CURIOUS POLL PUSHERS WANT TO KNOW: SHOULD THE COUNTY SPEND ANY AMOUNT IT WANTS ON AN ASTRODOME REDO? The last time a concrete proposal to spend public money to repurpose the Astrodome was on the ballot, Harris County taxpayers voted it down. So how hard could it be to come up with a new poll showing potential voters aren’t especially eager to shell out for the latest floated idea, to turn the public facility into a giant indoor park — about which no details, price tag, or even feel-good drawings have yet been released? Maybe harder than you might think: In stories about a survey sponsored by KHOU and Houston Public Media whose results were released yesterday, a few news outlets did produce dutiful variants of a “Taxpayers Oppose Money for Astrodome” headline. But coming to that conclusion from the actual data collected in the survey might have been a bit of a stretch. Here’s the somewhat ambiguous wording of the question presented, with no context, to likely voters in the coming election: “Harris County proposes turning the Astrodome into an indoor park. Should the taxpayers of Harris County spend any amount to make the Astrodome into an indoor park if no private investors want to fund the entire project?” 31 percent said yes, 51 percent said no, and 17 percent of respondents said they didn’t know. The subset of respondents who thought they were being asked if they’d be willing to give county government a blank check for a plan they’ve never seen wasn’t broken out separately. [Houston Chronicle; KHOU; Houston Public Media; Astrodome coverage on Swamplot] Photo: Russell Hancock
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett’s new “not fully hashed out” plan for reusing the Astrodome is to turn the structure into the world’s largest indoor public park and recreation area. The park might incorporate a number of public institutions and museums within it. Plus: a pavilion for music and other events, and sports facilities such as archery ranges and hiking and biking trails, an archery center, and a large open green space. The fully air-conditioned park would be open to the public every day — except when used by the Rodeo and conferences such as the OTC.
Will Harris County citizens support turning the Astrodome into a park? Strangely, the best evidence that a majority would favor it may come from a recent survey commissioned by 2 organizations that have been trying very hard to get the building torn down.
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Texans and Rodeo Fans on Board?
Swamplot will dig into some of the more entertaining and eye-opening details of the proposal later. But in the meantime, before folks go around shouting “heck, yeah!”, hyperventilating, or considering it all but a done deal, you might want to make note of a few circumstances surrounding the release of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and Houston Texans‘ 37-page illustrated guide to spending $66 million of somebody’s money to tear down the Astrodome and build a memorial park and “Hall of Fame” in its place.
The proposal was leaked to reporters yesterday — likely before the Rodeo and the Texans had planned, a source tells Swamplot. (A sample “huh?” slide from it is illustrated above.) Nevertheless, the release marks the latest evolution in the 2 organizations’ willingness to publicly acknowledge their (likely longstanding) role as the foremost opponents of preserving the Astrodome in any form. (Last year the Rodeo and the Texans released a cost estimate for turning the Dome into a parking lot.) Whether this is a concerted strategy in the organizations’ campaign to kill the Dome or a fumble, it does signal a possible risk for them: What would happen if the until-now-growing sense among many Houstonians that everything possible has been tried and somehow mysteriously “won’t work” (blow up the place already, I’m tired of hearing about it!) gave way to a realization that the same 2 parties may have, in fact, been responsible for bungling, blocking, discouraging, sabotaging, or outright vetoing every single proposal for saving or revamping the Astrodome over the last dozen years? Would it kill all the seeming public-sentiment victories they’ve achieved so far?
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Dome-Be-Gone for $66 Million
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?
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Now Down to $171K a Year, Give or Take?
TURNING THE FERAL HOGS OF BARKER AND ADDICKS RESERVOIRS INTO PORK CHOPS FOR THE NEEDY Yesterday county commissioners approved a 1-year contract yesterday with Brookshire’s J&J Packing Co. (pictured at left at 35602 W. Hwy. 90) to slaughter and butcher feral hogs found damaging sports fields and other facilities in and around West Houston’s George Bush Park and Congressman Bill Archer Park and turn them into meat for area food banks. Harris County precinct 3 employees will now be responsible for trapping the hogs and transporting them to the Brookshire plant for processing. “The plan is to trap the varmints in four, 4-acre fenced structures — two in each park — where they can survive for up to several weeks, having grass, water and room to move around,” writes Kiah Collier. “The larger traps will be more effective than smaller ones employees have been using, [Precinct 3 special activities coordinator Mike] McMahan said, because the pigs do not realize they are in a trap and are less likely to panic and warn others. ‘Pigs become very aware of those situations very quickly,’ McMahan said. ‘Pigs are very smart animals.’ But a wildlife disease biologist tells Collier that similar plans tried elsewhere have turned out to be very expensive, and that there are disease risks: “It’s great publicity while it works,” says Brian Mesenbrink with the Texas offices of the USDA’s Wildlife Services, “but the minute something goes wrong, the minute somebody gets sick, there’s going to be all hell to pay. No one thinks about that going into it. They just see the fuzzy and warm side of it.” [Houston Chronicle ($)] Photo: J&J Packing Co.
