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Willie Loston

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

County disputes cheaper Dome demolition price tag

It’s on.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Harris County officials on Thursday disputed an estimate released this week showing it would cost $29 million to implode the vacant Reliant Astrodome and build a 1,600-space parking lot in two and a half years.

The figure, calculated by local firms Linbeck Construction and Walter P. Moore and Associates after a three-month study commissioned by the Houston Texans and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, is less than half the estimated price tag released last year by consultants hired by the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., the county agency that runs Reliant Park.

During a media tour of the 48-year-old condemned facility on Thursday, Sports Corp. Chairman Edgar Colon suggested that the latest estimate did not take into account all the costs that would be incurred in blowing up the behemoth structure, on which the county still owes some $30 million in construction debt but has sat vacant since 2000 when the Houston Astros moved to Minute Maid Park downtown.

“There’s more to it than just $29 million,” Colon said. “You have to look through it, the things that they exclude explicitly. I’m not challenging the credibility of their experts, I’m just saying that we have to have our own experts look at those numbers.”

Linbeck Vice President John Go said the firms stand by the findings of the study and the price tag.

“The Houston Texans and the Rodeo asked us to develop a methodology and a report that will stand up against questions because they knew that someone might question it,” Go said, noting that Walter P. Moore was the structural engineer when the stadium was built in the mid-1960s and again when it was expanded in 1989.

I rather doubt there’s anything seriously wrong with the methodology used in this estimate. Even County Judge Ed Emmett admitted after the Rodeo/Texans report came out that the previous estimate of demolition costs by the county had been too high. His complaint was that the report didn’t present any other options for what to do with the Dome, and that until the question of what to do with it is settled it’s premature to talk about demolition. When might we get a decision from Comissioner’s Court about what to do?

Pressed by reporters, Colon declined to give a firm time line for when the agency may bring a proposal to commissioners but said he hopes it does not take more than five years.

Colon said part of the reason the decision has been delayed is that interest from developers in rehabilitating the site dropped off during the recession, but he said it is increasing again with the improving economy, and the Sports Corp. is receiving and evaluating new ideas.

“What I think is that it’s in the best interest of the taxpayer to continue to explore all the options in order to make a decision,” said Colon, who brushed off concerns raised by the Texans and Rodeo that the aging, vacant Astrodome would hurt Houston’s chances of getting to host the Super Bowl in 2017.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell dropped that hint about converting the Dome into parking at the NFL owners’ meeting. Commissioners Court hasn’t indicated they’re in any rush to make a decision, so I guess they’re not too concerned about that, either. All I know is that at this point we’re in agreement that demolishing the Dome won’t be that expensive. The question is what if anything are the viable alternatives to demolition. It would be nice to get some answers to that sooner rather than later. Hair Balls and Campos have more.

How much would it really cost to tear down the Astrodome?

Perhaps not as much as Harris Country officials have been saying.

The Harris County Domed Stadium in better times

The expected price tag to demolish the Reliant Astrodome that Harris County officials have cited in recent years far exceeds the cost of razing other stadiums across the country, including domes of comparable size.

Officials with the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp. are preparing to release a study next month comparing the cost of knocking down the Dome with the price of renovating it in several forms.

Willie Loston, executive director of the Sports Corp., said the estimated cost of demolition is lower than that produced by a similar study two years ago, but declined to say the new number before members of Commissioners Court are informed.

The 2010 study estimated the cost of demolition at $78 million, including $10 million for asbestos removal and $10 million to put a “plaza” on the site after demolition. That does not include the $29.9 million the county still owes on the building, which has sat empty since the city deemed it unfit for occupancy in 2009, and has not been home to a team for more than a decade.

The priciest stadium demolition a Houston Chronicle examination found was $22 million for New York’s Yankee Stadium, which was completed in 2010.

Indianapolis’ RCA Dome cost $13 million to raze in 2008.

The Seattle Kingdome was imploded in 2000 for about $10 million, as was Giants Stadium in New Jersey, which was razed in 2010.

[…]

“Wow,” said Mike Taylor, executive director of the National Association of Demolition Contractors, when told of the estimate. “I should go back in the business if they’re going to give me $78 million to bring that down. I know my boots are somewhere.”

