently opined, “The Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation comes to bury the Astrodome, not to praise it …We’ll see it on the ballot only with the intent of it being voted down.”

That suggestion leaves Emmett visibly annoyed.

“No, I don’t think that’s right at all,” Emmett said. “I think that we spent so much time trying to find a private use for the dome and none of those were funded. Then we had to decide what the best public use is, and I think that’s what’s before the voters right now.”

As before, I’ll side with Judge Emmett on this. Harris County was set to move on a privately-funded plan for the Dome in 2008, but that fell through when the economy bottomed out. Maybe the Court could have acted last year, but not much earlier than that. They also could have waited for another private investor with sufficient capital to step up, but despite the plethora of suggestions for what to do with the Dome, no one with financing in hand has come forward. I don’t know if Eckels and Lindsay can fully quiet the conspiracy-minded, but they ought to muffle them a bit.

Whether the referendum passes may depend largely on the age of the voters who turn out in November. Polling conducted during the past few years for KHOU and KUHF Houston Public Radio has shown a curious generational pattern. The strongest supporters of preserving The Astrodome tend to be older voters, who are more likely to have seen games in the historic stadium. Younger voters are more likely to oppose spending bond money on saving the dome.

Generally speaking, off year elections skew in the direction of older voters. I don’t know what the dividing line is in the poll cited, but I feel pretty comfortable predicting that the average voter this year is likely to be north of 50. When I said earlier that Eckels and Lindsay ought to have credibility with a chunk of the electorate, these are the people I had in mind. Who better to talk to a bunch of old voters than a couple of old politicians, right? PDiddie, John Coby, and KUHF have more.

Hoteliers for the Dome plan

Count the Hotel & Lodging Association of Greater Houston among the supporters of the Astrodome renovation plan.

Harris County Sports and Convention Corp. Chairman Edgar Colón, with back-up from Deputy Executive Director Kevin Hoffman, presented the agency’s vision for revamping the half-century-old structure into “The New Dome Experience,” a 350,000 square-foot, street-level space they and other county officials say could play host to everything from “the world’s largest” Super Bowl party, to graduations, to cricket matches to political conventions.

“Any event you can imagine,” Colón told a packed room at the St. Regis. The project would take 30 months to complete, and construction would begin immediately if voters approve the bond, meaning it would be done in time for the Super Bowl at Reliant Stadium in February 2017.

One of the first things Colón told the attentive crowd was that the concept would make the world’s first domed super-stadium easily modifiable, in case some private party — with funding in hand — comes forward in the future and wants to turn the structure into something else.

“It actually enhances the opportunity for future development,” said Reliant Park General Manager Mark Miller during a Q&A after the presentation. Other questions touched on whether there were plans for constructing walkways between facilities and, yes, a hotel.

Officials said those very projects are included in the Reliant Park Master Plan, which would likely require another bond referendum to execute.

During the Q&A, Colón also revealed that plans are in the works to form a political action committee that will raise money to promote the Dome referendum. If it passes, county officials have said they would have to hike the county property tax rate — for the first time in 17 years — by as much as half a cent.

“There is going to be a more organized political campaign, a political action committee, to which I’m sure you all of you can donate funds,” Colón said, eliciting some hearty laughter.

Many attendees described the plan as “exciting” and said they wanted to see the Dome preserved.

So in addition to learning that there will eventually be another bond referendum to (presumably) do maintenance and upkeep on Reliant Stadium, we find that there will be a PAC, no doubt created by the Sports & Convention Corp as I suggested, to get this sucker passed. Perhaps that will put PDiddie‘s mind more at ease. I personally think it’s too early to say whether the referendum is a favorite or an underdog. In the absence of any other information or activity, I’d probably bet on it passing, but it’s just too early to say for sure. Let me know when this PAC gets off the ground, and when/if some opposition coalesces, and then we’ll talk.

Astrodome referendum officially on the ballot

It’s been a long, strange trip, but at last you will get to vote on the fate of the Astrodome.

The Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously voted to place a bond election for up to $217 million to convert the iconic stadium into a massive, street-level convention hall and exhibit space, saying residents should take part in deciding the historic structure’s fate.

Should voters reject the bonds, County Judge Ed Emmett and Precinct 2 Commissioner Jack Morman said Tuesday they see no other alternative than to demolish the former “Eighth Wonder of the World,” which has sat vacant since city inspectors declared it unfit for occupancy in 2009. The Reliant Astrodome has not housed a professional sports team since the Astros moved to Minute Maid Park in 2000.

“If it does not pass in November, then that should be the death knell for the Dome,” Morman said.

[…]

While the vote to put the measure on the ballot was unanimous, court members’ personal support for the project is not.

Only Emmett and Precinct 1 Commissioner El Franco Lee said they definitely will cast a vote in favor of the bond referendum. Both, however, said they have no plans to launch – or, in Emmett’s case, participate in – campaigns to get the measure passed.

“There needs to be some plans made to do it, if it’s going to be a success,” Lee, who wants to save the Dome, said of a campaign. “The judge is our leadership, so we’ll just see what occurs from there.”

The Commissioners Court on Tuesday also approved $8 million for work that needs to be done to the half-century-old stadium regardless of whether it is torn down or renovated. That work includes asbestos abatement, demolition of the exterior spiral walkways and the sale of signs and other salvaged items that qualify as sports memorabilia.

County engineers and consultants, who estimated it would cost $217 million to repurpose the Dome, also determined it would cost $20 million to demolish it, not including the $8 million.

If the bond fails in November, Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said it “would make no sense to me at all” to spend millions of dollars demolishing the structure.

“There’s another day to have another election,” he said. “Why are you going to spend $8 million and then tear it down?”

The vote to call the bond election was made with one condition championed by Radack: That the ballot language explicitly say that the project would require an increase to the county property tax rate, which has not been raised in 17 years.

See here for the last update. We were headed towards a referendum in 2008 back when Astrodome Redevelopment was proposing a convention center as the Dome replacement, but the economic collapse knocked that off track, and so here we are now. The big question at this point is who lines up to oppose this. The Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation, whose renovation plan is what the Court approved for the ballot, will take the lead in communicating the referendum and the reasons to vote for it to the public. I have no idea how much money they’ll have to mount a real campaign, however. It’s certainly possible that some deep-pocketed types could show up to fund a campaign in favor of this, or in opposition to it. It’s also possible that there will be little more than earned media and some online presence to inform the voters. If I had to guess, I’d say this passes, but who knows? How do you plan to vote on this? Leave a comment and let’s get a totally unscientific data point to bat around. Texpatriate and Swamplot have more.

Astrodome referendum headed for the ballot

If you’ve been waiting for the chance to vote on the fate of the Astrodome, your wait will soon be over.

Commissioners Court next Tuesday is expected to approve a measure asking voters to authorize the county to spend as much as $220 million to transform the vacant stadium, County Budget Chief Bill Jackson said Wednesday.

County engineering staff, with the help of hired consultants, determined that the conversion project the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp. proposed in June will cost $217 million. The sports corporation, which runs Reliant Park, had estimated its plan to turn the decaying structure into an energy-efficient meeting hall dubbed “The New Dome Experience” would cost $194 million.

