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The politically powerful rodeo can decide that any amusement ride in the Dome conflicts with its midway. Rodeo officials therefore can demand the Dome's rides be shut down for a month of the year -- and a week in the prime summer tourist season.
"The rodeo would love [the Dome] for parking," Eckels says. "The rodeo would love for there to be nothing but parking on that lot. And nine months of the year it'd be empty."
The spokesman for the rodeo didn't return phone calls.
Complicating matters is the fact that Houston's hotel industry remains mired in a slump, with about 50 percent of its rooms going empty.
Paul Bettencourt, Harris County's tax assessor-collector, monitors hotel-tax revenues. The picture is gloomy and has been since 9/11.
"Even with oil at $50 a barrel, an improving U.S. economy, the Super Bowl and the baseball [playoffs] this year, we are still not up to the 2001 benchmark," he says.
A huge new convention center in the Dome also would compete with the city's downtown convention center and its attached new hotel. Not to worry, though.
"I know people say, 'There's already a convention center hotel and its use is low,' " Loston says. "Intuitively I know that's true But the concept is to make the pie bigger, to attract more business that you would otherwise not get, and certainly some of that will have a spillover effect to other areas of town."
If the ARC plan doesn't work out, Eckels says, the county will ask for more proposals, seeking developers in "Europe or Asia or the places where there's some of these types of real creative folks."
Meanwhile, the point may soon come when the county decides to mothball the Dome and put it into hibernation. "It's just not cost-effective to put many events in there anymore," SMG's Guinn says.
Mothballing it -- locking it up, doing only the barest of maintenance -- would still cost $600,000 a year, mostly for insurance.
That would obviously save a bundle off the current expenditures but would leave the county with a large building from which it is not getting any use for its annual six-figure investment.
"I don't want to think about the next 100 years, spending $1.5 million a year for a few high school games and three weeks of the rodeo," says Loston. "But it ain't my decision to make."
He sits in his office on the ground floor of Reliant Stadium -- it's nice, but the floor-to-ceiling windows are drafty enough he needs a space heater -- and ponders the future of the Dome.
"Sometimes it looks like an opportunity. Quite candidly, far too often it takes on the aspects of a dilemma," he says.
So what if the allegedly unthinkable were to happen? What might the Dome's demise look like?
For many years, Ron Dokell was a season-ticket holder for the Houston Oilers. He's also an expert on demolitions, having helped implode the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas and the Omni Arena in Atlanta. So it was natural enough for him to spend the occasional halftime looking around the Dome and wondering how he'd go about making it vanish.
He believes the job would cost on the cheaper end of the estimates, largely because so much of the material could be recycled. "The key thing is how do you get the roof down, and the answer is it's easier than you might think," he says.
The roof is supported by beams that push toward a compression ring about eight feet wide at the very top of the dome. Take away that compression ring and the roof falls.
First you'd cart away the seats, which don't support the structure. Then you'd place some explosives around the ring on the roof. "You could probably carry all you'd need up there yourself," he says. "It wouldn't take much."
Push a button, and the roof would collapse into the shell of the Dome. After that you'd take down the walls the old-fashioned way: with a crane and a wrecking ball.
He could do it easily enough, but should he? Does the old Oilers season-ticket holder want to see the place go down?
"Aahh, I don't know," he says. "That's up to the politicians to decide."
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