HARRIS COUNTY’S NEW GAME ROOM GAME Among the new requirements for game rooms in Harris County just approved by commissioners this afternoon: A big sign outside that says “GAME ROOM.” And you’ll know there’ll be at least half a dozen “eight-liner” video poker machines inside, because they won’t be able to tint the windows anymore. New establishments will need to be at least 1,500 ft. away from schools, churches, or residential neighborhoods. “Charitable” bingo halls that fall under the ordinance won’t need to follow these new rules, but they will need to get a permit like other game rooms, pay a $1000 annual fee to the county, and shut down at 10 p.m. [Houston Chronicle ($); previously on Swamplot] Photo of recently shuttered game room on Monroe Rd. at Almeda Genoa: abc13
NOW PICTURE HOUSTON’S ASTRODOME REPLACED BY A GIANT WET PIT Simply filling in the 9-acre, 35-ft.-deep hole in the ground where the Astrodome now sits would eat up more than $10 million of the estimated $28 million it would cost to demolish the publicly owned structure, according to county engineers. (Another $8 million of that total has already been approved, for removal of asbestos, ticket booths, turnstiles, grass berms, and ramps, plus all the seats and interior items; that demo work is already taking place.) Which leads county commissioner Steve Radack to suggest that the money be saved and the site be turned into a giant flood-preventing detention pond — “if and when” it is demolished. That’d make for a rather eloquent and down-to-earth symbol to substitute for Houston’s most famous landmark. Judge Emmett, who before the failed bond vote favored preserving the Dome by renovating it, declared after Tuesday’s election defeat that “We’re going to have to do something quick.” But commissioner Jack Cagle says he has no deadlines for a decision in mind. So who’s pushing to have the Dome demolished in a hurry? The same folks who’ve been calling the aging structure an “inconvenience” to Rodeo and Texans game visitors, write the Chronicle‘s Kiah Collier and Nancy Sarnoff: “Reliant Park’s main tenants, the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo and the NFL’s Houston Texans want the county to act as quickly as possible, and certainly before the Super Bowl comes to Reliant Stadium in early 2017.” [Houston Politics; previously on Swamplot] Photo of Brays Bayou detention basin: John Lienhard
COMMENT OF THE DAY: THAT SHIP WON’T SAIL “May we have a Comment of the Day that isn’t from a Swamplot reader? This has to be it: ‘”We can’t allow the once-proud Astrodome to sit like a rusting ship in the middle of a parking lot. This was the best effort (to revamp the stadium), and voters have turned it down,” said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.’