Engineers also determined that it would cost $20 million to demolish the Dome and create an open space and identified $8 million worth of additional work – including asbestos abatement and selective demolition – that needs to be done no matter whether the structure is revamped or torn down.

The last demolition estimate, released in March by the NFL’s Texans and Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, showed it would cost $29 million to implode the structure and build a 1,600-space parking lot.

Jackson said the county may be able to come up with other kinds of revenue to offset how many taxpayer dollars would have to be spent.

[…]

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said he not only wants to see the plan on the ballot but that he will vote in favor of it – even if it means a tax rate increase – because it will generate revenue.

“Would I build that building today? No, but it’s an iconic structure, it’s a part of our history, I think we can put it to use,” he said. “We can make Reliant Center, and Houston in general, a unique destination for exhibits and special events, and I think that’s worth doing just for the money that will come our way.”

Whether a bond would pass is debatable, court members and county staff say.

Commissioners Court had previously authorized the budget office to give the HCSCC plan the once over. If Harris County winds up borrowing the full $220 million, there could be an increase in the county’s property tax rate of up to a half of a cent. Because there could be a tax rate increase, you can be sure that there will be some opposition to this, though at this point it’s unclear which of the usual suspects will take the lead. Given that the county spends $2 million annually on Dome maintenance, no one really disputes the need to do something. The question is whether people will openly advocate for demolition, which is the alternative and the much cheaper price tag to renovation. Commissioners Court is set to approve this item on Tuesday, so we’ll get a better idea of the politics of this after that.

Commissioners Court approves HCSCC Astrodome plan for further review

I noted this briefly in an update to my interview with Willie Loston, but on Tuesday Harris County Commissioners Court unanimously approved the proposal by the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation to redevelop the Astrodome for further study.

Commissioners did not comment on the proposal before or after the vote, but County Judge Ed Emmett said the court wanted to refer it to budget staff “to analyze what exactly the financial impact is, because if there is a bond, there will be a tax and everybody needs to understand that, but the level of that tax right now is still undetermined.”

County Budget Chief Bill Jackson said he and his staff will review the cost of building, maintaining and operating the facility, and then look at ways to pay for it, focusing on the “non-public property tax items first” in an effort to lessen the amount of any bond referendum sent to voters.

Court members said Tuesday they would like to see a plan on the ballot this November so the 30-month project could be completed in time for the 2017 Super Bowl at Reliant Stadium.

Jackson said options to be examined include naming rights and selling salvaged parts, including the nearly 60,000 seats.

When Astroworld was dismantled about eight years ago, Jackson noted, “people were paying ridiculous amounts for things that they remembered as kids.”

“I just feel that people, if they do take parts and pieces out of this thing, people will be willing to spend something for that,” he said.

The review should be complete by Aug. 1, Jackson said.

That would cut it close for the deadline to place an item on the November 6 ballot, but there would be sufficient time to do so. The Infrastructure Office and the County Attorney’s office were also asked to review the plan. This is basically what Loston said would happen in the interview. Hair Balls elaborates.

The court voted unanimously to send the plan to the county budget office, the county attorney and the public infrastructure department. The budget office will tell them how much this plan will actually cost tax payers, and the county attorney’s office will tell them how quickly everything needs to move to get this on the November ballot, if that’s possible. It’s going to the infrastructure department because Pct. 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle asked that it be sent to that department as well. Now the court has to see what the budget office, the county attorney and the public infrastructure department all have to say before looking at the issue again.

Back in April, the HCSCC said tearing the Dome down would become an option again if whatever option they ended up recommending (which ended up being this one) failed to get approved. Now, [HCSCC Chair Edgardo] Colon notes that if the commissioners decided not to vote for the plan or voters decided against it, demolishing the building would be one of the options, but they would still be looking to the court for guidance and other options for what to do with the building.

Once things really get rolling, Colon says his organization will move in and start working to get the public informed on this project enough to vote on it if and when it gets on the ballot.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said he wanted to see a variety of bond referenda on the ballot, according to the Chron story, including a demolition option. I’m not exactly sure how that would work, though he is correct to note that just because a bond referendum is approved that doesn’t mean the money has to be borrowed and spent. Still, if we’re going to ask the people to vote we ought to be giving them the final say, not just narrowing the choices for a final determination by Commissioners Court. Let’s have one up-or-down item on the HCSCC proposal, and if it fails then Commissioners Court can then decide what the next move is.

In the meantime, County Judge Ed Emmett met with the Chron editorial board to discuss the plan and its status. Two items of interest from their talk. Item one:

In a somewhat heated meeting with the Houston Chronicle editorial board on Wednesday, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett took credit for the timeline the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp. set in April for deciding what to do with the decaying Reliant Astrodome, describing it as an attempt to put an end to a nonstop stream of private reuse ideas that don’t have financial backing — and to force a decision on what to do with the vacant stadium.

“The private groups kept coming and coming and coming and I started chewing on… the Sports and Convention Corp. to set a deadline,” Emmett, who took office in 2007, explained. “This was more a deadline to make sure that those who kept talking actually came to some end and namely that they either had money or they didn’t have money or they had a definite plan or they didn’t have a definite plan.”

Rebuking a Chronicle editorial last Thursday that described the process as rushed and set up to end in demolition, Emmett went on to say that “there’s no plot that I’m aware of.”

“It wasn’t anything to try to short circuit the system,” he said. “In fact, it was trying to put an end to a system that had been going on for years.”

See here for my previous comments on that Chron editorial. As I said earlier, it’s fair to question whether the HCSCC plan will have the full political backing of Commissioners Court, which could be a difference maker in getting a referendum to fund the proposal passed. Judge Emmett appears to be on board, but as we know, the Court is composed of individuals with their own agendas. If one or more Commissioners actively works to undermine the referendum, or otherwise works towards a goal of demolition, people will have a right to be upset about how the process has played out. It’s too early to know how this will play out.

Point two:

Emmett said he “wasn’t keen on the idea” of having the vote this year because there won’t be any other county issues on the November ballot, other than state constitutional amendments. But he said it has to happen if the project is to be done in time for the 2017 Super Bowl at Reliant Stadium. It also has the greatest chance of passing, he said.

“If we don’t have it this year it won’t be ready in time for the Final Four and the Super Bowl and I hate to miss those opportunities,” Emmett said. “And the political reality is I think it’s more likely to pass when you don’t have the whole county voting because I think the people in the city of Houston probably have more of an attachment to the dome than people out of the suburbs. It’s just a guess; We haven’t polled that yet.”

Having a vote this year is the right thing to do. This has gone on long enough, and having the 2017 Super Bowl as a deadline for completing the necessary work ought to keep everyone’s eyes on the ball. The bit about whether there’s a difference of opinion between the city and the ‘burbs is fascinating, and I for one would love to see some polling data on it. I hope whoever does the eventual Chronicle/KHOU poll makes a note of that. Anyone want to critique Judge Emmett’s hypothesis?

