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New county judge raises questions on Astrodome redevelopment costs

January 28, 2019

As work continues on the initial stages of preparing the Astrodome for its new life as a parking and events venue, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo raised questions last week about the costs associated with redeveloping the former sports stadium.

Harris County’s new judge, who recently toured the property with officials from NRG Park, said she learned that the $105 million the county allocated to the redevelopment project did not include air conditioning.

“I’m looking to make sure the current plan is fiscally responsible and that it will get us to a point where the Astrodome is self-sustaining,” she said in an interview on Houston Public Media’s “Houston Matters.”

Hidalgo declined to comment further, but current and former county officials said the renovation costs were never meant to include traditional air conditioning. Rather, the climate inside would be maintained by a mechanical forced-air ventilation and convection-based system designed to keep the inside of the building more temperate when it is hot or cold outside.

PRIOR COVERAGE: $105 million isn’t enough for AC? 

“The thought process was that further phases would bring in air conditioning,” said County Engineer John Blount, who is managing the project.

Early last year, Harris County Commissioners Court voted unanimously to move forward with the $105 million project, which includes raising the stadium’s subterranean first floor to ground level and creating 1,400 parking spaces underneath.

About a third of the cost would come from the county’s property tax-supported general fund. The remainder would be funded by hotel occupancy taxes and parking revenues.

Work to prepare the Dome for redevelopment began in October with asbestos removal, a process that has taken several months.

Future alterations need to be approved by the Texas Historical Commission, which in 2016 designated the Dome a state antiquities landmark, giving it special protections against demolition and requiring that the commission sign off on the building’s renovations.

Some of the early construction work has been approved, Blount said, but plans to submit an application for the next set of changes has been delayed until April in order to get the new administration up to speed.

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The stadium, once was home to the Oilers and Astros, has not housed a professional sports team since the Astros moved to Minute Maid Park in 2000. NRG Stadium opened in the Dome complex two years later to serve as the home of the NFL’s Texans. The Houston fire marshal’s office declared the massive building unfit for occupancy in 2009.

The idea behind the Astrodome redevelopment project was to help provide a source of revenue by renting the covered space for music festivals, the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and other events.

The rental income would help pay for maintenance and upgrades to the other buildings in NRG Park, including NRG Stadium.

For Ed Emmett, Hidalgo’s predecessor, the Astrodome project was never about nostalgia, but to keep the integrity of the NRG complex intact. The county has a contract with the rodeo and the Texans to maintain NRG Stadium in first-class condition.

“Those tenants are going to start coming to the county saying we need this or that upgrade. There’s no revenue source to provide those upgrades without the Dome,” Emmet said.

As far as the air conditioning, he said the idea was to make the space usable, “but not necessarily at 72 degrees.”

“My purpose from day one was to create nine acres of indoor space protected from the weather, where it would be preferable than being outside,” Emmett said.

Blount said traditional air conditioning was never included in the $105 million because of the high cost. He said future phases could include adding air conditioning as well as repurposing the space beyond the exhibit floor.

The amount of money it would take to replace the air conditioning system is unclear, but estimates have been in the tens of millions.

“You’re talking about a very expensive proposition,” said Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack.

One source of additional funding could be through tax credits. The Harris County Sports & Convention Corp., which manages and operates the county-owned NRG Park, plans to apply for a 25 percent historic tax credit from the state. As a non-profit corporation, the group is eligible to receive tax credits, said Executive Director Ryan Walsh.

He said his team is working with Hidalgo’s office to answer any questions they have and to better understand the project.

“I’m agnostic on it,” Hidalgo said on “Houston Matters,” a public radio show. “I want what’s best for the community.”

nancy.sarnoff@chron.com

twitter.com/nsarnoff

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