Houston Chronicle Sunday
Sports arenas fail taxpayers
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.