Keeping the Astrodome Around Is a Whole Lot Cheaper Than You Thought It Was

Astrodome, Houston

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.”

Photo: Russell Hancock

Now Down to $171K a Year, Give or Take?

21 Comment

  • Makes no sense, and apples & oranges…

    I could own a home free and clear and not have any standing debt, but still have maintenance requirements, insurance requirements, etc., that require out-of-pocket costs. If my insurance provider is charging me a fee that’d be the same regardless of this other, monolithic structure sitting on my property or not, then I’d be looking at changing my insurance company.

    If the Dome is torn down and NRG has to store their shit somewhere else, why is that a concern of Harris County ?

    And if this is true, “ separate financial breakout exists for maintenance personnel and expenses associated with Astrodome…”, who’s NRG’s accountant, Arthur Andersen ?

    Any property is only worth what you can sell it for, and if no one wants to buy this dump, it’s worth nothing. Tell you what HCSCC, I’ll buy it from you for what you owe on it, $6M. Then I’ll bulldoze this fu**er down and turn it into a park, donating it back to the City and taking a gigantic tax write-off.

  • 171k? That’s the “reasonable” number you want to claim? Really?

    I guess we shouldn’t address the incredible opportunity costs involved with leaving it up, both in forms of the sale or the potential tax revenue from when it gets sold. This number is no more honest than the previous one. Why is it so hard to get a real number for this?

  • Why are we factoring debt into this decision at all? Won’t we have the debt regardless of if we tear down the facility or not? I want to know the cost of maintenance and insurance that the city incurs on an ongoing basis. Whoever puts these numbers together just lost all credibility from me. The news is killing me. They’re taking too many signals from Fox News and MSNBC and aren’t bothering to vet anything. I’m not even a save the dome guy. I just hate misleading statements.

    And yes, we should absolutely factor in the costs that would increase as a result of the teardown.

    -Frustrated and misled finance professional

  • Let’s get used to the idea of keeping the Dome. Our city’s culture for so long has been to replace buildings. Here we have an opportunity to save what was not a perfect building, but an ambitious, unique and practical building that was a hometown source of scorn and love among those that spent time within it’s walls. In the not too distant past, we had iconic local business leaders that would take up causes like these and work-over their well-heeled peers to raise money and help solve and/or garner support for local issues not palatable to timid elected officials in the midst of election cycles. We don’t seem to have an abundance of these larger-than-life personalities anymore. There is an opportunity to fill that void and create immense goodwill. We have wasted infinitely more money on a toy rail system for our fair city. There is not a more iconic structure associated with our city than the Astrodome and there is not a compelling reason to destroy it other than plain short-sighted shitheadedness.

    It makes more sense to me to spend a couple of million a year to preserve the Dome than it does to pave and maintain a ten-foot asphalt road along every otherwise-natural creek in the county. I’d be willing to bet that amongst an itemized list of money that Harris County wastes each year that this is small potatoes. Thank God we have that Hockley Soap Box Derby Hill & Amphitheater to show that we have our priorities in order.

  • The fact that nobody can tell you what the costs are is proof that the facility is not well managed. Anyone who runs a successful business knows that you have to understand the costs and revenues for each discrete piece of your business.

    I’m a recent Houston arrival and the whole Astrodome fiasco boggles my mind. I didn’t even know it was still standing until I got here a year ago. Is there another former baseball venue that has ever been successfully re-purposed? I’m really asking, not trying to be smarmy.

    If the dome can’t be turned into some kind of viable business, then just tear it down and stop the bleeding.

  • i’m reurging my vote to repurpose the doom for indoor stripper paintball. make it happen madam mayor.

  • Who could possibly be surprised that HCSCC has misrepresented the annual numbers by millions? Fuck all of you self-serving liars at HCSCC, HLS&R, Texans. Oh, now we get an historical designation, creating more roadblocks to demotion? Fine. Stop the hand-wringing and let it sit.
    Let it sit and rot another 50 years, to serve as a reminder to the rest of the world to stop building private sports and entertainment monuments with public money. Houston would be an apt addition to the Ruin Porn circuit. Our infrastructure is literally crumbling away, and we’re still contemplating massive taxpayer handouts to private enterprise liars because why? Misguided sentimentality? Create favorable PR buzz? Christ on a cracker.

