Sunday, February 18, 2018

Astrodome, again

Last week, Harris County Commissioner's Court voted to spend $105 million to renovate the venerable and vacant Astrodome. This vote, which was actually the second step of an action that the Commissioners took two years ago, seeks to transform the derelict structure into parking and event space.

As readers of this blog know, I've been following the saga of the Astrodome for several years, and although I have a soft spot in my heart for the Eighth Wonder of the World, I'm also highly skeptical that it can be renovated and put to use in an economically viable fashion. This may be a $105 million money sink for county taxpayers. Furthermore, the optics of this spend are especially bad in light of the damage this county suffered from Harvey, as the Press's Cory Garcia notes:
Houston needs flood reform. Just the idea of another Harvey-level storm crashing into the city is enough to make the skin crawl. And yet every time the idea of flood reform comes up it seems like it’s followed by the question of “where will the money come from?” Now sure, $100+ million is a drop in the bucket compared to what is needed to make sure the city doesn’t drown again, but at the very least it can be acknowledged that any excitement about what’s going on with the Dome — especially after voters decided against saving it back in 2013 — is tone deaf.
I get it: Houston is a city that is often seen as one that doesn’t respect or take care of its history. The Astrodome has sentimental value for many sports, sports entertainment and music fans. The building is the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” or at least the coolest contender on the list; no offense to the Palm Islands intended. It makes sense that some people think preserving it for future generations makes sense.
And yes, in the future your kids and your kids’ kids might park their car under it on the way to go see Brad Paisley play his 60th RodeoHouston show and think to themselves, “wow, I bet a ton of people got concussions here!”
That may be harsh, but I’m just not sure that turning the Astrodome into the “8th Wonder of the Convention Hall Circuit” is something worth celebrating while people are still rebuilding their lives and hearing that only so much can be done to prevent it from happening again. I’m sure we’ll host some grand conventions and meetings in the future, but the optics of it all still suck.
The Chronicle's Lisa Falkenburg, on the other hand, thinks that the county's investment in the structure is wise:
To some, investing in the dome seems a nostalgic indulgence in the face of urgent needs. Harvey victims are hoping for a tax break on properties that lost value. Those who use the criminal courts are calling for swift action on the flooded courthouse - either massive repairs or relocating the ill-planned complex once and for all. 
All of the above should be priorities for County Judge Ed Emmett and the four commissioners. 
But here's the thing: leaders have to balance today's needs with tomorrow's. The long view has its virtues. And frankly, it's been all to absent in the decision-making of Houston and Harris County. Shortsightedness has gotten us into a lot of trouble - from poor investment in flooding infrastructure to irresponsible growth that increased the region's vulnerability during storms and rain events. 
It has led us to pave over prairies. To bulldoze historic architecture and old trees and character. And yes, to leave an expensive, beloved, world-famous landmark with a lot of tourism potential rotting away in full view of visitors and homefolk alike. 
So, sure, it may seem tone deaf to pour money into the Astrodome right now, but the decision seems to be in tune with Houston's future needs. 
And critics of the decision either don't understand the facts, or willfully ignore them.
Falkenberg then launches into a point-by-point rebuttal of arguments made by opponents of the renovation project, including the claim that Harris County voters decided to demolish the Dome in a 2013 bond referendum (she's technically right; the vote was to issue bonds to refurbish the Astrodome and said nothing about tearing it down; however, it was clearly intimated by elected officials that, if the vote were to fail, the structure would be demolished). And, while Falkenburg concedes that the optics of this vote weren't particularly good, she correctly notes that this action is the second step on a path that the Commissioner's Court had begun back in 2016, and would have been taken regardless of Harvey. 

At this point, I'm tired of all the political bickering and I'm tired of seeing the grimy, derelict Astrodome sit next to NRG Stadium; I just want the saga of the historic stadium to come to a final resolution. This vote hopefully accomplishes that. I can only hope that things turn out as planned, and that the repurposed Astrodome does indeed generate a return on investment for the County. It's worth noting that the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo does seem much more sanguine about this project than they have towards previous renovation proposals; hopefully that's a good sign. 

The funding sources for the $105 million construction budget are general revenues (i.e. property taxes), hotel occupancy taxes, and parking revenue. Construction is expected to begin later this year and take about 17 months to complete. 

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