Wanna Buy a RoboDome?

The city's sports tycoons maneuver for inside position, and the questions mount: Who needs it? Why? At what cost?

On April 9, 1965, the Houston Astrodome staged its first public sporting event. In the Astros' 2-1 victory over the New York Yankees, Joe Morgan stole the first base, Rusty Staub knocked in a run, Mickey Mantle clubbed the first home run.

A field-box seat cost $3.50.
The fans left the field happy (the home team prevailed), humored (where else could you see a groundskeeping crew dressed in space suits?) and wet (a faulty air-conditioning system created dew-like condensation).

Since its opening, the Astrodome has been billed as the Eighth Wonder of the World. It was, after all, the first enclosed dome for sports, with not a single vertical column supporting its clear-spanned roof or interrupting the view. Through the years, many a sports marquee matched the Dome's legend -- Elvin Hayes versus Lew Alcindor, Earl Campbell and the Luv Ya Blue Oilers, Mike Scott's division-clinching no-hitter in 1986 -- as well as such national events as the 1992 Republican National Convention.

Recent talk of the town hasn't centered on those pleasant Dome memories, but on what its detractors label as the facility's inadequacies -- namely, a shortfall of quality seats and luxury boxes. With his ten-year lease at the Astrodome running out in 1997, Houston Oilers owner Bud Adams is now publicly campaigning for an estimated $235-million, shape-transforming downtown dome to house his NFL franchise.

Rumors of a downtown facility of various kinds have swirled since the completion of the George R. Brown Convention Center in 1987. Official word was leaked by Mayor Bob Lanier late last November, when he informed Channel 13/KTRK's Tell It Like It Is sports-media forum that there was a "radical" stadium proposal on the table.

"What the mayor has done," explained Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack, "is thrown a topwater lure out there to see who's gonna snap at it -- to see what kind of big fish he might get on the line."
The big fish were biting. In the November 23 Houston Post, both the Houston Rockets and the Oilers confirmed having talks with Lanier about the proposed stadium. Lanier and Rockets owner Leslie Alexander tossed the idea around in public during the Rockets' November 20 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers.

On November 24 the man with the most to lose from a new stadium, Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane, offered a counterproposal -- a $95 million Astrodome renovation. Using some form of taxpayer subsidy, McLane is prepared to expand the Astrodome by 450,000 square feet, double the number of luxury suites and increase available seating to 70,000, a capacity that would render the Dome eligible for the 1999 Super Bowl sweepstakes.

The Oilers have rejected McLane's proposal. On January 14, Bud Adams's statement was blunt and foreboding: "[T]he baseball realignment and expanded playoffs will sound the death knell for all multi-purpose facilities.... Notwithstanding the other shortcomings of the Astrodome for football... we must find an alternative playing site to the Astrodome."

These developments set off the predictable rumor-mongering, as well as a host of yet-unanswered questions. The most obvious include: whether a proposed stadium would, as loudly promised, revitalize the central business district; what would be the prospective locations for any downtown dome; and of course, a long list of financial questions, the most pertinent being, how do they intend to pay for it?

For the past two months, a behind-closed-doors war has been waged in Lanier's office. Battle lines have formed between the city's most powerful sports financiers -- Adams and Alexander versus McLane and Summit leaseholder Kenneth Schnitzer. Though McLane contends that at the closed-door meetings "everyone is a gentleman, everyone talks fairly," other sources say the negotiations have been "heated" and that "Kenneth and Drayton will not go down quietly."

Although the outcome remains very much in doubt, the players, issues and motives in the battle over the downtown dome have begun to take shape.

One thing I know is for sure," argues Houston Astros majority owner Drayton McLane. "No city in the world needs two domed stadiums for athletic facilities.

"The Astrodome is still a magnificent facility. It was the first one ever built. If we are allowed to remodel it -- the cost would be about $95 million -- we can make it the premier sports facility in the world."

Prior to the 1992-93 season, McLane purchased the Houston Astros Baseball Club from the much-maligned John McMullen. Partly in reaction to McMullen's terrible local reputation, the Houston media have hailed McLane as the anti-shyster of professional sports owners. He did, after all, shell out a reported $34 million for free-agent pitching, provide much-needed computers for his inner-office staff, and elevate Astrodome eats -- a long-standing fan complaint -- well above the edibility level. But according to some insiders close to the dome debate, McLane's top priority remains his own bottom line.

"Drayton McLane came to Houston as the fair-haired boy," says a source close to the dome negotiations. "But he is gonna fall off his white horse as soon as the Astros don't win the championship next year. He's gonna get stuck just like the rest of 'em."

Bud Adams and Leslie Alexander are understandably envious of what they consider the Astros' "sweetheart" deal with the county. By forking out an annual $808,728.47 (plus, 30 days after each lease year, either $125,000 or 2 percent of parking revenue, whichever is greater), McLane picks up the lease for the entire Astrodomain, including the Astrodome, Astrohall and Astroarena. He makes money off all users of the Dome and surrounding venues, from the Oilers to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo to the recent Nirvana/Breeders show.

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