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Plan to Redevelop Houston's Astrodome into a Destination Hotel
 Could be in Line for Millions of Dollars in Public Financing
By Kristen Mack, Houston ChronicleMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

May 12, 2007 - AUSTIN -- The plan to redevelop the Reliant Astrodome into a destination hotel could be in line for millions of dollars in public financing after a state senator qualified the project for tax rebates.

Sen. Kyle Janek, R-Houston, amended a House bill to qualify the project for hotel and sales tax rebates, which could total $150 million over 10 years.

"We have a national icon sitting unused," Janek said. "They want the ability to convert the Astrodome into something useful. If you build a hotel, it lets you keep the taxes you generate. The money wouldn't be there, but for the existence of that hotel."

Astrodome Redevelopment Corp., the private entity seeking to transform the so-called "Eighth Wonder of the World" into a luxury hotel, is counting on the future rebates to help it secure financing for the $450 million project.

"This could be the critical piece that puts them over the top, that allows this to work," County Judge Ed Emmett said. "If it's something that will help make it work, I'm willing to throw that in the mix."

Emmett noted that the county won't receive any money until the hotel is up and operating, and says it is a "long shot" such rebates would make a big difference in the overall scheme of things. "We're not putting the money into it, it's the people who choose to stay there," he said. "The county should not put any taxpayer dollars into it."

Not everyone sees it that way. Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack said the county should not be in the hotel business.

"They couldn't put a deal together in a timely fashion. Now they want these tax incentives," Radack said of Astrodome Redevelopment. "If this project could stand alone, we wouldn't have this conversation. You have people who want to see the county help fund a hotel and I disagree."

Neither Radack nor Harris County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia knew the county was pursuing the rebates. Garcia said it was premature to count on the estimates. She supports redevelopment, but not at the expense of the county.

"This whole venture, from the beginning, has been to try and get the private sector to come up with its own financing," she said. "I'm not for spending any tax dollars on this project."

Astrodome Redevelopment plans to convert the world's first domed stadium into a four-star convention hotel with at least 1,000 rooms, a 2,100-space parking garage, nightclubs, restaurants and retail.

"There are a number of hurdles we need to cross before that comes to fruition," said Franklin Jones, Astrodome Redevelopment's lawyer. "The county expects a private developer to do the heavy lifting."

The county can choose to do whatever it wants with the rebate money, Jones said, adding that "we hope to benefit from whatever they do."

The city of Houston used the same approach, known as the Texas Enterprise Zone program, as a vehicle to help develop the Hilton Americas next to the George R. Brown Convention Center. The program is being updated this session with House Bill 3694, which already has passed the House.

Janek changed the bill's language to qualify a county-sponsored hotel. His amendment passed out of the subcommittee on Emerging Technologies & Economic Development, which he chairs. It must now go to the Business & Commerce Committee before heading to the full Senate for a vote.

"If we are able to bring a hotel to that complex, this would generate additional funds. It would be the prudent thing to do," said Mike Surface, chairman of the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp., which manages Reliant Park. "The rebate would be used for additional park enhancements. We hold a firm line that we want the hotel to be privately funded."

The Sports & Convention Corp. set a June 1 deadline for Astrodome Redevelopment to prove it has lined up financing.

Astrodome Redevelopment appears to be proceeding as expected, Surface said, but he did not rule out finding another developer if it is unsuccessful.

Willie Loston, director of the sports and convention corporation, said the county needs to have the Legislature address the issue now because state lawmakers meet only every other year. "It's a tool in the toolbox," he said. "But just because you have a saw doesn't mean you're going to run out and start cutting lumber."

Chronicle reporter Bill Murphy contributed to this story.

kristen.mack@chron.com

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Copyright (c) 2007, Houston Chronicle

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