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Deal to Turn Houston's Astrodome into a 1,200 room Hotel Likely
 Weeks Away; Some Question Financial Viability of Project

By Bill Murphy, Houston ChronicleMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Jan. 23, 2008 - The Harris County Sports and Convention Corp. expects to work out a proposed lease within two weeks with the company that wants to turn the Reliant Astrodome into a convention hotel, County Attorney Mike Stafford says.

But the sports corporation's deadline for striking a deal with Astrodome Redevelopment Co. is six days away. The corporation could extend the deadline by 90 days so the lease can be worked out and the county could complete its financial analysis of the deal, Stafford said in a recent letter to Commissioners Court.

County Judge Ed Emmett and Commissioner Steve Radack oppose extending the deadline.

"There are still irresolvable issues. The financing was supposed to be in place," Emmett said. "At some point, you say enough. Either you have definite financing or you don't."

Emmett and other members of Commissioners Court have said they understand that the majority of county residents feel attached to the Astrodome -- the world's first domed stadium, dubbed the "Eighth Wonder of the World" when it opened in 1965 -- and would like to find a second life for the facility.

Radack has questioned whether reinventing the Dome as a 1,200-room upscale hotel is financially viable. He also has said he does not want the county forced into the hotel management business if Astrodome Redevelopment's $450 million investment falls through and it defaults on a loan.

Stafford said it would be appropriate to grant an extension because the county's management services department needs more time to analyze the deal.

The decision on whether to grant an extension rests with the sports corporation, which is scheduled to meet today.

"We probably would be inclined to take the advice of the county attorney, but it would be inappropriate to discuss the issue in detail," sports corporation vice chairman Charles "Sonny" Sowell said.

Astrodome Redevelopment chief executive John Clanton said his company should not be blamed for failing to meet the Jan. 29 deadline because the county requires more time.

"It's not Astrodome Redevelopment that's working on the next milestone, and it is realistic to give the county however much time they want to be confident in this," he said.

A proposed lease could be in place within weeks, said Willie Loston, the sports corporation's director. But before the corporation and Astrodome Redevelopment could ink a lease, the corporation would have to present the proposal to Reliant Park's main tenants, the Texans and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Both have voiced strong opposition to a convention hotel, saying it would violate their leases and hurt their operations.

"The proposal that is on the table doesn't work for us," Leroy Shafer, the rodeo's chief operating officer, said Tuesday. "It violates our agreements in a multitude of ways."

The sports corporation signed a letter of intent requiring it to negotiate exclusively with Astrodome Redevelopment about a use for the Dome.

In a letter this week to Commissioners Court, Rodeo chairman Paul Somerville asked that the sports corporation not extend the exclusivity provision even if it extends the negotiating period by 90 days.

"It is our general belief that other parties may have an interest in utilizing the Astrodome and that the county should not be precluded from receiving any potential proposals while this process continues," he wrote.

Sowell said no developers have come to the sports corporation with alternative proposals for the Dome.

"If we had three or four folks out there who wanted to do something that was good for the county, that would probably change whether we would grant the extension," he said.

bill.murphy@chron.com

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Copyright (c) 2008, Houston Chronicle

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