When it comes to the Astrodome and NRG Stadium, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett finds himself a bit confused. He believed he had found a way to save and repurpose a county asset without having to raise taxes, and he was under the impression that NRG Stadium is a fantastic facility that held the NCAA Final Four and the Super Bowl in the span of a year without any complaints about the facility.
But apparently Houston may never get another Super Bowl unless the building is renovated, and now Emmett is being bombarded by the Houston Chronicle telling him to take money from the Astrodome to renovate NRG. At the same time, State Senator John Whitmire, with the assistance of Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick and Senator Paul Bettencourt, is trying to push a bill through the Legislature that would force another Harris County vote before further work could be done on the Astrodome.
“What they’re talking about doing, requiring another vote, would be the first time in Texas history that the Legislature has told a local government what they could or couldn’t do, with a building they’ve already paid for,” Emmett told the Houston Press this week.
Whitmire's office did not respond to a request for comment.
State law is clear, according to Emmett. There’s no tax increase involved with renovating the Astrodome. No money has to be borrowed. The building is paid off and available for use by Harris County.
Emmett is unsure who might be behind this push for a new Astrodome vote. The Houston Texans have told him that they’re not. But, he says, the Texans have also made clear the franchise only cares about the upkeep of NRG Stadium, the team's home field.
Emmett agrees Harris County is responsible for the maintenance and operations of NRG Stadium, and notes the lease requires the stadium be maintained in a condition comparable to that of NFL stadiums built within five years of NRG. But that raises another question: Are expensive upgrades and renovations the same as maintenance and operations? It’s a discussion the Texans and Harris County have often.
“Leading up to the Super Bowl, there were all of these questions about you need to do this, you need to do that,” Emmett said. “And I asked the question: ‘If we didn’t do any of these things, would there be an empty seat at the Super Bowl?’ The answer was no.”
Emmett further notes that Harris County, despite being responsible for stadium maintenance and operations, does not get any of the sales tax or parking revenue generated through events like the Super Bowl or the Final Four. All of that money goes to the city and the state (and the NFL, when it comes to parking). So the funding mechanisms for expensive NRG Stadium improvements come from property taxes.
In addition to pressure from the Texans and lawmakers in Austin, Harris County is also dealing with demands from the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo to build a replacement for the aging NRG Arena.
Emmett believes a repurposed Astrodome would generate money that could be put toward a new rodeo arena and stadium improvements. (The current dome funding plan involves money from the hotel occupancy tax, downtown Houston parking revenue and general revenue.)
“To me, this gives us the best opportunity for the dome to not only be preserved, to be repurposed, but to actually generate revenue that could then be used in the rest of the park,” Emmett says. “Absent that, all the county has really is property tax.”
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Emmett says he can’t just use the Astrodome money and repurpose it for the Texans because the Astrodome is also a county building he’s responsible for maintaining. He's also firmly of the opinion that Houstonians want to save the Astrodome if it can be done without raising taxes. At the end of the day, he must keep all of his NRG Park tenants happy, not just the Texans.
“The rodeo is saying very loudly that it needs a new arena because the NRG Arena out there is woefully outdated and needs to be replaced,” he says. “Along the way, I’ve tried to explain to them and others that if we were to tear down the dome and they come back two years later and say, ‘Oh, by the way, we need a bond to build a new arena,’ the public’s going to have my head. The public’s going to say this doesn’t make any sense.”
Much of this discussion doesn't make sense, like why the Chronicle has gone all in on NRG Stadium renovation while advocating the use of Astrodome money for those renovations. Or who convinced Whitmire to file his bill and why. Or just what, exactly, is wrong with NRG Stadium and needs to be fixed or renovated to get another Super Bowl.
“This is one of those issues where no matter what we do, somebody’s not going to be happy,” Emmett says. “I got that. But I guarantee people would be less happy if we tore down the dome and took all of the money and put it into NRG.”