Houston’s Astrodome has resurfaced as a point of contention, this time between county and state officials. The dome, which has stood vacant for more than a decade, is now facing an uncertain future because of disagreements over how to proceed with renovations.

Last year Harris County Commissioners Court voted on a $105 million renovation plan to turn it into 550,000 square feet of open space, and create 1,400 underground parking spots. The decision to renovate rather than demolish was based on the fact that renovations are far less expensive. The $150,000 cost in annual upkeep is less than the $30 million it would cost to tear it down.

Following the commissioners’ vote, local taxpayers pushed back.

Their frustration stemmed from the fact that voters rejected a 2013 bond proposal for $217 million to be spent on renovations. Many continue to believe otherwise, but the failed vote wasn’t a vote in favor of demolishing it, it was a vote against spending tax dollars on that renovation plan. One can argue the interpretation of the ballot language, but the vote wasn’t for demolition.

However, even if the commissioners hadn’t taken up the plan last year, another glaring issue remains. The dome was under consideration by the Texas Historical Commission to become a historical landmark.

Nine years ago, Harris County residents Cynthia Neely and Ted Powell began the quest to get the dome marked as a historical landmark. They began by having it listed on the National Register of Historical Places, which allowed it to move to the Texas Historical Commission to be designated as a state antiquities landmark, which was granted in January of 2017.

The reason this matters is now all final plans or changes have to be approved by the state, even though county taxpayers own the dome. Its historical status makes it much harder to be demolished.

Now, this brings us to the contention between the state and county officials.

State Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) filed Senate Bill 884, “The Harris County Tax Payer Protection Act,” that would force a public vote on the future plans of the Astrodome. In a press conference for the bill with Sens. Bettencourt, Garcia, Miles, and Kolkhorst and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Whitmire said, “this puts in a safeguard so that the public vote will be honored.”

Ahead of Whitmire’s press conference, County Judge Ed Emmett released a statement saying, in part, “It’s frustrating that while the Astrodome stood vacant for more than 15 years, very few people stepped forward to offer real solutions. But now that we on Commissioners Court have finally arrived at a way to preserve the Dome as a revenue-generating asset for the people of Harris County, Sen. Whitmire’s legislation risks derailing that solution.”

Regardless of who ends up deciding the dome’s fate, that plan will have to be approved by the Texas Historical Commission. As a county asset, taxpayers deserve a say in the future of the Houston Astrodome.

Press conference today concerning SB 884, "The Harris County Tax Payer Protection Act"

Posted by Paul Bettencourt on Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Charles Blain

Charles Blain is the president of Urban Reform and Urban Reform Institute. A native of New Jersey, he is based in Houston and writes on municipal finance and other urban issues.