DALLAS – Voters in Harris County, Texas would vote on spending up to $220 million to redevelop the abandoned Astrodome in Houston under a plan expected to be approved by the county commissioners on Tuesday.
The November ballot question would ask voters to approve a one-cent sales tax increase to support the new debt at a time when the Harris County Houston Sports Authority – a separate entity from the county -- is involved in a legal dispute over its financing of the neighboring Reliant Stadium and other professional sports facilities.
Unlike the bonds for the current sports facilities, bonds for the Astrodome would be considered county debt. The HCHSA debt is backed by hotel and car-rental taxes in the county, including Houston.
County Judge Ed Emmett told the Houston Chronicle that he would vote for the bond election to save the dome.
“Would I build that building today? No, but it’s an iconic structure, it’s a part of our history, I think we can put it to use,” Emmett said. “We can make Reliant Center, and Houston in general, a unique destination for exhibits and special events, and I think that’s worth doing just for the money that will come our way.”
After considering 22 proposals from private investors, the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp. – a separate organization from the HCHSA – in June recommended its own plan for preserving the world’s first air conditioned domed stadium.
“We’ve made a case as to why we think this community should invest in this concept,” said Willie Loston, executive director of the HCSCC. “There are people who disagreed with us. We have indicated that we would like to see this concept go to the voters to see if they agree with it.”
The proposed “New Dome Experience” would create 350,000 square feet of exhibition space by removing all the spectator seats and raising the floor to street level. Other changes include creating 400,000 square feet of plaza and green space outside the dome.
The walls of the current dome would be converted to transparent material on four sides, allowing viewers outside to see the activity within.
Plans envision the Astrodome as the gateway to Reliant Park, home of the Houston Texans of the National Football League and host for the 2017 Super Bowl.
Reliant Park includes 5,800-seat Reliant Arena, 71,500-seat Reliant Stadium, the 706,000-square-foot Reliant Center for meetings, and what is now called the “Reliant Astrodome.”
Built for $36.5 million in 1965, the Astrodome requires up to $4 million per year for maintenance. Simply demolishing the dome, listed as one of America’s most endangered historic structures, would cost about $10 million, officials estimate.
Whether any debt remains on the Astrodome is unclear, according to Emmett’s spokesman, Joe Stinebaker.
“The official line is that there is no outstanding debt on the Astrodome,” he said. “Previously issued bonds been restructured and refinanced so many times that it’s impossible to tell how much of that is attributable to the dome.”
The last bonds issued specifically for the Astrodome were issued in 1997 as a $47 million refinancing designed to extend final maturity from 2003 to November 2012. However, subsequent debt was issued for improvements to the Astrodome along with other county projects.
The 1997 bonds, backed by hotel tax revenue, were issued came after the NFL’s Houston Oilers abandoned the Astrodome following the 1996 season and moved to Tennessee. The stadium continued to serve Major League Baseball’s Houston Astros, for whom it was built, until 1999.
The Astros’ new stadium, originally Enron Field and now Minute Maid Park, was built by the newly created Harris County Houston Sports Authority.
Ultimately, the sports authority built stadiums and arenas for the NFL expansion Texans and the National Basketball Association’s Houston Rockets, acquiring $1 billion of outstanding debt.
The sports authority is now involved in a lawsuit with its bond insurance company, formerly MBIA, now National Public Finance Guarantee Corp., over its dwindling bond reserve fund.