Mike Dokell, demolition division manager for Houston-based Cherry Demolition, and Jim Redyke, of Tulsa-based Dykon Explosive Demolition Corp., agreed.

“I think their estimate includes a lot of contingencies and a lot of worst-case scenarios and when they go out for bid they’ll be pleasantly surprised,” Dokell said. “The 78 (million) number includes a lot of things a demo guy is typically not going to include.”

I don’t know if the study Loston cites is the same as the one ordered by Commissioners Court last year to ask once again the “what do we do with the Dome?” question or if it’s some other study. The 2010 study that cites a $78 million price tag is interesting because the proposals that were put forward at the time cited a figure of $128 million, while a subsequent public opinion poll put it at $100 million. You have to wonder where those other numbers came from. I have to agree with Commissioner Morman when he says that we need accurate information before making a decision about this. Maybe a lower price tag on demolition would change people’s minds and maybe it wouldn’t. But we shouldn’t use a wildly overinflated number as a reason not to do it.

On cities and counties

I’m really getting tired of all this BS.

Smarting from a $353,000 bill for the Reliant complex under the city of Houston’s new drainage fee, Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday discussed seeking legislation to let it keep city sales taxes generated at county facilities.

[…]

The idea of capturing city sales tax was floated by Commissioner Steve Radack, a reliable critic of city policies. The suggestion, however, was welcomed by the rest of the court, some members of which expressed dismay at the city’s actions.

The city collects an estimated $950,000 in sales taxes from annual events at the Reliant complex, including the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo and conventions. More sales taxes are generated inside Reliant Stadium, but those go to pay debt on the building, said Harris County Sports & Convention Corp. Executive Director Willie Loston.

The eligible sales taxes, beverage taxes and taxes generated by visitors’ meals and shopping trips around town all could be targeted in the legislation, Loston said.

“Since they want to nickel and dime us, we might as well go for the big bucks,” Radack said. “We could keep that money at (Reliant), which would help continue to improve it.”

The city drainage fee is intended to penalize structures that contribute to water runoff. Reliant generates revenue, city officials reasoned, and should pay. Other county properties are exempt.

“Like many of Commissioner Radack’s rants, this one is ill-informed and ill-advised,” said Houston Mayor Annise Parker. “He is asking Houston businesses and homeowners to pay more so that Reliant Stadium can get a free pass on the drainage fee.”

A few months ago, I was invited to speak at a Rotary breakfast. I talked about the importance of paying attention to local government, which I said has a much greater impact on your daily life than what goes on in DC but which tends to get less scrutiny. Someone asked me a question about waste, and I told him that if you had to design a government structure for the Houston region from scratch, you’d never come up with what we actually have. You’d want something more broadly focused, with less duplication and not as hindered by arbitrary boundaries. Something like that would surely be better able to solve regional issues, and be much less prone to the kind of penny ante pissing matches that we’re so used to around here.

We’re not going to get the chance to reinvent our government structure, of course. But that doesn’t mean I can’t think about doing things differently. And the question I find myself asking is why should Houston be a part of Harris County? As a taxpayer in the city of Houston, it’s hard for me to see what benefit I get from that arrangement. They don’t build roads that I drive on, Sheriff’s deputies don’t patrol my neighborhood, and so on. More to the point, there’s no one on Commissioners Court that gives a damn about the city of Houston, and three fourths of their combined budget is controlled by people who are unaccountable to me or anyone else electorally. So why should we put up with this? Why not get out?

The idea of having the city of Houston secede from Harris County is, I fully admit, crazy. The fact that the city’s boundaries resemble a Mandelbrot set, and that some portions of the city are connected by nothing more than a road is an issue. The fact that other cities like Bellaire, West U, and the Villages off I-10 are wholly contained within the city’s boundaries is another. I figure if the County Clerk can tell who’s in the city and who’s not at election time we can deal with the former, and for the latter those other cities can either join us in forming our own county, or they can have their own. Lord knows, there are plenty of counties out in West Texas with fewer people than what they’d have. Think about the benefits of shedding all that unincorporated and non-Houston territory that the Harris County Commissioners love so much:

– Our county property taxes would actually be used to benefit roads, parks, bridges, and whatever else in the city of Houston instead of subsidizing their construction and maintenance elsewhere. Without that extra burden, I wouldn’t be surprised if we could lower our property taxes as a result.