    Or, let c.l. buy the dome for the $6 million. That’s a good idea. Sounds like a fair price. Parks are nice.

  • Brandon- I am going to guess here that what they are trying to say is that O&M is not broken out for the dome because it is not material. The one material task, pump operations, is captured at least for electric. You would expect to see a little more there, but not likely a lot (scheduled replacement, equipment maintenance. etc). Beyond that the article implies, as most of us have seen from the photos, that little if anything is done to maintain the structure. You should certainly (ie documentation should be sufficient) be able to break out the larger expenses from say the last 5 years and develop some average cost going forward.

  • I don’t buy that insurance would be the same whether the dome is standing or not, the fact that it’s a crumbling building that people have to go into has to jack up the liability insurance alone. Also the several hundred parking spaces created in the dome’s place would bring in extra $10 a pop for every event with virtually no cost. Also every time an employee of the reliant complex has to go into the dome to flip a switch or clean something, is money paid in labor and it ain’t cheap. So, the $171k a year is a very disingenuous number.
    Blow up the Dome already!!!

  • Hooray, I get to build a park, right in the f’in middle of a hundred acres of asphalt. Christ, you can’t even run an Indy car race on this flat ass shit without someone having a serious, career ending injury.

    Ed Emmett and his band of HCSCC cronies are worthless.

    OrangeBodoh is right… AstroWTF ? This POS is still standing ?

  • Arrrgghhh…I keep getting madder and madder about the whole boondoggle, and this news is not helping.

  • We can save a modern 3rd ward Post Office, because of what is NEAR it , but we can’t save the World’s first indoor sport’s arena where so many historic first happened within it? Really? Insanity.

  • I think some people would be surprised to know how incomprehensible their posts on here are when read by others.

  • I’m definitely in the do-nothing camp. The fiscal costs and benefits are near enough to being a wash (although I think probably tilting in the direction of keeping it in mothballs), however nobody that matters has a clear and compelling need for the land underneath it. That makes all the difference, because if the site is valuable for some reason then there’s an opportunity cost. Therefore, if somebody can come up with a plan for the Astrodome site, with or without that plan utilizing the Astrodome, then the land will be there for the taking and so will the structure. Keeping the structure standing preserves an opportunity for adaptive re-use. It keeps our options open and should satisfy all relevant camps.

    (By “relevant camps”, I do not include the Rodeo or the Texans. They are mere tenants and they aren’t capable of retaliating over the Astrodome in any sort of manner that adversely impacts the public interest.)

  • Build four pointed minarets around the dome and it could be the world’s largest mosque. We are already sister cities with Istanbul and if you use your imagination the Astrodome could kind of look like their Blue Mosque or the Hagia Sofia. Let’s get creative!

  • @commonsense makes no sense. First of all, the Dome isn’t crumbling. Time after time, it’s been said that the structure is sound and requires nothing (other than removing the asbestos lined towers, which was already done). Secondly when you are talking about massive amounts of buildings and land, what makes you think having a parking lot in its place saves you money on insurance? But finally your ‘virtually no cost’ parking lot would cost as much as $100M to get the Dome cleared out of the way, that would take quite a few $10 parking spots to recoup. The most fiscally responsible thing to do is leave it be for now until a plan to repurpose it comes along or until a need arises where it can be removed and replaced with something that would truly displace demolition costs. Until either of those happen, the nearly negligible maintenance is a drop in the bucket.

  • I’d also like to point out the fact that the accounting method of First-In-First-Out has nothing to do with debt repayment, and is a method for calculating a company’s inventory levels. If the debt was for everything in the park, then go ahead and attribute the correct portion to the Dome. It’s probably a nominal amount, but would boost your $171K figure a little.

  • As heard on HPM, I’m all for a Drape the Dome campaign; let’s get Christo with his artist might into Houston to activate this dead horse, once more.

  • @ Bwf2290: Debt FIFO or not, existing debt is a sunk cost (demolishing it will not undo the decisions of the past) and is totally irrelevant to a cost-benefit analysis of what we should do given the present circumstances.

  • I dont care if your are pro-dome life or pro-dome death, this whole thing stinks really bad. Both sides are being lied to and played as fools by the politicians and movers and shakers.

  • Line the roof with solar panels and that will provide all the power for Reliant Stadium. Cost of electric at Reliant goes to zero, savings realized covers Astrodome minimum upkeep. Problem solved.