Astrodome still in limbo, no decision imminent

Taxpayers continue to spend millions a year on structure was once dubbed '8th Wonder of the World'

By Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - The fate of the Houston Astrodome remains in limbo more than five months after Harris County voters rejected a proposal to transform the aging icon into a $217 million venue for events and conventions.

Meanwhile, taxpayers continue to spend millions of dollars a year on a structure that was once dubbed the "8th Wonder of the World."

"It already is painful that it has come to this," said Dene Hofheinz, daughter of former Houston Mayor and Harris County Judge Roy Hofheinz. "That's one of the best built buildings in the world."

Since it was her father's vision that got the Astrodome built, she was more than happy to help the county try to sell the last bond proposal to voters. When the vote failed, Hofheinz said she tried to find out if county leaders had any back-up plans.

"I am now the queen of the unanswered phone call," said Hofheinz.

Both Hofheinz and county leaders blamed a lack of a clear message as part of the reason the November vote didn't succeed. Both agreed many voters were also under the false impression that if the vote failed then the Dome would be torn down.

"I understand why people were confused, it was confusing and that was part of the problem," said Hofheinz. "We didn't have enough publicity, we weren't given enough time and there was just a lack of communication."

"We didn't do as good a job of selling it as we should have, I'll take some of that blame," said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.

"Does anybody have any idea what we are going to do with the Astrodome?" asked Local 2 Investigator Robert Arnold.

"At this point, no," said Emmett. "We're in a circumstance where we're still soliciting ideas."

Emmett and County Commissioners are ultimately saddled with deciding what happens with the Dome. Emmett said finding a solution for the Dome was one of his seven top priorities for the year.

"I've said all along we can't just leave this building sitting there like a big rusting ship in the middle of a parking lot," said Emmett.

One of the main problems with finding a solution for the Dome is the same one the county has had for years; money. Emmett said given the Dome's unique architecture and age, any plans for renovating the structure would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Emmett said that is money that would have to come from the private sector, not taxpayers.

"Do you really see anyone coming in with that much money?" asked Arnold.

"No," said Emmett.

A lack of a decision means taxpayers are stuck with continuing to pay for a building no one can use. According to Harris County records a total of $7 million is being spent on recent demolition of tower ramps, ticket booths, shrub removal, as well as asbestos testing and removal.

"That has to be done regardless of what happens, even if we tear down the building all those things would have to be done," said Emmett. "The two to three million dollars a year for the upkeep and the insurance and all that, that's the on-going cost."

Local 2 Investigates reported last May taxpayers had already spent $7.9 million dollars on maintenance, repairs and insurance for the Dome since 2009, when a laundry list of fire, safety and health code violations shut down the building. As Local 2 reported certain portions of Reliant Park are tied into the Dome's infrastructure and have to be maintained.

"Would you call it a money pit at this point?" asked Arnold.

"Oh sure, there's no question," said Emmett.

Emmett did point out that simply demolishing the Dome is not a solution.

"Tearing down the Dome isn't an answer," said Emmett. "We have to come up with an answer that either utilizes the Dome or utilizes the demolition of the Dome."

Emmett said that is because whatever happens to the Dome must also be a good fit for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the Houston Texans and other annual events, like the Offshore Technology Conference, held at Reliant Park.

Another voice may also be added to the chorus of decision makers. The Texas State Historical Commission is expected to soon vote on whether the Dome should be granted official landmark status. If that happens then the state will have a say in the fate of the Dome.

"We all have to come together in this dance to figure out what we're going to do with the Dome," said Emmett.

In January, the National Park Service added the Astrodome to its national register of historic places. That designation does not prevent demolition of the Dome, but it does open the door for federal funding and tax credits for any potential rehabilitation of the building.

Emmett said a decision on the Dome probably won't be made for another one to two years. Emmett added the 2017 Super Bowl will not force a decision one way or the other regarding the Dome.

"We've had a Super Bowl here before with the Dome where it is, when can have another one with the Dome there," said Emmett.

Local 2 reached out to other county commissioners on the issue of what to do with the Astrodome.

"There is no timetable on making a decision on the Dome. However, it continues to be an issue that's in the forefront," Commissioner El Franco Lee wrote in a statement. "We are not in a hurry to hastily pursue leveling the Dome. We are looking for opportunities for the best future use of the Dome. I hope that a strong group -- public or private -- can come up with a better idea to repurpose the Dome. Of course, the money would have to come from another source other than Harris County funds."

During a phone conversation with Local 2, Commissioner Jack Morman said he doesn't believe there is "any great urgency" to make a decision on the Dome. Morman said given that last November's election on the Dome lost by such a narrow margin, shows him there are still many in the community who want to save the structure.

"However, I would not want to be having this conversation again in 10 years or even five years," said Morman. "Preferably much sooner than later."

"The first question should be. ‘What is the most fiscally responsible way of dealing with the Dome?' All other questions –- how, when or if we should tear it down -- must all go back to the first question," Commissioner R. Jack Cagle wrote in a response to Local 2.

Local 2 Investigates has not yet received a response from Commissioner Steve Radack.

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