Interview with Willie Loston

Willie Loston is the Executive Director of the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation, which is the not-for-profit company that operates and maintains the public facilities at Reliant Park, including Reliant Stadium and the Astrodome. It was the HCSCC that called for and evaluated the private proposals for the Astrodome, and the HCSCC that ultimately presented the plan for a publicly-funded renovation of the Dome into a multi-purpose event facility. Of course, the process of coming up with a sustainable plan for the Dome goes back well before this year, but after a few false starts it has traction now. As you know, not everyone is on board with HCSCC’s idea, which must be approved by Commissioners Court and then ratified by popular vote, and there are still a lot of questions about why it was the HCSCC plan that was put forward, why has this taken so long, and so on. Mr. Loston reached out to me after one of my (many) posts about the Dome, and agreed to let me throw a few of these questions at him for my blog. Here’s what we talked about:

Willie Loston interview

Just as a point of clarification, the interview was conducted yesterday, so when Loston refers to the Commissioners Court meeting tomorrow, he means today, Tuesday. I believe this is the link Loston refers to when he mentions searching for the master plan. We’ll see what Commissioners Court does today; I’m sure there will be plenty more opportunities to write about this before all is said and done.

UPDATE: Commissioners Court has unanimously approved the HCSCC proposal, and sent it to the county budget office, county attorney and infrastructure department for further review.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said he expects to hear back on the proposal in about a month.

The budget office will look at ways to finance the project, including revenue generators to offset the price tag of any bond referendum sent to voters. The project could end up on the ballot in the form of a bond referendum as early as November.

Commissioners had no comment on the proposal before voting to send it to staff.

Emmett, however, explained that they were referring it to the budget office “to analyze what exactly the financial impact is because if there is a bond, there will be a tax and everybody needs to understand that, but the level of that tax right now is still undetermined.”

The county attorney, he said, will determine what deadlines have to be met to get the item on the ballot.

So far so good. Now that the T-word has been invoked, we’ll see who pops up to oppose this.

More on the rejected Dome ideas

The Chron pays some attention to the 19 ideas that were submitted to the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation for what to do with the Astrodome.

Willie Loston, executive director of the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., said much of the plan it outlined features ideas and suggestions from 19 proposals it got from the public.

However, Loston said many of the pitches were not sophisticated. Most were for various types of museums. There were also suggestions for – naturally – shopping centers. Indoor recreation areas were popular, as well.

Ideas for amusement parks were thrown about, as was one for an indoor water park. The least sexy ideas apparently came from transportation hawks who wanted the iconic stadium turned into a transit station.

“The great majority of these are from citizens who were concerned and not in the business of making financial or formal proposals,” Loston said. He added that the submissions, with the exception of a couple, did not mention realistic or specific financing options.

“A lot would say things like, ‘The public ought to be willing …’ or ‘We could find someone who can … ‘” Loston said. “There were more ideas of how to use the building, not ideas of how to pay for it.”

[…]

Developer John Tuschman said he and his partners were among the 19 groups to submit plans to the county. He said he was disappointed that Loston dismissed what he said was a detailed financial plan.

Tuschman’s group proposed converting the space into a multipurpose center complete with a movie theater, a hotel and several sports museums. Their plan also called for a Texas dance floor with an “infinity pool” surrounded by waterfalls in the center of the ground floor.

Tuschman hopes to work with the sports corporation to meld some of his group’s ideas into the final proposal. He believes the county plan “lacks a focal point,” which he thinks could be a sports museum.

“Their concept fits into our concept,” Tuschman said. “We want to make Houston the capital of the world.”

You can see a bit more about some of the 19 plans here. It’s just stadium designs, no details or business plans, so I can’t evaluate Tuschman’s claim. As it happens, I’m going to be interviewing Willie Loston later today, so I’ll get a chance to ask about that. If there’s anything you’d like for me to ask him about the New Dome Experience, leave a comment or drop me a note.

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.

The New Dome Experience

Behold:

If the future of the Astrodome has been keeping you up at night, you’ll rest easy knowing that a major step was taken in favor of preservation at a board meeting on Wednesday afternoon: The Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation (HCSCC) board unanimously agreed on a recommendation to repurpose the Houston landmark.

Willie Loston, executive director of HCSCC, said that none of the 19 privately-funded proposals submitted by the June 10 deadline met the criteria required, but the public use option presented at the board meeting does — think of it as “The New Dome Experience.”

Loston, along with SMG-Reliant Park general manager Mark Miller, presented the plan for a 350,000-square-foot column-free exhibition space, which would require removing the seats and raising the floor to street level.

Other improvements would include adding glass at the stadium’s four compass points for enhanced natural light and aesthetics, with a signature entry at the south end; installing solar panels on the domed roof and incorporating other building systems to improve energy-efficiency; and removing the berms, entrance ramps and ticket booths from the building’s exterior to create a more continuous and useable outdoor plaza, with food vendors and restroom opportunities as well as green space.

“What we want the ‘Dome to become for major events in Reliant Park is the front door,” explained Miller.

The reimagined space could serve, he said, as the headquarters for Reliant Park’s 24-hour security post, and would help facilitate emergency operations within the county in the case of disaster. The interior could be easily reconfigured to accommodate swim meets, graduations and other community events, football games, conventions and more.

The project is estimated to take about 30 months to build out at a cost of approximately $194 million, including everything from architectural and engineering fees to food service, according to Miller, although board chairman Edgardo Colón said that the HCSCC hopes to reduce that amount even further with alternative sources of financing.

See here for all my recent blogging on the subject, and here for the complete presentation on the New Dome. Commissioners Court will take up the matter on June 25, and if Judge Emmett’s reaction is any indication, it will get the Court’s support as well. As this option would require public money, it will also require a vote from We The People, meaning that if it fails then a date with the wrecker is surely next. If you’re wondering what happened with the private proposals, here’s your answer:

In order to be considered, privately submitted proposals had to include private funding, must be compatible with lease agreements with the Houston Texans and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, as well as the master plan of the Reliant Park complex. None of the ideas submitted by private groups or individuals met those criteria, Loston said.

Loston previously had said that some of the submissions were little more than ideas, while a few appeared to be professionally developed proposals.

That really shouldn’t be a surprise. If getting funding had been doable, someone would have made a formal proposal to do it by now, as almost happened back in 2007. I’ll be very interested to see how the usual anti-spending-on-anything suspects react to this, since it will be more public debt.

Speaking of which, it turns out that the existing debt on the Astrodome is only $6 million, which is probably less that you might have thought.

According to information provided by the County Attorney’s Office, three “categories” of debt can be linked to the half-century-old domed structure: One $3.1 million package from 2004, being paid with hotel occupancy taxes, will mature this year. Two others – totaling more than $28 million – are various voter-approved bonds issued between 1997 and 2009 that refunded debt originally issued for improvement work on the Astrodome.

Those packages, however, have been refunded so many times that the amount that can be tied directly to work done on the stadium is hard to nail down, especially when one considers that the oldest debt is paid off first.

The original $27 million general obligation bond that voters approved in 1961 to pay for construction of the world’s first domed super stadium was paid off 12 years ago.

Of the $245 million the county owes on the Reliant Park complex, nearly $240 million – issued in 2002 for construction of Reliant Center and a cooling plant – has nothing to do with the Astrodome, at least directly. That means the county owes less than $6 million on the decaying structure, on which it spends $2 million a year for insurance, utilities and upkeep.

