Your tax dollars at work

Quit fiddling around: It's time to do something about the Astrodome now

Quit fiddling around: It's time to do something about the Astrodome now

Will lights ever go on again in the Dome?
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When the Dome opened in 1965, it was a wonder.
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No matter how you feel about the Astrodome — blow it up or fix it up — your pockets are getting picked.

The time has come to ask tough questions of our Harris County Commissioners.  It’s time for taxpayers to pull up their boot straps, organize, and hold commissioners accountable for wasting our tax dollars when it comes to the unused giant.

Property taxpayers should be outraged at the lack of aggressive activity on the part of the commissioners to turn the building into a moneymaker instead of a money guzzler.

What a colossal loss of potential revenue, jobs and opportunities because the Astrodome has not been kept operational, even if only in a “bare bones” state. 

Relatively speaking, it would take far less money to get some parts of the Astrodome up to code and operational to start generating revenue. Last spring, Reliant Park General Manager Mark Miller shared figures with KPRC Local 2 investigative reporter Robert Arnold.

"It costs the county between $2.5 million and $3 million to maintain the vacant Dome," he confirmed. Miller also indicated that several repairs had been completed, but estimated it would "still cost between $5 to $8 million" to address other problems cited by the city and to prevent further deterioration.

In the same report, Judge Ed Emmett said, "A decision on the Dome will come this summer when the county puts together its capital improvement budget." 

That was last summer.

And if you think tearing down the Astrodome is the cheapest, easiest answer, read on.

Until about a year ago I was part of a company that had proposed a movie studio as a possible new use for the Astrodome. Though I am no longer affiliated with that project, I still think using the Dome for production would bring much-needed jobs and new industry to town.

But that’s not what this is about.  It’s about what I learned in the process regarding county government.

As a Houston resident who recently sent Harris County a whopping check for property taxes, I hate knowing that commissioners have thrown millions upon millions of past tax dollars at the mammoth structure to keep it from imploding, but have done absolutely nothing to make it useful so it can generate day-to-day income.

While working on the movie studio project, I participated in numerous meetings with county officials, including Judge Emmett, then-Commissioner Sylvia Garcia, Gabriel Vasquez director of economic development at the time, and key representatives of the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation who oversee all of Reliant Park, including the Astrodome. I also met with officials of the Houston Texans and the Houston Rodeo.

This experience gave me a better look at how Commissioners Court and the Sports and Convention Corp. function. It was a stunner of a civics lesson. I was shocked by the power held by the commissioners. I was appalled at the lack of transparency of the Sports and Convention Corp. 

I sat in on a couple of board meetings of the Sports and Convention Corp. If there was anything on their agenda of any significance, like the Astrodome, these five men got up and went behind closed doors for an "executive session" and came back out with zipped lips. Visitors were left clueless. Board meetings, by the way, are open to the public. Meeting notices, however, are only posted at the Family Law Center and on the locked door of Sports and Convention Corp.'s office.  Which is located in Reliant Stadium's south lobby.  Which is past the guard gate.

Neither locations are exactly on everyone's fly path.

Regardless of  whether you love or hate the Astrodome, the building is owned by the county and in effect belongs to all of us taxpayers. And you are paying for it.

Consider these options:

  • It would cost about $128 million to tear it down — that's $128 million of public funding (which includes the existing $40 million bond debt that has to be satisfied no matter what is done).
  • To repair the Dome just enough to become habitable (and able to produce at least some revenue), the Sports and Convention Corp says it would cost $30 million (though some reports say less).

Hmmm …$128 million to end up with nothing versus $30 million to stop the bleeding and still have an historic building with both revenue and jobs potential.

The Commissioners have allowed it to deteriorate, not protecting our investment —  even though it is likely the county’s biggest asset; the Astrodome’s doors were slammed shut in July 2008 due to fire code and building inspection violations.

