Two Januarys ago, the City of Houston, after a delay of at least seven years, finally started a critical long-term project. It was patchwork on two dams constructed during the post-World War II era to protect the city from catastrophic flood and deemed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to have fallen into as dangerous a state of disrepair as possible. The cost: $72 million in federal funds.
Two decades ago, Houston found itself without a professional football team for the first time in seemingly forever. There was no holdup. There was no skimping.
The city immediately sought an expansion franchise from the NFL, won one, and within just three years was breaking ground for a new eighth wonder of the world, as its old Astrodome was called. It built the NFL’s first retractable-roof stadium. The cost: $449 million, including $193 million from the public.
Turns out, the stadium investment was money well spent, but not just because of the Super Bowls, Final Fours, college football conference championships and countless other sports and music events it has hosted.
That stadium, now in its second naming rights iteration as NRG, last week became the biggest refuge for people in and around Houston washed out of their homes by the biggest rainfall in recorded U.S. history. Its 1.9 million square feet accommodated at least 10,000 survivors of the flood that caused those leaky old dams to overflow for the first time in history.
It doesn’t appear that with the biblical amount of water Hurricane Harvey produced that Houston could have engineered its way out of the catastrophe. We don’t know yet whether a less-deliberate, and more-proactive, approach to the city’s dams could have mitigated the damage.
But you wonder whether so much public investment for a private sports venture operated by a multibillionaire Houston businessman, Bob McNair, would’ve been better used over the years to help shore up, or rebuild, the 70-year-old dams that were 20 years past their expiration date when the rehab project started. You wonder whether public dollars in any city, for that matter, could be spent smarter than on for-profit sports stadiums that are almost always just part of some multibillionaire’s personal ATM.
This is not a new concern, but the flooding in Houston underscored it like never before. Public schools need funding. There is hand-wringing. Need a new sports stadium? No problem. Roads and public transportation systems need dire need of repair. Municipalities and counties point the finger at each other. Old stadium needs skyboxes? Open the coffer.
I spent a lot of time in Houston from the late 1980s into the middle of the last decade on business and for pleasure. I covered and witnessed the transformation of Houston’s old north of downtown railroad hub into a sports stadium center for teams other than the NFL’s Texans. The football stadium, NRG, where they play, was built southwest of downtown.
The Astros were the first to get a new place to play in the old Union Station area. Their baseball park, which opened in 2000, cost $250 million, the bulk of which — $180 million — came from taxpayers. Its original naming rights were sold to Ken Lay’s Enron Corp. Enron was removed when the corporation collapsed under the criminal activities and convictions of Lay and his lieutenants.
The Rockets moved into a new basketball arena almost next door to the Astros in 2003. Their new gym cost $235 million. The city, again, paid the bulk, $182 million. And in 2010, Houston sold the Rockets’ old arena, the Compaq Center, where Hakeem Olajuwon brought the city consecutive NBA championships, to Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church for a bargain of $7.5 million out of desperation to help soak up a budget shortfall. Last week, Osteen was slow to open the arena he converted into a church, with that sweetheart deal from the city, as shelter to victims of the flood.
Five years ago, Houston built a soccer stadium east of downtown for its Major League Soccer club, the Dynamo. It cost $95 million with Houston’s home county, Harris, kicking in $35.5 million and the city purchasing the land for $15 million.
Meanwhile, the dams around the city — like Addicks, west of the city off Interstate 10 that I drove past countless times without thinking of its ramifications — continued to erode with little more than band aid investment to keep them viable.
The investigative news site ProPublica early last year documented the danger to Houston in a prescient and now eerie piece detailing flood events that could devastate the city.
“Several proposals have been discussed,” ProPublica reported. “One, dubbed the ‘Ike Dike,’ calls for massive floodgates at the entrance to Galveston Bay to block storm surge from entering the region. That has since evolved into a more expansive concept called the ‘coastal spine.’ Another proposal, called the ‘mid-bay’ gate, would place a floodgate closer to Houston’s industrial complex.
“But none,” ProPublica wrote of the plans, “have gotten much past the talking stage.”
The Houston Chronicle last year pleaded in an editorial for local lawmakers and land developers not to wait for federal funds to protect the city from a storm flooding its bayous. "There's no time to waste," the city's newspaper said.
Houston certainly didn’t waste time after it lost its Oilers in 1997. McNair didn’t have a nickname for what he proposed to be a new Houston NFL team. He didn’t have a logo. He did, however, come up with $700 million, an astronomical sum at the time to buy entry to the NFL’s country club, and the promise of one thing.
“It’s an awful lot of money,” McNair admitted to reporters at the 1999 meeting of owners who awarded him and Houston an expansion license. “But we’ve got a tremendous product in NFL football and a stadium that’ll knock your socks off.”
The stadium was but a pipe dream then. But maybe if it had been built next to one of the dams, Houston wouldn’t be living such a nightmare.
Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and visiting professor at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, writes sports commentary for The Post.