There were only two other Astrodome-specific bond packages since 1961, both issued in 1988 back when we were trying to keep the Oilers from leaving, and they have been paid off. So we’ve got that going for us, which is nice. I have always sort of assumed that any action taken on the Dome now, whether a private proposal, a public proposal, or demolition, would include the existing debt as a part of it. Maybe this will make that part of it a little easier. PDiddie, who is delighted to see this plan, has more.

MBIA appeals lawsuit dismissal

Here’s the brief that MBIA has filed with the First District Court of Appeals to overturn the dismissal of their lawsuit against the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority and the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation. The issues presented for review are pretty straightforward:

1. The Sports Authority was authorized to waive its purported governmental immunity by the Texas State Legislature in Texas Government Code Section 1371.059(c), and it clearly and unambiguously waived any such claim of immunity in the operative deal documents.

2. The Sports Authority also waived its governmental immunity to suit, as provided in Texas Local Government Code Section 271.152, by entering into contracts for goods or services relating to the issuance of approximately $1 billion in bonds.

3. The Sports Authority, a joint creation of the City of Houston and Harris County, had no right to governmental immunity when it issued bonds in its proprietary capacity after a public vote by the citizens of Houston.

4. The Sports Corporation waived its governmental immunity to suit, as provided in Texas Local Government Code Section 271.152, by entering into contracts for goods or services.

I’ll leave it to the lawyers to evaluate their chances. Typically, it will be months, if not more than a year, to get an answer on this. In the meantime, I came across this link about the Sports Authority’s bond rating. The improving economy has the ratings services optimistic about its revenues in the near term. Take a look if you’re into that sort of thing.

So many Dome ideas

The Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation has plenty of material to work with as it prepares to make a recommendation to Commissioners Court about the Astrodome.

19 suggestions but demolition ain't one

Harris County Sports & Convention Corp. staff will spend the next week evaluating 19 plans for redeveloping the Astro­dome and putting the finishing touches on the agency’s own proposal to remake the former Eighth Wonder of the World.

Executive Director Willie Loston would not describe any of the ideas in detail on Tuesday, the day after the agency’s submission deadline.

Loston did say, however, that some of them qualify as “proposals,” while others would be more accurately described as “submittals,” meaning they are less developed.

“I think it’s fair to say they’re not necessarily the same,” he said.

[…]

Under a resolution approved by the board in April, submitted proposals must be compatible with the Reliant Park Master Plan, abide by the lease rights of the Houston Texans and Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, and, most importantly for Commissioners Court, come with financing.

If any proposals meet all those requirements, Loston said they will be presented to the board, along with the agency’s public-use option. He would not give details on that plan, either.

“We are committed to at least a public option of one sort or another,” Loston said. “We will be sending something.”

One thing is certain about the sports corporation’s public-use plan: It is not demolition, which is described in the April resolution as a last-resort option that would be recommended only if no other options pan out, including a failed vote.

It will certainly make a lot of people happy if demolition is not on the table, at least as far as the HCSCC is concerned. I presume that’s still the default way forward if there’s a referendum and it fails. If they recommend one of the private options and Commissioners Court goes for it, then I presume there is no referendum and we leave it in the hands of the private developer, who will hopefully have better luck than the last group to get a green light had.

In the continued absence of any privately funded proposals, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett has discussed the likelihood of sending a renovation proposal to voters in an upcoming election. The soonest that could happen is in November, although Emmett said Tuesday that it “ideally” would happen later because the general election ballot will not include any other county-related matters.

Emmett expressed doubt about a privately funded Dome proposal panning out, saying he “would’ve heard if somebody had come in and said we have a check for $400 or $500 million.” Still, he expressed confidence that the Sports Corp. will bring a good “solution,” and said he hopes it is something he can support.

“I think the Sports & Convention Corp. is on a positive track and I think on the 19th, when they unveil what they’re going to propose to us, then the real public discussion starts,” Emmett said. “In theory, we could look at the recommendation and say, ‘We don’t like that, bring us something else,’ but in an ideal world they’ll bring us a recommendation that we go, ‘That’s a great idea,’ and then it’s a question of taking that to the public.”

Before anything ends up on a ballot, Emmett said the court will have to figure out the exact price and how to pay for it. A combination of public and private dollars is possible, he said.

The HCSCC board will vote on what to recommend on the 25th, and from there it’s up to Judge Emmett and the Commissioners. I can’t wait to see what they come up with. Houston Politics, which goes into detail about the business incubator proposal, has more.

The Texans and the Rodeo will have their say on the fate of the Dome

There’s this little matter of their lease agreement to deal with.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Five years ago, Harris County appeared on the brink of striking a deal with a group of entrepreneurs to turn the Astrodome into a 1,300-room hotel and convention center, a $450 million plan that never came to fruition.

County officials say its failure came down to lack of money. The project, however, faced two other big obstacles: The Houston Texans and the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, which both opposed the hotel-convention center on the grounds that it would steal away the business of fans and rodeo-goers.

While the primary tenants of Reliant Park do not have veto power over development plans, they do have other extensive rights to the site under lease and legal agreements with the county. Even though Harris County Commissioners Court will make the ultimate decision about what to do with the iconic stadium, those rights “must be taken into consideration,” said Edgardo Colón, chairman of the governing board of the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp., which oversees Reliant Park.

[…]

Among the three criteria, which include ability to secure funding: “Compatibility with the contractual rights of our tenants.”

“What we are going to do is we are going to analyze all of those proposals, and if we think there is one that may fit within the rights of the current tenant, then we will visit with them and brief them on the proposal,” Colón said.

Under a 2001 agreement, which officials say was designed in anticipation of Astrodome redevelopment, the Texans and the Rodeo are granted protection from any venture that would eat into their revenue streams, as well as exclusive access to all 25,000 parking spaces on game days, for the Texans, and to the entire complex for nearly three weeks during the rodeo.

Asked if those constraints have been a deterrent for investors looking to back a redevelopment plan for the stadium, Colón said it “obviously is a challenge: How to devise your business plan and your visibility given those constraints.”

I had forgotten about the previous attempt to do a hotel/convention center deal.The genesis of that goes back to 2003, with the idea of a convention center/hotel first appearing in 2004. They actually got Commissioners Court approval in 2006, but ran into financing issues in March, 2007. They claimed to have new financing in May, 2007, but then the Rodeo and the Texans voiced their opposition in October. A lease agreement was supposedly in the works in May, 2008, the Texans and the Rodeo backed down at least somewhat in August, and then the economy went in the crapper and that was pretty much the last anyone heard of that idea. Next thing you knew, it was feasibility study time.

Rodeo Chief Operating Officer Leroy Shafer, speaking on behalf of both parties, said compliance with the lease agreements is the only parameter they have, other than that a decision be made quickly.

“If the proposal comes forward and it’s funded and it doesn’t violate any of those leasing rights, then we will not oppose it,” Shafer said, noting that “there are a lot of things that could be done with the dome that would be in accordance with our lease agreement and there are some things that would not be.”

Well, at least this time around everyone should have known going in that this was an issue. All of the plans have been submitted for review, and the Sports Corp will review them and their own plan if they put one forward next Wednesday. They’ll vote on what to send to Commissioners Court on the 25th. Can you feel the excitement in the air? CultureMap has more.