Had somebody been on the ball, these problems would not have come as a surprise. Modifications could have been made all along to maintain its certificate of occupancy and thereby its ability to create revenue. It could have been self-supporting, or on its way towards being self-supporting, and not have wasted at least $3 million in taxes every year to do nothing.

Instead, since the Astrodome has been permanently closed in 2008, taxpayers have forked over a minimum of $9 million for it to collect dust. If the Commissioners had begun correcting those violations three years ago, some of that money could have gone into repairs, not down the toilet.

Most property owners and landlords who have the means fix their leaky roofs, have their furnaces checked before turning on each winter, repair a broken window to keep the rain out, and that kind of thing. It's called upkeep. It is the responsibility of the County Commissioners to do the same, particularly since we are entrusting them with our money. It is their fiduciary responsibility.

Even more sickening is that commissioners gave exclusivity to a hotel development group for four years to raise the money for their grand vision for the Astrodome. That “wait period” cost us around $12 million in tax dollars! In essence, taxpayers paid to keep the Astrodome on life support while private developers sought funding for their deal.

Couldn't the hotel developers have been given a lease agreement so they could have more readily raised their money and all the while been required to pay the tab to reserve the Dome for their project? In the end, the developers couldn't make it work — at our expense.

Commissioners are now reviewing a budget draft for the county’s fiscal year that begins this month. The county auditor says the shortfall may be as much as $162 million. Major cuts will be necessary in departments such as public health and constable precincts. Hundreds of jobs and services are anticipated to be lost.  How many constables could we have retained with the millions used just to keep the Astrodome doors shut?  How many aerial sprays to combat West Nile virus?  How many children’s immunizations at health care clinics? How many roads repaired? How much more work towards flood control?

It’s time to make the Astrodome a high priority and treat it like it’s, figuratively, still on fire. (There was an electrical fire recently.) Our tax dollars are going up in smoke. Commissioners need to do whatever possible to generate revenue from this building now, until something bigger and better happens.

The evolution might actually become the solution.  

Questions that need direct answers:

  • What incentives have been created to attract investors and developers?
  • Why, when the public was presented three Astrodome options to vote on last summer, was there not an option to simply spend the least amount possible to get the Astrodome’s doors open and rent space until something better comes along?
  • Would insurance cover the $40 million bond debt if the Dome went down in a blaze?
  • Why haven’t the commissioners assigned someone whose sole purpose is to figure out how to make money with this building? That person’s salary would be a pittance compared to the funds spent each year for it to just rust.
  • Why haven’t the Commissioners applied for the Brownfields Redevelopment Program funding? Minute Maid Park and the Federal Reserve Bank on Allen Parkway are beneficiaries.
  • Has the Department of Homeland Security been asked for help in equipping the Astrodome to use as a hurricane shelter? Next time a hurricane like Ike rips through Houston and people are stranded again on the freeways, will the commissioners have the Astrodome ready as a safe haven?

If the county can’t afford the $30 million to make it habitable, what will they do if it disintegrates into a pile of rubble? Will they surround it with orange cones and yellow “Do Not Cross” tape and vow to remove it when the economy improves?

At the very least, the Astrodome ball field could be used for indoor parking. An expert structural engineer once said there was even enough room for 500 more parking spaces underneath the field.

It’s our money, so what do taxpayers prefer? 

  1. A building that is a revenue-generating asset and tax relief vehicle that adds jobs to the community?
  2. Or another tax burden community facility, such as a planetarium (Houston already has two), that we don’t really need and may take forever to fund?
  3. Or the as-is tax burden — unused and falling further into disrepair while Commissioners wait on a white knight investor? 

 Here’s a challenge, a clarion call, to residents of Harris County: Let’s form a think tank of experienced professionals — accountants, lawyers, architects, marketing specialists, builders, and engineers. This would be a gift of our professional services to help solve an apparently unsolvable dilemma for an interim, economical solution. No $50,000 required for another study.