Just when you think that sanity has reentered the political arena, along comes a Democrat (helped along by a few power hungry Republicans) to screw it up. I’m talking of course about Sen. John Whitmire’s proposal to try and stop Harris County Commissioners Court’s plan to renovate and repurpose the iconic Houston Astrodome.
Texas State Senator John Whitmire (Democrat-District 15) wants voters to decide what happens to the Astrodome.
Senator Whitmire’s bill (SB 884) calls for Texas counties with at least 3.3 million residents to obtain voter approval to redevelop sports facilities older than 50 years if the project costs 10 million dollars or more.
All those conditions apply to Harris County’s latest plan for building a garage under the Astrodome and repurpose it to host different kinds of events.
Whitmire says two main reasons he wants a vote are that the plan requires taxpayers’ funding and Harris County residents already rejected a bond proposal to renovate the Dome.
“They expressed themselves in 2013. That vote, in my world, still governs until you go back out and resubmit it,” Whitmire said at a press conference.
That last quote says it best because when Whitmire says “in my world” he isn’t exactly talking about the real world. Harris County voters did not vote in 2013 on whether or not the Astrodome should be demolished. What we voted on was issuing $217 million in bonds with a tax increase to pay for the bonds. Here is the actual ballot language that we voted on:
THE ISSUANCE OF $217,000,000.00 HARRIS COUNTY ASTRODOME REDEVELOPMENT BONDS AND THE LEVYING OF AN ADDITIONAL SEPARATE AD VALOREM TAX IN PAYMENT THEREOF WHICH IS ANTICIPATED TO INCREASE TAX RATES WITHIN SAID COUNTY.
In that election, the turnout was 13.23% of registered voters, or 260,437 votes. Of that total, 19,730 didn’t bother to vote on the issue. I voted against it because it was a poorly thought out plan that was rushed to the voters with little in the way of defined benefits for Harris County residents.
Before we get to why the Astrodome Reborn plan is different and should be implemented as soon as possible, let’s talk about why Whitmore would do this and more importantly, why certain Republicans are supporting him.
It is clear that Whitmire is doing the bidding for the Houston Texans. The Texans and their billionaire owner want to continue profiting off the backs of Harris County residents. Let’s not make more of Whitmire’s effort than what it is. The new plan for the Astrodome doesn’t put a buck in Bob McNair’s back pocket, therefore it is deemed unworthy by the long time State Senator.
The more interesting part is why Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Sen. Paul Bettencourt would jump aboard the Whitmire/McNair train. The easy answer is that McNair is a prolific funder of the Republican Party, to the tune of $1.3 million dollars in the 2016 campaign. But that is only part of the story.
The bigger part of the story is that there is a segment of Harris County Republicans that want to rid themselves of County Judge Ed Emmett. It is no secret that the old guard is seeking someone to give Emmett a primary challenge. If they can damage Emmett amongst Republican primary voters, it will help them to oust him if they can find a credible opponent for the primary.
Make no mistake – this is part of their calculations. There is a reason that they focus on Emmett and ignore the fact that the Harris County Commissioners Court approved the Astrodome Reborn plan unanimously. If they were truly interested in a “Taxpayer Protection Act”, they would focus on the entire Court, not just Judge Emmett. Truth be told, I think that they’d rather have a Democrat defeat a wounded Emmett in the 2018 General Election than to have Emmett win again.
Now, to the plan itself. (click here to download)
No bonds will be issued. No taxes will be increased. Harris County taxpayers will only spend $35 million of General Fund Revenue. The balance will come from the Hotel Occupancy Tax and the Parking Enterprise Fund. The underground parking revenue will be used for upkeep. Instead of wasting $30 – 50 million to demolish the Astrodome and have nothing to show for it, Harris County residents will be able to benefit from what is roughly a billion dollar asset. Finally a plan that makes financial, community and historical sense.
Under the plan approved Tuesday, the county will spend $105 million to raise the Astrodome floor 30 feet to ground level and install 1,400 underground parking spaces. Numerous studies and recommendations have shown that elevating the floor to ground level vastly improves accessibility and the ability to redevelop and use the Dome’s interior, and the increased parking will generate more revenue for that redevelopment. The floor of the Dome can be used for display and convention space for the rodeo or big pieces of equipment during the massive Offshore Technology Conference or entertainment before of after a football game.
