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By Angelica Leicht
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By Sean Pendergast
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By Ben DuBose
It's a nondescript weekday afternoon, and there is something highly unusual going on in the Reliant Astrodome. Actually, what's highly unusual is the fact that there's something going on at all.
The activity isn't too awe-inspiring: The high school football team from the tiny East Texas town of Newton is practicing for a playoff game. But still, something is going on. And for the Dome these days, that's reason to celebrate.
Except for the occasional scholastic playoff game, the 39-year-old Eighth Wonder of the World is all but abandoned. Even the religious revivals like the annual Jehovah Witnesses' convention have been seduced by the glamour and luxury of Reliant Stadium, just 30 yards away. The Dome is reduced to hosting dinner parties for nostalgic Houstonians on its floor, even a bar mitzvah or two.
The Oilers' locker room is office space; the Astros' is used for random storage. There is what appears to be an inch-thick coating of dust on the ceiling speakers; cleaning them would require rappelling down from the roof, and no one thinks it's worth it.
A skeleton crew of maintenance workers roams the murky hallways, checking lights and pipes and making sure the Dome is ready for the occasional onetime event like the filming of the movie Friday Night Lights. It doesn't happen too often, but the building has to be maintained just in case.
And doing so costs Harris County taxpayers $1.5 million a year. That may not seem like a big deal for a government entity with a billion-dollar budget, but $1.5 million could buy a lot of library books and after-school programs.
No politician in these parts wants to be the first to call for the demolition of the Dome, at least not until it's proved beyond any doubt -- and any should be underlined and boldfaced -- that the building can't be renovated for other uses.
Initial attempts to try such a renovation have been somewhat fumbling. The only proposal considered even halfway workable has come from an untested company that is vague on its financial strategy. But officials are convinced that, somehow, they can buck the reality and successfully rejuvenate an outdated stadium.
Expect a lot of fantastic architect's renderings of hotels and roller coasters inside the shell of the Dome, wonderful ideas that eventually will likely founder on the economics of Houston -- a city still struggling to fill 50 percent of its hotel rooms -- and the unique conditions at Reliant Park, where powerful tenants like the Livestock Show & Rodeo hold sway.
Some terrific plan may finally succeed, or it may take ten or 15 years to show that nothing can. And what's $15 million to $20 million in maintenance costs between friends?
Owning a white elephant, it appears, can be a bitch.
It wasn't supposed to be this way.
In reality, there wasn't a lot of attention paid to a new football stadium when voters narrowly approved a sports facility referendum in 1996. Most of the campaign's focus centered on a new baseball stadium for the Astros, who were threatening to leave town. The Oilers had already announced their departure for Tennessee, and football had become a back-burner issue compared to the unspeakable tragedy of possibly losing two major sports franchises in a short period.
The referendum included language funding both the Astros' new home and a future football stadium that could play a role in luring back the NFL. Until that vague effort succeeded, the Dome would continue to house concerts, college football games and other big events. And county officials assumed that even the new football stadium, which opened in August 2002, wouldn't have all that much effect on the Dome.
"We were hoping that there'd be a market for the dirt events -- the tractor pulls, the motocross races -- and concerts and events that don't need the football-type layout, that those could be held in the Astrodome," says County Judge Robert Eckels. "There has not been as much of that as we thought. The folks who do come out there, everyone wants to go into the new stadium."
(That's not necessarily a bad thing for the county. People who attend events at Reliant Stadium tend to spend more on concessions and souvenirs than they do at the Dome, and the county gets a cut of that.)
"I probably expected there to be more activity than we currently have," says Willie Loston, executive director for the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation. "To have it go down to a dribble, to a trickle, is not what I was expecting."
Harris County owns the Dome and all the facilities at Reliant Park; Loston's organization manages them, and a company based in Philadelphia called SMG books the events.
Shea Guinn, the head of SMG's Reliant Park operations, understood the novelty and the high-tech lure of the new stadium. "From day one those events like motocross moved into Reliant Stadium," he says. "We're getting to the point where we're pretty much not going to be booking anything into the Astrodome anymore."
"Which leaves you," Eckels says, "with the Dome sitting there, and what to do with it."
Not that there weren't plenty of ideas. Loston's got drawers full of unsolicited ideas from people.