Astrodome-palooza

In case you aren’t completely full of my opining on the Astrodome and its possible fate, I was the author of a op-ed in the Sunday Chron on the subject. It’s kind of the Reader’s Digest version of the things I’ve been saying here, so if you don’t click over you won’t miss anything new to you. I did put a copy of it beneath the fold, since I like to keep track of my own writing.

Elsewhere on those same op-ed pages, former County Judge and State Sen. Jon Lindsay offers his critique of the private proposals that have been floated.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Now we have an opportunity to develop the premier convention city in the world. Just look at what we could create. The combination of the Metro rail service connecting the George R. Brown Convention Center and Discovery Green downtown to the Reliant and Dome complex would be awesome for really big events like a Super Bowl. There are other events that would benefit, like the Offshore Technology Conference (OTC) that requires event facilities combined with entertainment areas. I’m sure the Convention and Visitors Bureau can name others.

[…]

I am critical of the proposal to strip the building to its structural steel and leaving it exposed. Where is the logic in having a steel skeleton out there that would require a full-time painting crew working to stop the rust? That tension ring must be protected or we will have a nature-caused implosion. A very large sculpture is not the answer, either.

There are not many stadiums that have better parking than we already have at Reliant. It can and should be improved, however. A parking garage would pay its own way, and if not, some of the event sponsors should contribute. There should be more effort to encourage parking downtown and use public transportation to get to the games and some other events like the rodeo. It’s much easier to get out of downtown after a game than the Reliant parking lot.

The proposal to develop exhibition space might make some sense if done on a grand scale. By that, I mean get some of the big players involved, like our major oil companies. Develop a big oil field in the Dome featuring some of the early oil rigs and everything big in the industry. Why can’t we have a continuing OTC featuring some of the past? Along with that, put in some educational facilities and meeting rooms. The industry could see that as a way to encourage youth to want a career in oil and gas.

He also mentions that if Texas ever does legalize more gambling, the Dome would be a “premier location” for it. The Dome as casino is the granddaddy of all What To Do With The Dome proposals, though as you can see Lindsay’s successor as County Judge didn’t think much of the idea back then.

Finally, Chron sports columnist Randy Harvey calls on Commissioners Court to think futuristically.

I’m open to most ideas, except for demolishing the Astrodome and replacing it with another parking lot. Even at the bargain price of $29 million estimated by the Texans and Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which is half as much as some say that would cost.

There is no doubt the building could be redeveloped as a shopping mall, a theme park, an apartment complex or a movie studio. I’m not so sure about an indoor ski resort.

It would be better if whatever it becomes commemorated the Astrodome.

Ryan Slattery, a University of Houston graduate student, wrote in his masters thesis that the steel frame and dome should remain, covering a park. The New York Times suggested it could become Houston’s Eiffel Tower.

That’s a difficult image to resist.

But I also would ask commissioners court to consider something more futuristic, as futuristic as the Astrodome was in 1965, as futuristic as NASA was by putting a man on the moon in 1969 and as futuristic as Houston still should want to be seen by the world.

Maybe we could create a museum, not of the past but of the future, more like an exploratorium, with interactive exhibits speculating on life on Earth or other planets in decades and centuries to come.

Ideas are the easy part. It’s the execution that’s tricky. If it were easy to do one of these things, we’d have done it by now.

(more…)

Big week for the Dome

This week things start to get real for the Astrodome.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Monday is an important deadline for those who are determined to save the historic Astrodome, as private firms turn in renovation proposals to the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp.

But the agency that oversees Harris County-owned Reliant Park is also crafting its own plan, possibly a new one, which Executive Director Willie Loston said will be revealed to the board of directors at a meeting on June 19.

“Even if we get a privately funded proposal that meets all the requirements, we’re still going to do a public recommendation as well,” Loston said.

He would not describe the public plan, or say whether it is different from a half-billion dollar proposal the agency recommended to Harris County Commissioners Court last summer. That plan would have renovated the Astrodome and replaced Reliant Arena.

Whatever plan the agency comes up with will go to county commissioners – along with private proposals – on June 25.

County officials have said a “public option,” so called because it would be paid for using tax dollars, could end up on the ballot this November.

In other words, the most recent What To Do With The Dome report, which was put together last year at this time and then put aside by Commissioners Court, is being revived by the HCSCC as a plan for Commissioners Court to consider. The three options presented were to renovate the Dome as a more modern sports arena for $270 million; do the same but also tear down Reliant Arena and replace it with a less-grody 10,000 seat arena for smaller events, for $385 million; and tear the Dome down, for $64 million. Unless prices have gone up, calling this a “half-billion dollar proposal” is therefore a bit of an overbid. Well, I suppose the HCSCC could have spiced it up some since last year, and thus driven up the price tag. We’ll know soon enough.

The rest of the story is about some of the private proposals that are in circulation – Astrodome Tomorrow, Ryan Slattery’s park proposal, and one I hadn’t heard of before to turn the Dome into a business incubator. All private proposals need to have financing lined up in order to be considered by Commissioners Court. That brings up a point that I don’t think has been sufficiently clarified. Any vote in November would be about a public proposal – that is, a proposal to spend public money, presumably via a bond issue – and it has to be a straight yes-or-no vote, so if the public/bond proposal fails, the Dome is doomed to demolition. What that says to me is that private proposals will be considered first, and if one or more of them are considered acceptable to Commissioners Court, then they will choose among those proposals, and that’s what will go forward. The only circumstance under which there will be a vote is if there are no acceptable – i.e., adequately financed – private proposals. If you’re rooting for the Dome to be preserved, you want a private proposal to go forward so that you don’t have to sweat out the result of an election.

It’s about use, not just sentiment

NYT reporter Jere Longman, who hails from Houston, penned a love letter to the Astrodome after hearing about its possible impending demise.

At long last, is this the end?

So it was despairing to hear that the vacant Astrodome might be torn down and its site paved over as Houston prepares to host the 2017 Super Bowl. Demolition would be a failure of civic imagination, a betrayal of Houston’s greatness as a city of swaggering ambition, of dreamers who dispensed with zoning laws and any restraint on possibility.

A recent drive past the abandoned Astrodome at night revealed it to be unlit. It has been closed since 2008. The stadium was visible in silhouette, like a waning moon.

In daylight, however, beneath the dust and neglect, the Astrodome’s silvery exterior continues to summon a city’s innovative past and futuristic promise. By contrast, Reliant Stadium next door is a dull football arena, designed with all the imagination of a hangar to park a blimp.

James Glassman, a Houston preservationist, calls the Astrodome the city’s Eiffel Tower and the “physical manifestation of Houston’s soul.” New York could afford to tear down old Yankee Stadium, Glassman said, because the city had hundreds of other signature landmarks. Not Houston. Along with oil, NASA and the pioneering heart surgeons Michael E. DeBakey and Denton A. Cooley, the technological marvel of the Astrodome put a young, yearning city on the global map.

“There was a confluence of space-age, Camelot-era optimism, and we were right there,” said Glassman, founder of the Web site Houstorian.org. “It really set us on the road for a go-go future.”

Houston’s best ideas bring clever solutions to tricky problems. The weed whacker was invented there in 1971 by a dance instructor and developer named George Ballas. He got the idea from whirling brushes at a car wash. His prototype consisted of an edger and fishing wire threaded through a can of popcorn.