The county will spend a maximum of $35 million from the general fund on the development. The remaining $70 million will come from hotel occupancy tax and parking revenue. The taxpayers’ share may be lowered even further through tax increment reinvestment zone (TIRZ) and lease revenue, as well as historical tax credits – meaning their cost to save the Astrodome would be even less than the $35 million estimated demolition cost.
“The Astrodome’s days of sitting idle and abandoned are over,” said County Judge Emmett. “Instead, Harris County’s most recognized building will again be proud and useful – as host to thousands of area residents attending a variety of business and community events. Hundreds of people worked very hard to see that happen, and I’m proud that this day has finally arrived.”
The Astrodome – an accomplishment in engineering that symbolizes Houston’s can-do spirit – should be used for years to come. Buildings in Europe stand for centuries. Over the years, Houston’s leaders have been too quick to demolish our history. Saving the Dome changes that.
Mike Vance is a Houston historian and has written an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle supporting the plan.
That’s what makes it even more disappointing that Senator John Whitmire is carrying the water on yet more obstructionism designed to ensure that we stick to cynical business as usual. The party line on Whitmire’s bill — and it is certainly not too tough to figure out who’s throwing the party — is don’t spend on the Astrodome. NRG Stadium needs the money. Well, “need” is not really the word. It’s clearly “want.”
The senator has made a statement that he is concerned not only about NRG, but about Minute Maid, Toyota Center and BBVA Compass. But the simple fact is that Harris County is prohibited by law from spending money on those other facilities, and none would be covered under his bill.
Sometimes motives are hard to discern. This is not one of those times. There is better misdirection to be found at a second-grader’s magic show. The repurposed, reimagined Astrodome would not be a stadium. This is not apples-to-apples, it’s more like apples-to-possums.
The Astrodome is for all of us, all the time. There are many uses for this repurposed building, and almost all offer themselves to a complete cross-section of our citizens, making public use of a grand public space. Imagine some of the hundreds of local festivals, big and small, held under the beautiful Dome. Think of the educationally charged museums that could fit into 500,000 square feet of concourse space. There will be great convention displays, a magnificent rodeo carnival and food court, a special, second-to-none event venue and plenty of quiet days for families to stroll across the eight-acre lawn and be thankful for what we saved.
Common sense should indeed be our guide. Houston has hosted the Final Four twice. We have had the Super Bowl three times in the last 40-plus years. Sinking hundreds of millions of dollars yet again to upgrade NRG Stadium will not increase that frequency one bit. Now, how many times has any one of us taken his kids to the park or attended a festival during those years? It is absurd to debate for an instant which facility would mean the most to the citizens of Houston and Harris County.
The Astrodome is an asset, owned by the taxpayers of Harris County, that is completely debt-free. It is paid for. Demolishing it would cost at least $35 million, possibly much more, and at the end of that process, we would own nothing. Remove the hand-wringing and emotion, and then answer who in their right mind would simply throw away an asset worth more than $1 billion, the going rate to construct something similar from scratch.
Now add the undeniable fact that the Astrodome is not just “something,” but rather a unique engineering marvel that is recognized around the globe as Houston’s icon, our best advertisement for this can-do city.
The Chronicle‘s John McClain dismissed the idea of repurposing the Astrodome using the word “preposterous.” Many of us might better apply that word to a concept that, instead of spending $100 million to improve the quality of life for all of us, hands that same amount of money to private businesses that are already making a gigantic profit in order to let them make even more. Surely, those elected officials at the state level have plenty of neglected problems on their plates without throwing a wrench into well-thought-out local plans.
Don’t let a teet sucking billionaire and a few power hungry politicians fool you. This isn’t about giving ‘power to the people’ through an election. We already elected the Judge and the Commissioners on the Court. We elected them to provide leadership and that is what they are doing. Let’s move forward with the Astrodome Reborn plan and make Harris County and the Astrodome great again.