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The saddest Eighth Wonder in the world: Why was the Astrodome allowed to fall apart in first place?

The saddest Eighth Wonder in the world: Why was the Astrodome allowed to fall apart in first place?

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Ariel view of the Astrodome: It still cuts a striking pose, Photo by Jack Opatrany/Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau
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Reliant Stadium, left, towers over the Astrodome. Courtesy of Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau
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A postcard from the Astrodome's first year in 1965.
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My how time flies. It is approaching two years already since Harris County residents were presented a trio of options in which to vote for the future of the Astrodome in Reliant Park.

Well, we voted and we’re waiting.

I caught up with attorney Edgardo Colón to get a handle on where things currently stand. Colón is chairman of the group charged with oversight of all of Reliant Park, that being the five-member Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation which was formed in 1999.

What I learned is that nothing is being done until results of the latest study come in, possibly this week.

But no matter what the consultants recommend for the future it will not make up for the transgressions and neglect of the past by those whose very job was to take care of Houston’s most famous landmark and ensure it remained an income producer.

 The delay to do something, ANYTHING, over the years to keep the building operable has cost Harris County (you, the taxpayer) enormous potential income.

 The delay to do something, ANYTHING, over the years to keep the building operable has cost Harris County (you, the taxpayer) enormous potential income. For 13 years now, the Sports & Convention Corporation board has been the steward of the Dome. Thirteen is a lot of years to go by and have such valuable property be worse off than when they started! 

Not only that, the county paid then-Astros owner Drayton McLane $18.8 million to buy out his lease and give the Sports & Convention Corporation full control of the Astrodome. Since that time, the building’s net event-related income has nosedived and that’s taking into account there was no more baseball.

From 2002 to 2008 (the years I’ve been able to get from the county so far) income fell each year from over $3.5 million to $103,596 the year before it was closed. The total event-related net income for all seven years was $5,801,256. (Cost of insurance, utilities, debt and interest over that time period was somewhere around $30-35 million.)

Fiscal Year   Total Attendance   # of Events      Event Net Income

2001-02          1,179,492                    127                        $3,658,181
 
2002-03             451,415                      86                        $1,076,778
 
2003-04             309,051                      56                           $598,476
 
2004-05               81,857                      18                           $295,034

2005-06                 9,866                        4                             $69,191

2006-07               22,777                        7                           $103,596

2007-08                 3,279                        1                                        0

Total               2,057,737                    299                       $5,801,256 

Look at the timeline. In 1999 the Dome was fully operational, fresh from its final season of the Astros. It was still in good enough shape for the Rodeo until they moseyed over to Reliant Stadium in 2003. The Rodeo continued to reserve the Dome’s field for some events. And of course it was safe enough to hold 23,000 Katrina evacuees in 2005.

Or was it? 

Either the Astrodome wasn’t up to safety code back then or it somehow managed to fall apart between the years 2005 and 2008 and blindfolds were worn during those yearly inspections.

Who's in charge?

The Sports & Convention Corporation is a public, not-for-profit governmental corporation. The board members are appointed by the Harris County Commissioners. In most cases, when a person is appointed to the board, he (and they are all men) just keeps getting reappointed and reappointed and reappointed.

John Montalbano has been on the board all of its 13 years. The late Charles “Sonny” Sowell was also an original board member and served 12 years until he retired.  (M. Robert Dussler took Sowell’s seat last year.) Felix Cook Jr. and Bill T. Teague are also long-time members of the board. Edgardo Colón, chairman, is into his fourth year, replacing the original chairman Michael D. Surface.

That last name should ring a bell. Surface was repeatedly reappointed to that top post for eight years by his good buddy Jerry Eversole, a County Commissioner at the time. Last year, the duo admitted that Surface had given Eversole cash and gifts in exchange for steering contacts and appointments to Surface and his companies. In a plea deal, Eversole resigned as Commissioner and pled guilty to one felony charge. 

At the onset, the County commissioners apparently had great faith in this new corporation they created. So great in fact, they bought, as I mentioned earlier, what remained of Drayton McLane’s lease after he moved his Astros to their new stadium. Yet by 2008, everything had gone to hell in a hand basket.