The Astrodome was built to solve a vexing conundrum: How to bring major league baseball to a city where the temperature could match the league leaders in runs batted in?

[…]

Demolition “would symbolize that we’ve just decided to quit,” said Ryan Slattery, whose master’s thesis in architecture at the University of Houston offers a different alternative.

Slattery’s plan, which has gained traction, involves a vision of green space. He would strip the Astrodome to its steel skeleton, evoking the Eiffel Tower of sport, and install a park. It could be used for football tailgating, livestock exhibitions, recreational sports. Other ideas have been floated through the years, some more realistic than others: music pavilion, casino, movie studio, hotel, museum, shopping mall, indoor ski resort, amusement park.

All private proposals for the Astrodome are due by June 10 to the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation, which oversees the stadium.

Legitimate debate can be had about whether the Astrodome’s innovations ultimately enhanced or detracted from the broader sporting experience. Whether indoor stadiums lend sterility. Whether artificial turf leaves players more vulnerable to injury. Whether we need scoreboards to tell us to cheer. Whether basketball played in giant arenas is an abomination.

But the Astrodome is too essential to become a parking lot. Slattery is right when he says that Houston should not demolish the memory of its past but reimagine it for the future.

Again, as someone who Did Not Grow Up Here, I don’t share the sentimental attachment to the Dome, and as a lifelong Yankee fan who watched the House That Ruth Built get demolished, I’m not greatly moved by pleadings about other stadia’s historicness. The weed whacker is a great invention and all, but last I checked New York was the home of some innovations, too. Forgive me if I don’t see how that has anything to do with the argument at hand. Jeff Balke, who is from here, has come to accept that the Dome may be doomed, and he just has one simple request.

But, for the love of all that’s holy, if the powers that be are going to, once and for all, demolish the only true identifiable Houston landmark, why must it be for a parking structure?

The truth is blowing up the Astrodome to build a parking garage for VIP parking would be in character for our city. We live in a city where historic preservation may as well be a four-letter word. The laws — and I use that term extremely loosely — governing what can be protected are so lax that virtually anyone with a bulldozer and a wad of cash can shred any structure in the city and build whatever they goddamn well please on the piece of dirt that remains.

Most believe that the plan for the Dome has been set in motion for some time. With a limited deadline in place and few real solutions — at least ones that have monetary backing — it seems a foregone conclusion that the Texans and Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo will get their wish and teardown the Eighth Wonder of the World to be replaced by a place you park your luxury SUV.

(Of course, if they wanted that, they have a GIANT FREAKING EMPTY LOT DIRECTLY ACROSS THE FREEWAY ATTACHED WITH A BRIDGE, but that would make far too much sense.)

I’ve heard people complain that they are sick of hearing the argument and we should just tear down this old, sad, rotting structure. Fact is, the structure isn’t rotting. Sure, the seats are. The sheetrock is. But the bones of the building are in fine condition. It has held up against multiple hurricanes and housed the victims of one of the most devastating disasters in U.S. history, a shelter for those no one else wanted. And this is how we repay that memory?

There is also the old “whatever we do, it should be cost neutral” argument. Yes, because everything good in this world must turn a profit. I’m fairly certain no one in Paris worries that the Eiffel Tower doesn’t earn money. The Roman Coliseum is anything but cheap to maintain, yet the folks in Italy aren’t clamoring for it to be torn down so they can put in some luxury condos. And before you start in on the whole “You can’t compare those places to a football stadium,” the Astrodome is modern history’s version of an architectural marvel. It was the first of its kind and it is to Houston what those other iconic structures are to their cities, just a little younger.

It should be noted that the Rodeo bought part of the old Astroworld site in December, which they already use for parking. Surely there’s a deal to be made with the county and Reliant that could address Jeff’s concerns. Be that as it may, I disagree with his point about other landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and the Coliseum. Age and historic value questions aside, those things are in active use today. The Dome isn’t. That’s really what this all comes down to, whether or not there’s a viable, financially sustainable use for the Dome in some form. As such, the cost issue does matter. The county would like to not have to pay $1.5 million a year on top of the bond debt it still owes to maintain an empty building, and any private investors not only have to convince a bank to finance their redevelopment scheme but also have to earn enough money in the long run to keep it afloat. Look at it this way – if the county agrees to sell the Dome to a developer to be converted into a museum or hotel or park or whatever, and they subsequently go belly-up because it turns out there just wasn’t that much demand for whatever they built, what do you think happens then? I don’t know for sure, but I can say with some certainty that it won’t involve multiple feasibility studies and a public referendum. It’s in our interest to get it right the first time, because if we don’t we won’t get to have any say in what happens after it all goes wrong. I certainly agree that anything is better than another parking lot, but not anything is necessarily more likely to be around in another decade or so than a parking lot.

The emotional Dome decision

Nobody really wants to tear the Astrodome down. That in a nutshell is why the process to determine what to do with it has taken so long even though there aren’t any viable alternatives to demolition at this time.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

A failure to come up with a feasible plan with the financing to make it happen could force county officials to confront a decidedly less popular option: demolition. And that reality is emotional, rooted in the deep nostalgia for a structure hailed as the “Eighth Wonder of the World” when it opened in 1965.

“If there were not the great sentimental attachment that we as a people have to this Dome, this discussion would have been over with years ago, period,” said Precinct 4 County Commissioner Jack Cagle. “The reason is why it’s still there is because of the love and the memories.”

[…]

Commissioner El Franco Lee, whose Precinct 1 is home to the Reliant, said in an interview last month he is “very” reluctant to tear down the 48-year-old stadium, which housed the Oilers and the Astros, as well as Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo events and Hurricane Katrina evacuees, before the city deemed it unfit for occupancy in 2009.

“I’m one of those hesitant ones,” Lee said. “The easiest thing to do is to tear it down.”

Lee disputes that it definitely would be the cheapest option, though, because of the debt still owed on the Dome. According to the county budget office, that amount is now less than $9 million; payments are made with hotel occupancy taxes rather than property tax revenues.

On Tuesday, Lee threw his support behind a group that said it is planning to raise as much as $500,000 to pressure wash the Dome in an effort to deter demolition.

“It’s less likely to happen if we spruce up the building,” Chris Alexander, project director of Astrodome Tomorrow, told Commissioners Court.

Here’s Astrodome Tomorrow, and here’s their master plan:

The ASTRODOME*TOMORROW Master Plan integrates an ambient, immersive orbital experience inside the Astrodome, solar panels on the roof, a surrounding 90-acre rooftop green park above parking, a new arena, and a monorail linking all the amenities to off-site parking.

We propose to create a beautiful, green, safe destination attraction and park where civic culture and enterprise will thrive. The dome we envision will offer a variety of tenant spaces, including museum, institute, office, studio, retail, restaurant, and entertainment opportunities.

Taken together, the redesign is intended to serve its surrounding neighborhood, the larger Houston area and tourists from around the world. It envisions collaborative contribution from segments of the entertainment industry, NASA and private space launch companies, the green/sustainable urban design community, and the urban garden movement. It is intended for night and day use, and it emphasizes fitness and active recreation.

