A $105 million project to transform the Houston Astrodome into an events venue is moving forward after one Houston area lawmaker’s attempt to force Harris County to get voter approval fell through.
Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, filed Senate Bill 884—dubbed the “Harris County Taxpayer Protection Act”—in March. The bill would have required the county to obtain voter approval for any improvement or redevelopment to the Astrodome costing $10 million or more. Although SB 884 passed out of the Texas Senate, it got stuck in the Texas House of Representatives, where it ultimately died when the session ended May 29.
Whitmire said he filed the bill with Harris County’s previous attempt to fund an Astrodome project in mind. In November 2013, the county proposed a $217 million bond to repurpose the Astrodome, which voters rejected.
“What the county did was go back to the drawing board and spend $100 million without voter approval, which I think violates the whole election process,” he said. “I simply called for a referendum.”
County officials said the new plan will not involve a bond or tax increase and will be funded evenly through general fund revenue, hotel occupancy tax funds and parking enterprise funds. Whitmire said he still disagreed with using general fund revenue—which mostly comes from property taxes—to pay for it. He said he thinks there are other areas where the money could be better spent.
“We have a huge flooding problem, we don’t have a mental health system, we don’t have a homeless shelter, we don’t have enough law enforcement,” he said. “[The Astrodome project] is a dream, and I just don’t think you dream with taxpayer dollars.”
Whitmire said he believes the bill died because of political pressure applied by the county and special interest groups that supported the project.
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett argued against SB 884, citing it as an example of state government making it difficult for local government to do its job. He said the revitalized Astrodome has the potential to become a revenue generator for the county.
“The current plan for the Dome… is far different from the bond proposal,” he said in a statement following the filing of SB 884. “I and Commissioners Court set about the task of finding a solution to the vexing issue of the Astrodome that minimized the use of property taxes and allowed the Dome to be a revenue source for the operation and maintenance of the entire NRG complex.”
Emmett also said demolishing the Astrodome would cost at least $30 million, which he said would result in an even greater burden on taxpayers, who would bear more of the costs of maintaining and upgrading NRG Stadium.
Design process continues
Commissioners Court voted to move forward with the engineering and architectural work in September, and officials said they did not postpone the design process because of SB 884.
The plan involves raising the Astrodome’s floor 30 feet to ground level, which would provide easier access for vehicles. The raised floor would also provide 8 acres of open space for events.
Two levels of underground parking would be installed to provide roughly 1,400 spaces. The 500,000 square feet of space available in the Astrodome’s upper levels could be used for leasing office, restaurant and retail space, officials said.
Harris County Engineer John Blount said crews are currently conducting an evaluation of the facility to determine what exactly would need to be done before moving forward.
“The building was built in the early ’60s, so we have to reaffirm some of the drawings because there were some substantial remodels over the years,” he said. “There isn’t anyone who worked on the Dome who is still with the county, so there are still some modifications we have to look at. One thing we’ll be doing soon is digging up a portion of [the drainage pipe]to see what condition it’s in.”
The next step involves bringing on a construction manager at risk to provide construction estimates, Blount said.
“The estimating phase goes in conjunction with the design phase,” he said. “They help architects and engineers understand the least expensive way to design something. After we get all the estimates, we’ll go back to commissioners court for approval to proceed.”
The design phase is expected to last into 2018. Blount said the goal to have the new Astrodome open for events is 2020, but he said any timeline this early on in the process is subject to change.
“It all depends on if we find anything that slows us down,” he said. “There’s nothing we see that’s strange at this point.”