– Our County Commissioners – I wish I could call my proposed new county Houston County, but we already have one of those – would actually be accountable to the people who live in Houston.

– Our Commissioners Court might actually be a reflection of the population that it serves.

You might say that if the smaller cities went their own way and the only entity within my proposed City Of Houston County, that there would be no real need for a separate county government. I would not disagree with that, and it goes back to the point I made originally, which is that if we were doing this over from scratch we wouldn’t do it the way we are doing it today. I understand the role of county government where there are no cities, and where there are mostly smaller cities that benefit from consolidating certain functions like criminal justice and road maintenance. I can see the sense of it in fast growing suburban areas where some central entity is needed for planning and managing that growth. At least, I see the sense of it in places where county government works well with the various municipalities it contains, as I understand is the case in Fort Bend. But more and more I don’t see the purpose of having a county government where there’s a big city. Maybe this view is overly colored by the longstanding dysfunction in the Houston/Harris relationship. Maybe we’re the only ones that have this problem, though I suspect there are people in Dallas who are now shaking their heads. The City of Houston, which still represents a majority of the population in Harris County, is getting a raw deal, and there’s damn little it can do about it under the current structure. We can continue to take it, or we can say “Enough!” and demand something that works to our benefit and not to our detriment. I know what my preference is.

UPDATE: In response to some feedback that I’ve received, I want to clarify that my beef here is primarily with the Commissioners, who have the power and the money and the lack of electoral accountability. I have no complaint about County Judge Ed Emmett, who does make an honest effort to work with the city and not get involved in the pettiness that so frustrates me. There’s no reason why the way he operates couldn’t be the norm, and that makes it even more frustrating.

Some day, we will do something about the Astrodome

So says Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.

“We on the Commissioners’ Court are going to have to make a decision, and I think it needs to be made this year, as to what we are going to propose to the voters,” he said. “It is a challenge, because every time we take a poll and ask people in public gatherings, ‘Do you want to tear down the Dome?’ 80 percent say no. When I ask what they want to do with it, that’s when it gets to be tricky.”

The Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., which operates the county-owned Reliant Park complex, last year offered three scenarios. One option, totaling about $88 million, would demolish the Dome and use the land for a fountain and public space. It also would include about $300 million to add convention space at Reliant Park and replace Reliant Arena. Other options would retain and redesign the Dome and update Reliant Park’s convention facilities at a cost ranging up to $1.35 billion in private and public funds.

Willie Loston, executive director of the Sports and Convention Corp., said the agency hopes to ask commissioners for money this year to fund feasibility studies on future uses for the Dome.

Emmett said it could be a year, or more, before significant steps are taken on the Dome’s future step.

“That would be OK, as long as people know what is going to happen and where we want to go, even if we can’t start it,” he said. “But I do think it’s time to make a decision on where we want to go with it.”

Can you believe it’s been over six months since we first heard about the three options for the Dome, none of which were particularly well liked? My interpretation of Judge Emmett’s remarks is basically “Look, when the economy improves to the point that someone can finally get financing for one of these hairbrained schemes for the Dome, we’ll do something about it. In the meantime, just deal with it.” He might phrase it a bit more delicately than that, but you get the idea.

Do we really want to save the Dome?

According to the Department of Anecdotal Evidence, we do.

Respondents to an online survey run by Reliant Park’s landlord “overwhelmingly” support saving the Astrodome, according to the official in charge of the survey.

Willie Loston, executive director of the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation, declined to release a detailed breakdown of the 5,800 votes that have been cast for one of three options for Reliant Park’s future. He said only that the combined votes for the two options that include renovations for the Astrodome outnumber those in favor of razing it.

The results, he said, “overwhelmingly show a desire to maintain the building.” Loston said the results will help shape a recommendation to Commissioners Court, which controls the fate of Reliant Park.

I don’t know about you, but I’m going to need some corroboration on this. I have no problem believing that there’s plenty of sentiment to save the Dome – I have some of that myself, though perhaps not as much as others – but the options for saving the Dome are kind of expensive, and all rely on public money. I don’t know how much I believe that people are really clamoring for that at this time. When there’s a single plan, and a final price tag, then we’ll get a handle on how popular the idea is. Swamplot has more.

