As the referendum on the Astrodome gets closer, I thought it might be worth taking a look back at the last 20 years of stadium history in Houston. Thought 20 years isn't a lot of time in the grand scheme of things, a lot has happened. Would you believe that, at one point, there was a better-than-average chance Houston could have lost all three of its professional sports franchises to other cities? True story.
In fact, the Oilers, who packed up and moved to Tennessee in the mid '90s could have led a mass exodus if not for the passage of a couple of referendums not dissimilar to the one on the ballot this November. Today, we have four major sporting venues all built since 2000. That almost didn't happen.
A little history: Oilers owner Bud Adams wanted a new stadium in the early '90s. Fresh off a renovation of the Astrodome, he decided he needed a new stadium with all the bells and whistles (i.e. luxury suites) to compete with other NFL franchises. At that time, professional sports was just entering what would be come a decade-plus-long stadium rebuilding renaissance. Adams suggested a retractible-roof facility just across 59 from downtown.
The project was laughingly labeled the "Bud Dome" by local officials. Adams asked the Astros to join them but Drayton McLane balked saying the Astrodome was perfectly fine for their purposes and not wanting to be stuck under a lease with the Oilers. When Adams suggested Alexander and the Rockets might join the Oilers in the cavernous new building -- keep in mind, the Spurs were beginning play in the Alamodome and some thought this might be the future of basketball arenas -- Alexander wisely passed.
Soon after, Adams signed an agreement with leaders in Tennessee, something no one believed could or would happen, and off the Oilers left with only a tiny, sad little rally at City Hall as a reminder.
Within just a few years, McLane began hinting that the Astros might consider relocation to Northern Virginia if the city didn't build a new facility for the team. Of course, McLane had just said the Astros planned to remain in the Dome, but things change. His flirtations with Northern Virginia, unlike Adams and Nashville, were taken seriously and the city went to work on a ballot measure that would create a tax increment zone for funding a new ballpark and other future stadiums. It would require a law be passed by the state legislature to allow for the collection of hotel occupancy and car rental taxes to pay for these buildings. The city had been collecting so-called HOT taxes from visitors for quite sometime -- though not the car rental variety -- the idea being that new buildings would attract visitors to conventions and sporting events, so they could shoulder the tax burden.
The opposition to that initial referendum in 1996 was small but extremely vocal. They believed that HOT taxes would not cover the entire cost and that property owners would be forced to pay for the new ballpark eventually. They also believed no one would go downtown to see a ballgame. At that time, downtown was a ghost town. Most people lived in the suburbs and there had been no urban renewal of any kind. The idea of a rich, thriving inner city area was a pipe dream.
By the slimmest of margins, the referendum passed that led to the passage of the Brimer Bill about a year later, formation of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority and the building of
Enron Field Minute Maid Park -- a retractible roof stadium just inside 59 in downtown (Sound familiar?).
But, there was still one more team left to satisfy. In 1999, Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander wanted out from under his lease at the Compaq Center (formerly the Summit), which was owned by Chuck Watson, then the owner of the minor league hockey Aeros. It was to be the first new building financed under the same mechanism as Minute Maid Park.
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At the polls in November of 1999, the voters were not kind, sending the vote to a double-digit defeat. It was at this point that the Rockets began looking elsewhere, going so far as to visit Louisville to discuss relocation.
Full disclosure: in 2000, I along with a friend started a grassroots campaign to keep the Rockets in Houston. I then worked with the subsequent arena campaign brought about to take another shot at a referendum. My concern was that, in 1999, not enough people who cared about pro sports in Houston were paying attention.
The 2000 referendum was a near reversal of 1999 and the team would have a new home in Toyota Center. Not long after, the NFL awarded a team to Houston on the promise of a new stadium, which would become Reliant. Then, just two years ago, the Dynamo opened BBVA Compass Stadium.
Many of the dire predictions of opponents of these referendums have not come true. In fact, the city has seen an urban renaissance and at least some of that is due to the building of these facilities. It's ironic that what might be the last referendum of its kind for some time is for the very first sports stadium the city ever built in the Astrodome. Once again, the voters will have their say.