I mean seriously, Judge Emmett? The County has mishandled the Dome from the beginning, and NOW you have a sense of urgency? And THIS was the County’s best effort?” [JD, commenting on Headlines: Astrodome Bonds Voted Down; Bayport Cruise Terminal’s First Ship Comes In]
WILL THE RODEO OR THE TEXANS PAY RENT TO USE THE ASTRODOME? Contradicting teevee reporter Ted Oberg’s declaration a couple of weeks ago that the county’s own projections show that the renovated Astrodome would barely break even, the Chronicle’s Kiah Collier produces the county’s underlying single-sheet financial summary (PDF), which projects net operating income of $1.9 million a year for a redone Dome, based on $4 million in revenue. There’s not a lot of detail behind any of the “ballpark” figures that go into that projection, though — and there’s clearly been disagreement over a couple of revenue sources that may or may not be included in it. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo has now officially endorsed (PDF) the bond proposal on tomorrow’s ballot that would fund the conversion of the Astrodome into “The New Dome Experience” — but only, it seems, after wresting commitments from county officials to create some sort of repair fund for Reliant Stadium and to pay for repairs to the Reliant Arena — before replacing it, somewhere down the line. Judge Emmett and the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp.’s Edgar Colón now say the Rodeo may not have to pay rent to use the revamped facility, but whether the free-rent deal the Rodeo had with the Astrodome legally applies to a renovated and seemingly repurposed facility isn’t quite so clear to other officials Collier talks to, who claim any payments would be “worked out later.” The Houston Texans, meanwhile, who earlier this year with the Rodeo promoted a study showing how a $29 million demolition of the Dome would clear way for 2,500 shiny new parking spots — have been standing on the sidelines while the bond proposal is put to voters. Really, the team would have no interest at all in using a completely revamped name-brand facility right next to the site of the 2017 Super Bowl, even? “If the Astrodome is renovated,” the team’s coy statement reads, “we would consider using it, but do not have a specific use in mind at the present time . . .” [Houston Chronicle; previously on Swamplot] Rendering of the New Dome Experience: New Dome PAC/Kirksey Architecture
ADDING UP THE ASTRODOLLARS Teevee reporter Ted Oberg finds that the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation expects to make about $4 million a year on the New Dome, once it’s cleaned up and converted into 350,000 sq. ft. of exhibition space for things like, say, bowling competitions, hardware shows, or the Quidditch World Championships. “[But] costs,” cautions Oberg, “will eat up $3.9 million of it.” Still, HCSCC chair Edgar Colon seems undaunted by these figures: “It will be self-sufficient.” [abc13; previously on Swamplot] Rendering: New Dome PAC
COMMENT OF THE DAY: A DOME’S RANSOM “The problem isn’t that anti-Domers only think about money, it’s that pro-Domers won’t consider it at all. Would you ever tell your mechanic ‘I love my car so much, there’s no amount of money I wouldn’t spend to keep it forever’? No, because that’s an invitation to get swindled — the mechanic knows he can do all sorts of unnecessary work that the actual value of the car doesn’t justify. You’ll end up paying more, which will make it less likely that you’ll actually be able to afford to keep that car forever.
Same thing with the Dome; a lot of people are shouting ‘we’ll keep the Dome at any cost!’ What do you know, along comes a very expensive, not very practical plan for a convention center no one needs. How long will that last before the next person comes along and says the convention center is too old, and we have to spend more money or tear it down?
If you really want to save the Dome, grow a backbone and say that there are limits to how much Houston taxpayers should pour into it; that’s when you’ll get a plan that benefits the community enough to be sustainable. Otherwise you are just keeping the hostage alive until the next payment is due, and that can’t go on forever.” [Alec, commenting on It’s Like a Billboard. On Wheels. For the Astrodome.] Illustration: Lulu
Haven’t decided yet what you think should happen to the Astrodome? The preservation-minded folks at Our Astrodome hope that seeing this 26-ft. bedazzled semi just might do the trick. Starting Monday and running up to the elections on November 5, when voters will decide whether to approve — or not, and, as most suspect, doom the Dome to a more thorough demolition than what’s already happening — that $217 bond measure that would fund a renovation of the stadium into convention space, the tricked-out Dome Mobile will be rolling around town to spread the word about Proposition 2 and the world’s first domed stadium.
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VOTE FOR NEW DOME, SAYS MAYOR PARKER As the demolition — or, as Judge Ed Emmett might call it, the improvement — of some of the exterior features of the Astrodome begins, Mayor Parker has declared her support of the seeming this-or-nothing $217 million bond measure that would pay for a slimming down and cleaning up of the aging icon to make it ready for convention and exhibition space. Says the incumbent about the so-called New Dome: “This plan will bring jobs, a positive economic impact and a renewed sense of pride in the Dome for all Houstonians.” [Preservation Houston; previously on Swamplot] Rendering: Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation
NO, THESE ARE ASTRODOME “IMPROVEMENTS,” SAYS JUDGE EMMETT Harris County Judge Ed Emmett plays a game of semantics with KUHF’s Gail Delaughter to try to clear up any lingering misconceptions and assert that the removal beginning this week of the Astrodome’s exterior features — ticket booths, grass berms, concrete ramps, substations, transmission lines, and stair pavilions — isn’t what it might seem to be: “I would actually like to call them improvements to the Dome rather than demolition to the Dome. This does in no way presage any demolition of the Dome. This is an improvement that had to be made, probably should have been made a long time ago, but we’re doing it now.” [KUHF; previously on Swamplot] Photo: Candace Garcia