By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
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By Craig Malisow
Houston has had some problems since the turn of the 21st century, it's safe to say — hurricanes, Metro cost overruns, Tom DeLay on Dancing with the Stars — but none has been so oddly vexing as what to do with the old, abandoned Astrodome.
For years it's just been a mausoleum, gathering dust while crackpot schemes get bandied about over what should be done — indoor snow-skiing, a movie studio, Vegas-style canals — just about everything has been proposed and has failed to get crucial financing.
While critics carped that county bureaucrats were doing nothing, officials from Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on down have been secretly and busily hammering out details for a bold new plan to rejuvenate the Dome. It's a plan they've tried desperately to keep under wraps until it is a fait accompli, but it is a plan so far-reaching, so involved that word inevitably leaked out.
Thanks to a two-and-three-quarters-monthlong investigation by the Houston Press, involving the Public Information Act, the federal Freedom of Information Act and sophisticated use of Twitter and Facebook, the plans — scheduled to be announced next week — can be revealed here for the first time.
The Dome — once the site of sporting triumphs — will now be home to a different sort of sport. The deadliest sport of all.
A Memorandum of Understanding has been signed by the county with well-known restaurateur Tilman Fertitta, who will do for the Dome what he did with the downtown firehouse, which he transformed into the Aquarium restaurant, home to white tigers and a Ferris wheel. It is visited by several people a week, making that section of downtown far livelier than it was when it featured a firehouse that did not have a tiger or Ferris wheel.
Not everyone is happy with the Dome deal, however — internal memos have criticized what some call "a sweetheart deal" with the influential Fertitta.
Emmett says the deal the county struck with the magnate is far better than what the city settled for in the Aquarium agreement.
"Instead of a symbolic dollar a year, we're getting $1.25," Emmett told the Press. "And ten percent of all gross revenue over what the contract calls 'a reasonable profit as defined by [Fertitta]' goes directly into the county's general fund. That's money that can be used to build libraries or roads or buy equipment for the sheriff's department, theoretically."
Even though the rent the county gets is a full 25 percent higher than what the city gets, critics like Commissioner El Franco Lee have called for a rent figure as high as $1.45 — or even $1.65 — a year.
Emmett calls such demands "pie-in-the-sky" thinking.
"Would I like to get a dollar sixty-five in rent each year? Of course I would," he says. "But if you don't give a businessman a chance to make a profit, he's not going to enter into a partnership. We have to live in the real world here."
Lee's blocking of the deal — the last logjam preventing approval — ended shortly after the county created yet another TIRZ in his district. Insiders called the move, for reasons that aren't clear, "Dynamo Stadium Part Two," even though no soccer will be played in the renovated Dome.
What will be housed in the new Dome? The Press has examined nearly 2,000 pages of planning documents, architects' drawings, legal agreements, tweets and even doodles to find the answer.
It's an answer that will make the Dome once again the Eighth or Ninth Wonder of the World, whatever it was before it shut down.
Houston, you don't have a problem any more. You have...AstroSafari.
The great idea began, like all great ideas, with a simple inspiration. One that is found deep within the documents the Press obtained.
From: Mr. Fertitta
Re: Boredom in Aquarium
What's wrong with the Aquarium? Some would say the location, which is harder to get to than the White House Situation Room. Some would say the prices of the rides, which cost about the same per minute as renting a Gulfstream jet.
Others would say the bland, expensive food.
They're all wrong. (And if any of them work for me, btw, they're fired.)
What's missing from the Aquarium? A sense of danger.
"But Tilman," you say, "we have white tigers. We have killer fish." First of all, it's Mister Fertitta, not "Tilman." Second of all, the tigers, the fish — they're all caged.
Well, the fish aren't, obviously, because of the drainage problems we encountered before we installed glass walls, but still — it's safe. I've seen kids laughing at the tigers!!
I want on my desk by Monday 6 a.m. ideas on how to add a frisson of risk to the experience. We've got tigers and piranhas, let's use them!!
The first proposals that came in were a bit half-baked: slightly reducing the tigers' daily gallon of whale sedative, or adding a ladder so diners could climb up and dip their hands quickly in the shark tank.
It wasn't enough for Fertitta, and slowly, documents show, the idea of AstroSafari took hold.