Look back at Harris County's building projects

August 13, 2013 4:24:08 PM PDT
With the Astrodome potentially about to become the county's next big reconstruction project, we decided to go back and look at how other huge projects turned out. The $200 million proposed renovation for it is far from the first major, multi-million dollar project backed by the county.

Since 1999, county officials have spent more than $450 million of your money to build everything from hospitals to jails. Even one longtime commissioner concedes those projects have met with mixed success.

Some have had their share of problems, like the $100 million Harris County Criminal Justice Center. Shortly after being built, it was forced to close for repairs for 10 months after extensive damage caused by flooding by Tropical Storm Allison in 2001.

It's also been plagued by elevator problems causing headaches for those trying to get to courtrooms on upper floors, since stairs are only for inmates and judges.

"The reality is, I guess you could say it's a mixed bag on buildings," Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack said.

Radack helped push the justice center project and others over his long tenure.

"Although not everything is always successful, I think given the challenges we've had, we've responded pretty well," he said.

Art Storey, the county's top engineer, insists the county's projects, which were built by private companies, have been a benefit to taxpayers.

"I would not characterize it as mixed successes. I think we have a beautiful downtown complex and every project has been a success," Storey said.

Storey points to the $65 million renovation of the 1910 courthouse, which was completed in 2011 as a successful tax funded project.

But other projects have had issues, including the $119 million new civil courts building. It has not been used to full capacity, although family courts are now set to move in to vacant floors.

And the $70 million jail on Baker Street has struggled with overcrowding since being completed in 2002.

And there's the county's old jail. Inmates are in a new facility across the street, but this prime piece of real estate is now being used to just house county records.

"It's a building that sits on several million dollars of real estate, and for the past many years, it's nothing but a big storage facility for the county. I mean it's just a big waste of money," Harris County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez said.

The $217 million propose for the Astrodome doesn't include a nickel to run the new special events center.

However, if county officials cannot attract enough special events to fill the dome, we'll be right back where we started; the public will foot the bill for an unused but now renovated Astrodome.

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