One of the largest rhetorical weapons in the arsenal regularly wielded by proponents of repurposing or demolishing the Astrodome over the last several years has been a brutal financial factoid regularly drawn into arguments over the Houston landmark’s future. How much money in maintenance and debt-service costs have county taxpayers had to spend just to keep the retired sports stadium around and rotting? Why $2.4 million or so each year, claimed news report after news report after editorial after news report. Like the once-record-breaking 642-ft. clear span inside, it was just one of those things people who were paying attention knew.
But that figure isn’t accurate, Harris County’s budget chief now says. And at a meeting called by Judge Ed Emmett this week, Bill Jackson tried to set the record straight: First, he said, the Astrodome is “essentially debt free“; all but 5 percent of outstanding debt payments connected to the facility stem from work done in 2002 and 2003 — after the Dome had been retired from professional sports — to prepare the larger park for the Texans to use it. (The total amount of that remaining debt, according to a Houston Chronicle recalculation earlier this year, is $6 million.) Using the accounting principle of “first in, first out,” this means that all debts attributable to the Dome itself have now been paid for, Jackson said.
How about maintenance and insurance costs, then?
According to Judge Emmett’s office, no separate financial breakout exists for maintenance personnel and expenses associated with Astrodome — whatever the management of Reliant (now NRG) Park has been doing to take care of the vacant and unused space (and it’s not likely much), it’s all subsumed into the total costs for the multi-facility venue, which includes the recently renamed NRG Stadium and NRG Center. And the Chronicle‘s Kiah Collier reports that insurance payments aren’t a factor, because the same $600 million coverage for NRG Park would be necessary whether or not the Astrodome was still there.
So what is the county paying to keep the Astrodome standing? Mostly, expenses to keep the building dry: An annual electrical bill of approximately $165,000, mostly to operate pumps to keep water out of the below-ground-level playing surface, and a $5,526-a-year flood insurance policy just in case.
But the estimated $171K a year in costs directly attributed to keeping the Astrodome around (or “probably shy of half a million dollars, if you allocate some of the insurance to it,” Jackson says) doesn’t include costs that would go up if the Dome were demolished. Retired from hosting sports events, impromptu celebrity ball-shagging parties, and even bar mitzvahs and cleared of its interior fittings, the Harris County Domed Stadium is currently employed as an 80,000-sq.-ft. storage facility for NRG Park. If the Dome weren’t around, that space would need to be paid for, and it would likely be far more expensive.
So where did the $2.4 million annual expense figure, superimposed in bold lettering over images of the Dome in many a teevee news report — and routinely expanded to a $2 to $3 million range in local and national follow-on roundups — come from? The numbers appear to have emerged first from an incomplete analysis that likely included costs for construction and renovation of separate facilities at Reliant Park — an admitted guesstimate based on unexplained and, it now appears, inaccurate data.
But that hasn’t prevent officials with the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation from repeatedly touting the higher cost figure to reporters and the public. The HCSCC is the same organization that has presided over the Astrodome’s 15-year descent from major-league sports venue to a dilapidated and hobbled teardown target, while repeatedly bungling supposed efforts to find a new use for it. It’s been common for reporters to attribute statements made by members of that organization — even though it’s a county agency with an independent board of directors and staff — to “county officials.”
Despite the clarifications made by actual county budget officers, HCSCC Chairman Edgar Colón doesn’t appear ready to back down from the higher figure promoted by his organization, though he did promise he would review it. He tells Collier his organization’s accounting includes “labor costs and non-recurring expenses, like repairs from a small fire.”
- Astrodome still in complete limbo: Demolition vote now questioned by public officials as drama drags on [Culturemap]
- County: Dome upkeep costs a lot less than we’ve been saying [Houston Politics]
- Money still owed on Dome less than previously stated [Houston Chronicle ($)]
- Astrodome coverage [Swamplot]
Photo: Russell Hancock