Saving the Astrodome: Will Those Who Wouldn't Support Stadium Financing in the Past Advocate for the Dome?

On November 5, voters in Houston might have extra incentive to hit the voting booth in an off-year election. For years, the Astrodome has sat, falling into disarray and becoming an eyesore and an embarrassment to a city that used that building to define progress decades ago. Plans have been suggested, but nothing concrete until August when the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation finally settled on a re-designed, multi-purpose Dome plan that will go on the ballot this November.

The estimated cost is $217 million (though a final number is yet to be determined). That money will come from property bonds issued by the county, if the referendum passes. The county estimates the cost to homeowners to be about $8 per year on a $200,000 home with a homestead exemption. The tax rate increase would take effect in 2015.

This of course says nothing of the money still being paid for renovations to the Astrodome when the Astros and Oilers (yes, the football team before the Texans) were still residents. It also leaves somewhat open ended the cost given that the $217 million figure is an estimate. But, for now, I'm going to assume -- especially with the microscope that has been on this project for months -- this is an accurate assessment.

A couple weeks ago, it was made public that two former county judges -- Jon Lindsay and Robert Eckles -- may act as co-chairmen for the campaign leading up to the election. The choice of Eckles is particularly ironic given his opposition to stadium financing in the past.

In 1999, Houston Rockets owner Leslie Alexander, tired of being under the thumb of then Aeros owner Chuck Watson at the Compaq Center, asked the city for help in building a new downtown arena. The plan, supported by the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority using HOT (Hotel Occupancy/Car Rental Taxes) taxes made possible by the referendum in 1996 that led to the building of Minute Maid Park, was soundly rejected by voters.

Before going back to the drawing board, the Rockets briefly flirted with the notion of moving to Louisville, Kentucky. The Oilers had done the same with Nashville and the Astros with Northern Virginia before getting new stadiums. Of course the Oilers got their stadium in Tennessee.

When a new referendum was drawn up in 2000, the Rockets identified four individuals they believed must support -- or at least not interfere with -- the campaign: county GOP chair Gary Polland, Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt, the Aeros' Watson and county Judge Robert Eckles. All had stood in opposition to the 1999 referendum and been responsible for its double-digit loss.

Polland and Bettencourt essentially agreed to stay out of the fray though neither supported the measure. Watson was placated with the promise of a new lease for the Aeros at Toyota Center. But, garnering the support of Eckles proved more difficult. After weeks of negotiation and the formal announcement of a letter agreement between the Rockets and the Sports Authority, Eckles sent a note to the Authority, which he also forwarded to media outlets, with criticisms of the agreement and promptly left town for vacation.

The backlash for Eckles was substantial, but damage had been done to what had not even reached the level of a campaign. Alexander and team representatives were frustrated, but made a deal to alter the agreement to satisfy Eckles's concerns and the referendum passed by 8 points, a turnaround of nearly 20 points from the loss in the previous year. Many saw the move by Eckles as political rather than practical, but like many of his fellow republicans, he was mostly opposed to city/county-backed stadium financing in general. In the case of the Toyota Center, it was built using HOT taxes, so it seems odd that Eckles is now set to back a proposal for the Dome that will increase property taxes, something considered almost untouchable for any reason among republicans.

As the election nears, perhaps Eckles and others will explain the shift in perspective. For now, the plan moves forward and voters will get their say in November.

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