Houston was stunned by news reports that their internationally famous icon didn’t pass building and fire code inspections and was shut down. Imagine a “Keep Out” sign posted on the Eighth Wonder of the World! It was, and still is, shameful.

At the same time the Rodeo was cranking up as the use of the Dome’s field was critical for its cows and cowboys. The powers-that-be scurried to make improvements to get a temporary certificate of occupancy. (An effort that probably made the calf scramble look like a cake walk.) Landing that certificate cost over a half million dollars for a few days use.

Let’s add up just a few things: $18.8 million for the lease buy-out, $517,000 for repairs to qualify for temporary occupancy for the Rodeo, $3,210 for that final inspection and permit, $50,000 for a workshop to study future use of the Astrodome, $50,000 more for consultants to study the workshop study; grand total is $19,420,210.

To put that into perspective, the average property owner in Harris County pays $2,761 in taxes. The amount spent above is equivalent to what 7,033 property owners shell out to the county each year.

Does it bother anyone else that while we struggle to pay our taxes, the Sports & Convention Corporation spent that whopping amount and we still have a building doing nothing? And that millions upon millions of potential revenue have been lost? And that whatever grand plan is in its future is going to cost us millions more?

 Does it bother anyone else that while we struggle to pay our taxes, the Sports & Convention Corporation spent that whopping amount and we still have a building doing nothing? 

 In 2007, the year before Astrodome was closed, there were only seven events in the building for a paltry annual net income of $103,596.  Did anybody see ads that the Dome was available for lease for private parties or events? Were there promotions or incentives publicized? Did anyone know that you could have rented the field for a bar mitzvah? (Someone actually did, for a reported $15-18,000.)

There should have been an aggressive campaign to book that building as much as possible to cover its operating costs, insurance, debt and utilities. Those costs don’t stop just because the building isn’t being used.

Some will argue that building and fire codes have changed over the years and that a structure built back in 1965 doesn’t have what it takes to meet today’s standards. Sorry, but that bull don’t ride.

Code requirements didn’t change overnight, but over time. The Sports & Convention Corporation should have seen to it that safety improvements were made all along. Every single year. It was their fiduciary responsibility. It was our money and our building. They also should have worked diligently to determine what violations might be dismissed because the Astrodome was built prior to certain requirements. Some historical properties are “grandfathered” in for this reason and not subject to all the modern day codes.

I asked chairman Colón if the Sports & Convention Corporation had ever gotten their grandfathering issues resolved with the City of Houston and the fire marshal. He said they’d “stopped researching that,” choosing not to spend any more money but rather to wait to “figure out what to do with building first.”

I didn’t know it cost money to sit down with representatives of those inspection departments to figure out what improvements would NOT be required. Surely, the requirements for accommodating 65,000 boisterous baseball fans don’t apply to the building today and they could cut the building some slack.

What to do next?

Getting back to that poll offering options for the Dome’s next life, 80 percent of voters favored giving it a make-over as opposed to demolition. Granted, the options given weren’t exactly practical — soaring up to over a billion dollars — but it was telling.  However, there should have also been a bare bones option to patch up the Dome just enough so that at least some of the building could be rented to defray its ongoing costs until its future was determined.

So we continue to wait while a once proud monument to one of the greatest accomplishments of mankind of its era languishes and is a testament to how a handful of people have let it become an embarrassing money pit.

Very soon the public is going to be introduced to another grand plan as a result of the latest study. Whatever that plan may be for the future it will take money from our pockets to help make it happen. Before it does, taxpayers should consider if they want the same people who have run it into the ground to continue to handle its rebirth.

On Wednesday at 3 p.m.,  the Sports & Convention Corporation will have a board meeting and it’s open to the public. They will meet in the Commissioners Court conference room, at the Harris County Courthouse, 1001 Preston, downtown Houston. This will be a perfect opportunity for them to explain why our valuable asset was allowed to deteriorate our money to be wasted.

Hopefully, there will be some TV cameras rolling.

Cynthia Neely first got involved in efforts to save the Astrodome as a partner in Astrodome Studios, a for-profit company that proposed that the Astrodome be turned into a movie studio. She left the company two years ago.

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