I have no idea how feasible any of that is, but here’s their Facebook page if you like the sound of it. Personally, I’m a bit concerned about how much water would be needed to pressure wash the Dome, given that we’re still in drought conditions. But I suppose that if we are going to do something other than knock it down, sprucing up the look of the place is where to begin.

Back to the Chron:

County Judge Ed Emmett last week said other options need to be explored before resorting to demolition, noting that most people he asks want to find a way to save the aging facility. He said he hopes to have town hall meetings so the public can weigh in on the issue.

“It is an option, but at this point I think we need to explore what are the options for keeping it so that it’s usable,” Emmett said, noting that he thinks the public would support a good reuse proposal and would “like to keep the icon that is the Dome.”

Edgardo Colon, chairman of the Sports Corporation board of directors, said the board would recommend demolition only if “the alternative we propose is turned down or if we don’t find any alternative at all.”

[…]

Precinct 3 County Commissioner Steve Radack, who said he sees the fate of the Dome as a financial rather than emotional issue, has asked the county’s Public Infrastructure Department to look into the feasibility of creating a lake, or large detention pond, if the dome is demolished. Radack said it could solve flooding problems in the area, including the Medical Center, and eliminate the county’s obligation to pay the city of Houston’s drainage fees, as well as, perhaps, provide an incentive for the city to pitch in on demolition costs.

“It could serve as an oasis in the middle of a massive concrete asphalt area,” Radack said. The idea would be “an important thing to study if the Dome goes down.”

This is not the first time Commissioner Radack has proposed building a lake, though this is a more urban location than before. As we know, the HCSCC has approved a resolution calling for Commissioners Court to approve a demolition plan if they can’t come up with something else. Clearly, there’s no shortage of ideas for what to do, it’s just a matter of coming up with a way to pay for them, preferably with private dollars. The question is what will evoke the stronger feelings – tearing it down, or finding public money to do something else with it if no private plan is deemed viable.

Adios, Aeros

It was nice knowing you.

After 19 years, the Houston Aeros will be no more after this season.

The Minnesota Wild, who own the majority of the Aeros AHL franchise, were unable to reach a new lease agreement with the Toyota Center.

According to person familiar with the situation, the team [sought approval] Thursday from the AHL Board of Governors to relocate the franchise to Des Moines, Iowa starting next season.

The Iowa Wild would play at Well Fargo Arena, which holds over 15,000 for hockey. A press conference is expected on Monday in Des Moines.

According to the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority, the Toyota Center felt they were turning away more profitable concerts to accommodate the Aeros, who often tie up weekend dates between October and April.

The Wild and sports authority sought, but were unable to find, a suitable alternate venue for the team in Houston.

See here for background. The approval was granted, and the team will henceforth be known as the Iowa Wild. My interpretation of this is that we shouldn’t expect another franchise to seek out Houston as its home anytime soon. If the Toyota Center isn’t available, it’s probably not worth their time. Sorry about that, hockey fans. Hair Balls has more.

Astrodome anti-climax

That’s it?!?!?!?

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

The Harris County Sports & Convention Corp. board of directors approved a resolution Wednesday calling for staff to collect ideas for what to do with the vacant Reliant Astrodome between now and June 10.

The Sports Corp., the agency that manages Reliant Park, would analyze any proposals its receives before bringing them to Harris County Commissioners Court on June 25.

The court has the final say on what should be done with the aging stadium, on which the county still owes about $30 million. The time frame set by the Sports Corp. is aligned with the court’s scheduled consideration of the county’s capital projects plan on June 25.

Seriously? We’ve been talking about this for over five years, and there have been more what-to-do-with-the-Dome studies than I can count. How is it that the HCSCC doesn’t already have a firm idea of what’s practical or not?

From KTRK:

“We have had people approaching us, asking us questions and they want to sit down and talk to us about the idea, so that way we can evaluated them and make a decision,” said Edgar Colon with the HCSCC.

Turning it into a parking lot has been suggested by the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo as well as the Houston Texans, who play in nearby Reliant Stadium. Their estimated cost was around $30 million and no funding source was named.

Now the Sports and Convention Corporation says it would cost more like $50 million, and says it is weighing a wide variety of ideas from turning into a plaza to preserving it.

“It is not that we are solely considering demolition of the Astrodome. We are considering that as one of the possibilities, one of the alternatives, among six, seven or eight that we are considering,” Colon said.

Engaging the public is never a bad idea, but what are the odds someone will have an idea that hasn’t already been proposed? Make a decision about what options are the most viable and send them to Commissioners Court already. Sheesh.

UPDATE: More from Hair Balls.

According to the paperwork passed about after today’s meeting, it appears that the HCSCC has given private entities until June 10th to submit their proposals for turning the Dome into a hotel, a ski-jump facility, a coliseum of Roman re-enactors, or any of the thoroughly bottom-dollar approaches those behind the plans have concocted. After conducting feasibility studies — have to make sure the money’s backing the plans — HCSCC will then pass the ideas along to the Commissioners Court for discussion at the June 25th Capital Improvements Program hearing.

If they so deem, the HCSCC “may also recommend one of more public purpose plans” to suit the Dome’s transformation. While there’s no guarantee that a public option will be on the table for the June 25th hearing, it seems unlikely that a location that’s gained as much sense of public ownership as any building in Houston would come to a final vote without a potential for communal ownership.

Of course, all of this could end up being moot, as explained in the HCSCC’s resolution’s final point. “If a referendum vote fails or is not ordered, the HCSCC respectfully requests that the Commissioners Court directs HCSCC to prepare a plan to decommission and subsequently demolish the Reliant Astrodome.” The threat of demolition, of another patch of pavement and parking, hangs behind the forthcoming decision, whichever form it may take.

So if you have an idea, go ahead and let HCSCC know about it by June 10.

A STEM vision for the Astrodome

Tory Gattis has an idea for what to do with the Astrodome.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Where can America’s kids go to be inspired toward careers in our country’s most crucial need: science, technology, engineering and math (aka STEM)? Something far beyond their little local science or children’s museum?

Houston could be that city, building not only on our energy, chemical, aerospace and biomedical industries, but also on our top-rated and very popular existing STEM museums like Space Center Houston, The Museum of Natural Science, The Health Museum, The Children’s Museum, Moody Gardens and The George Observatory. But we really need one additional anchor “mega-attraction” that will give us critical mass and undisputed STEM leadership. That flagship would be the National Museum of Technology and Innovation, the world’s largest engineering and technology museum – something in the class of D.C.’s National Air and Space Museum (the second-most popular museum in the world), Germany’s Deutsches Museum, San Francisco’s Exploratorium or Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. It could even be one of the Smithsonian’s network of national museums, which have started to move out beyond Washington, D.C., like Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York and the Smithsonian affiliate, National Museum of Industrial History in Bethlehem, Penn.

Think of it as Houston’s version of Paris’ Louvre or London’s British Museum. And with the right design, it could attract STEM-related academic and commercial conferences from around the world to Houston (imagine a Davos of STEM).

By showing students stories of the great historical innovators who invented technology to address civilization’s problems, we can inspire America’s – and especially Houston’s – youth into STEM careers. They can see how they could become the next Edison, Bell, Ford, Gates, Jobs or Musk. But this institution would not just look backward at history. It would inspire kids into STEM fields by framing the great challenges of the present and future, such as the 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering by the National Academy of Engineering, including limitless fusion energy, health informatics, better medicines, artificial intelligence, carbon sequestration, preventing nuclear terror, securing cyberspace, advancing personalized eLearning and more.

