Houston Chronicle Sunday

Sports are­nas fail tax­pay­ers

- By Tom Gio­vanetti

The Houston Astrodome, which opened in 1965, was a mar­velous ac­com­plish­ment for pub­licpri­vate part­ner­ships. The fa­cil­ity, largely funded by tax­payer county bonds to the tune of $40 mil­lion, hosted scores of events that played a ma­jor role in the eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment of Houston.

Once dubbed the “Eighth Won­der of the World,” the Astrodome was con­demned in 2008 for nine sep­a­rate fire code vi­o­la­tions. The iconic build­ing now sits un­in­hab­it­able and in dis­re­pair.

Now the Har­ris County Sports and Con­ven­tion Corp. wants $217 mil­lion — more than five times the orig­i­nal cost — to give the Astrodome a sec­ond life as an events center. If not, the wreck­ing ball awaits. The fund­ing would come from mul­ti­ple sources, but tax­pay­ers would foot a por­tion of the bill. Har­ris County Judge Ed Em­mett has al­ready con­firmed it, say­ing, “there will be a tax and every­body needs to un­der­stand that ….”

Such tax­payer in­vest­ments in eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment oc­ca­sion­ally make sense, but it de­pends on the de­tails. At the very least, us­ing tax dol­lars to make such an in­vest­ment re­quires trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity. Un­for­tu­nately, the Har­ris County Sports and Con­ven­tion Corp. does not have the best track record in that arena.

The pub­lic pro­vided $275 mil­lion in fund­ing for the Sports and Con­ven­tion Corp.-op­er­ated Re­liant Sta­dium. Houston was re­cently named the site for Su­per Bowl LI and Re­liant Sta­dium has been a suc­cess­ful re­cruit­ing tool for other ma­jor events, so tax­pay­ers will at least be get­ting some re­turn on their in­vest­ment.

How­ever, egre­gious tick­et­ing prac­tices have left Houston tax­pay­ers with very few op­por­tu­ni­ties to en­joy events in sta­di­ums built with their tax dol­lars. Ear­lier this year, the state’s Ma­jor Events Trust Fund paid for an $8 mil­lion score­board and re­play screen for the Toy­ota Center in Houston. Funded by tax­pay­ers across the state, the “in­vest­ment” was in­tended to help pre­pare the arena for the com­ing NBA All Star Game. State Sen. Dan Pa­trick, R-Houston, prob­a­bly put it best. “I love sports. But sports own­ers and the leagues are some of the greed­i­est peo­ple you will find, and they will take and take and take and take.”

Pub­lic-pri­vate part­ner­ships should be part­ner­ships with the pub­lic, not sim­ply sub­si­dies for the well-con­nected. The prob­lems with such crony cap­i­tal­ism have been made ob­vi­ous in re­cent years, at the fed­eral level and right here in Texas.

Lack of trans­parency and tick­et­ing poli­cies that dis­ad­van­tage the gen­eral pub­lic can’t be tol­er­ated in a pub­lic fa­cil­ity. It should be a fa­cil­ity that works for the tax­pay­ers, pro­vid­ing them ev­ery use and equal ac­cess, as with a pub­licly funded li­brary or park.

The Har­ris County Sports and Con­ven­tion Corp., along with the sup­port of Em­mett, says that pub­lic funds are needed for “The New Dome Ex­pe­ri­ence.” As Hous­to­ni­ans con­tinue to as­sess the mer­its of this ar­gu­ment, they should ask them­selves what kind of “ex­pe­ri­ence” they should ex­pect from a venue built with their tax dol­lars, and they should de­mand trans­parency be­fore, dur­ing and af­ter the ren­o­va­tion is com­plete. Gio­vanetti is pres­i­dent of the In­sti­tute for Pol­icy In­no­va­tion, a Dal­las-based, free-mar­ket pub­lic pol­icy think tank.

 ??  ?? Houston’s Astrodome sits in dis­re­pair. The Har­ris County Sports and Con­ven­tion Corp. wants $217 mil­lion to turn it into a con­ven­tion and ex­hi­bi­tion space.
Houston’s Astrodome sits in dis­re­pair. The Har­ris County Sports and Con­ven­tion Corp. wants $217 mil­lion to turn it into a con­ven­tion and ex­hi­bi­tion space.

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