More on the three options for the Dome

As promised last week, we now have more information on the three options for the Dome.

The Sports & Convention Corporation hosted a news conference Monday to present the broad outlines of three possible plans for the 45-year-old Astrodome and 35-year-old Reliant Arena:

Reliant Park Plaza plan: Raze the Dome for $128 million; replace Reliant Arena and make other improvements to park; build a hotel (with no public money) with as many as 1,500 rooms. Total price tag of $873 million.

Astrodome Multipurpose: Gut the Dome and add a new level of floor space, a science and technology center, a planetarium, solar panels on the roof that form a world map for $324 million to $374 million; keep other elements of plaza plan. Total price tag of $1.08 billion to $1.13 billion.

Astrodome Renaissance: Multipurpose plan plus add more Astrodome features, including conference space, a series of interactive exhibits that would allow users to simulate space travel and deep sea exploration, museums, an alternative energy center and a movie studio. The Astrodome portion would cost $588 million. Total price tag of $1.35 billion.

Mark Miller, general manager of Reliant Park, called the last option “the dream picture,” and said, “This is where we would like to go with the property.”

You can see more of the options, and give your feedback, here. There’s no mention of a privately-financed hotel there for Option 1, just green space as we originally heard. I guess once you have the green space, whatever you intend to use it for, you can wait around for a private-financing Prince Charming to come along at your leisure.

[County Judge Ed] Emmett favors minimal improvements to the Dome that would essentially convert it into an indoor fairgrounds.

“(A) middle option preserves the Dome but doesn’t lock us into a major cost item,” Emmett said. It buys time, too, for the possibility of a private developer coming along with a proposal to lease the Dome for a grander project.

That’s Option 2 on the Reliant Park webpage. I don’t quite understand the disconnect between what was presented at the press conference and what they’re actually soliciting feedback on, but this option has some appeal to me as well. Hair Balls has more, including the obligatory comments from people who don’t quite grasp the difference between city and county government, and who apparently missed the bit about these plans needing to be voted on by the public.

UPDATE: Swamplot has more.

Three options for the Dome

We’ve been talking for a long time now about what is to become of the Astrodome. Harris County officials have some possible scenarios to discuss next week as part of a master plan for Reliant Park. Like it or not, demolition is on the table.

If the Dome is demolished, it would be replaced by a park-like setting rather than parking spaces, [Willie Loston, executive director of the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation] said. And demolition, he said, would be more complicated than it was for Texas Stadium in Irving, the Dallas Cowboys’ former stadium, which was ringed by three freeways with no other buildings nearby.

“This (the Astrodome) is in the middle of an operating complex,” Loston said. “I’ve got football games I’m getting ready for (at Reliant Stadium) in two months.”

I’ll never object to the addition of park space, but I’m wondering how much use it would get. I can see some possibilities, but I also have this vision of the place being basically abandoned except when there’s an event at Reliant. I’ll need to see some details.

The other options start with the same premise: The Dome’s outer shell would remain standing, but the interior would be gutted, removing seats, concourses and skyboxes, and a 300,000- to 400,000-square-foot floor would be installed at street level above the current Dome floor, which is 32 feet below street level.

“When you walked into the Dome, you would walk right onto this new floor surface,” Loston said. “We would be getting rid of the hole in the ground and rehabbing the building.”

Potential uses in a basic reconfiguration could include a planetarium and a institute for science, technology, education and mathematics, established through non-public funding. With portable seats, the Dome also could accommodate sports events, indoor festivals or events in conjunction with the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

The third option — “the second option on steroids,” as Loston described it — would include space for meeting rooms, conference rooms and laboratories, built on what are now the Dome’s fifth and seventh levels, plus a collection of museums and a movie soundstage.

All this sounds great, but the key words in there are “non-public funding”. The reason why this has dragged on for as long as it has is precisely because there has not been a private entity that has been able to provide a plan for the Dome and the money to make it happen. How is this different from those previous efforts? I guess we’ll learn more next week, but for now color me skeptical.

Once again mulling the fate of the Astrodome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Pity the poor Astrodome

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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