Where can Houston find a grand structure to house such a grand institution? Yes, the Astrodome.

The problem with most of the Astrodome proposals so far is their isolation from a bigger civic vision. If a purely for-profit enterprise were feasible, it would have happened by now. Houston’s philanthropic community needs to be inspired to invest in the future of the Astrodome (in partnership with Harris County).

[…]

County officials have already stated a STEM museum is one of the best ideas they’ve been presented for repurposing the Astrodome, but they want to see philanthropic backing. The Getty Trust stepped up to build the spectacular $1.3 billion Getty Center in Los Angeles. Ross Perot’s family donated $50 million to kick off a successful $185 million campaign to build the stunning new Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas. Bernard Marcus, founder of Home Depot, donated $250 million to build the world’s largest aquarium in Atlanta. Does Houston have such a visionary leader?

We certainly have no shortage of people who could do this. The tricky part is getting one of them on board with a vision like what Tory outlines. It’s obviously a massive commitment, and you still have to find a way to bring that vision to reality. It’s also not certain that a for-profit enterprise isn’t feasible, since the discussion about the Dome’s fate didn’t really begin until after the economic downturn of 2008. However, if a commercial project is not worth doing now, it likely will never be. Any billionaires out there want to take a crack at this?

Meanwhile, today is the day that the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation votes on what it wants to recommend to Harris County to do about the Dome. Here are some more details about what they might have in mind.

Officials on Monday said it does not involve a specific project or proposal for what to do with the empty stadium, but rather a timeline for making a decision.

“This vote is not project specific or project related,” said Willie Loston, the agency’s executive director.

Loston said they have “established a timeline for within which any number of decisions could be made” and that “All the options are still there, but we’ve laid out a timeline for that to basically come to a head.”

What kind of timeline?

Loston declined to specify, saying only that “it’s probably a good time to try and bring this debate to an end” with the city bidding to host the Super Bowl in 2017 and the county receiving pressure from the Houston Texans and Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo to do something with the decaying structure well before then or risk losing out.

A spokesman for Harris County Judget Ed Emmett, noting that you never know what’s going to happen until it happens, said they are expecting a vote on a timetable that will result in the Sports Corps. essentially shoving the ticking clock into the hands of the Harris County Commissioners Court this summer.

Joe Stinebaker said the timetable is June, when the county adopts its capital projects plan, meaning the Sports Corps. would gather and analyze proposals on what to do with the dome and present the best ones to commissioners court late that month.

We’ll know soon enough what they have up their sleeves. Before we get to that, however, Hair Balls notes that the original report of forthcoming action by the HCSCC wasn’t quite accurate.

“[The Chronicle’s report] was just wrong,” Kevin Hoffman, HCSCC’s deputy executive director, told Hair Balls. “There’s a lot of speculation in the community regarding it, but we’ve been very careful and diligent in trying to get accurate information out.”

Joe Stinebaker, the director of communications in the Harris County judge’s office, was at least a bit softer in his judgment of the original story

“[They] got it kind of wrong,” Stinebaker told Hair Balls.

While we wait for a retraction — which, hey, might not come; that’s the blessing of anonymous sourcing — we’ll try to detail for you what’s actually going on with the HCSCC this week. The board will indeed meet this week, coming together to decide the next step on potential movement on the Dome. But there’s no “unspecified plan” that the public has thus far been kept in the dark about. Rather, according to Hoffman, the board will be looking for a resolution on a time-frame to have a set of plans to move to the Commissioners Court by June 25th, when the court will hold its annual Capital Improvements hearing.

“This is just the beginning of process — the process is going to be moving towards having something to present the Commissioners Court” by June 25th, Hoffman said. “We want to have the opportunity to put something before them, something well-thought-out that can either address a public purpose or have some private financing associated [with] the resolution.”

While Hoffman did say that there would be a vetting process involved with certain proposals — they’re not simply going to shunt every idea directly to the court — Stinebaker confirmed that he believed HCSCC would present both private and public proposals on June 25th.

“I think it’s a fairly legitimate expectation … that they’re going to evaluate and determine feasibility of privately financed proposals — to build hotels, to build indoor ski slopes — and they’ll say by June 25th, they’ll have everyone’s stuff on record,” Stinebaker said. “They’re also going to collate public use recommendations, how county taxpayers could pay to convert it into an open-air park, or an indoor festival venue. Or, No. 3 — they could say that it could be torn down.”

And the reason why it’s all happening now is so that there could be a ballot item this November to finalize the plan and have the community ratify it, whatever it may be. That’s faster than what we had heard before, which suggested HCSCC would make its recommendation by the end of this year, for a vote sometime in 2014. Maybe the county is taking the concerns about the Super Bowl bid more seriously. Speaking of which, and just because it amused me, I want to note that former Secretary of State James Baker has been told by the NFL that he can’t participate in the city’s presentation to the owners because he’s a celebrity and his presence might make them too starry-eyed to be able to objectively evaluate the city’s bid for Super Bowl LI. Or something like that. Good thing we weren’t planning to send Beyonce to make our case, I guess.

UPDATE: If you can get past the embarrassing typo in the headline, this Chron editorial calls for instant runoff voting to determine the Dome’s fate. I’m not sure that would provide more political cover for whatever gets decided than a “normal” vote would, but I do agree that this isn’t a straight-up yes or no question. It’s a choice between renovation (plan to be determined), demolition, and going back to the drawing board if neither the recommended renovation plan nor demolition is seen as acceptable. As such, a different approach to the referendum may be the best way to go about it.

Someone will do something sort of soon about the Dome

I can’t be more specific than that.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

While Houston’s Super Bowl Host Committee continues its bid to win the vote for Super Bowl LI, the next step in the possible demolition of the Astrodome could be taken next week by the board of directors of the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation.

The HCSCC presides over Reliant Park, including Reliant Stadium and the Astrodome. The board of directors is expected to vote on an unspecified plan concerning what to do with the Astrodome, according to a person familiar with the process.

If the board approves the plan, the next step is for it to go before the Harris County Commissioner Court. If county commissioners give their approval, the plan could eventually be voted on by the public.

I must confess, I didn’t realize that the HCSCC played an active role in determining the Dome’s future – I knew they did all those studies about what to do with the Dome, but I thought it was all on Commissioner’s Court to make the decisions. I guess it makes sense that the HCSCC would offer a recommendation as well, it’s just that they hadn’t done so on any of the previous What To Do With The Dome exercises. So, we don’t know what plan they might be recommending, or even what plans are under consideration for recommending, we don’t know who says they’ll be taking this action, and of course we don’t know when Commissioners Court might take action. I think that about covers it.

UPDATE: The Houston Business Journal fills in a tantalizing detail:

[HCSCC] is scheduled to hold a board meeting on April 17. The agenda includes “(d)iscussion and possible action to approve a resolution regarding the future of the Reliant Astrodome” and “(d)iscussion of a nondisclosure agreement with the University of Southern California regarding a potential project related to the Reliant Astrodome.”

I can’t wait to see what USC has in mind for the Dome.