By Craig Malisow
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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.
Gut the Dome of everything nonessential: Get rid of Bum Phillips's tub-sized cuspidor, Mike Scott's Scuff-o-Matic, the pile of used condoms left over from the last George Strait rodeo appearance — and transform the Dome into an exotic-game park.
The bold idea was initially misunderstood, as architects' drawings showed what looked like the world's biggest petting zoo.
"I'm not talking about PETTING these animals," Fertitta wrote in an e-mail. "I'm talking about HUNTING them."
From that point on, the AstroSafari project was full speed ahead.
Some questioned whether the Dome could support wildlife; research showed that cat-sized rats had nestled comfortably in the facility's famed Dome Skeller since it opened.
By examining financial documents, advertising brochures and RFPs (Requests for Proposals), we're able to piece together some of what is planned for AstroSafari. The unique entertainment and killing destination should, if projections prove true, be raking in more than $123.8 million a year by 2013. (If it doesn't, the county is on line to make up the difference to Fertitta, but Emmett said such a possibility "is highly unlikely" and would not involve raising any property taxes, but rather surcharges on hotel rooms, car rentals and plywood whenever a hurricane is in the Gulf.)
The documents obtained by the Press show it definitely will no longer be your daddy's Dome — unless your daddy loves danger.
The Main Concourse
For years, this narrow, airless corridor served mainly to create logjams in front of concession stands. Now, thanks to artful use of plants, lighting and humidifiers, making the circle around the Dome will transport one to the lushest, riskiest jungles of the South American rainforest.
Twenty-foot-long snakes — fattened by the Dome Skeller rats — lie in wait for the customer who lets his defenses down for even a second. (The no-fault liability form signed by all customers is two inches thick and was written by veterans of the UN's Law of the Sea Treaty.) Armed with a blunderbuss and wearing heavy armor in the 103-degree enclosed space, one relives the excitement of Pizarro's search for the magical gold city of El Dorado. The number of deadly mammals, insects and fish — all of whom can kill a man with little to no warning — is estimated to be in the dozens. On the other hand, the feeling of accomplishment that comes from surviving the experience — maybe even coming home with enough snakeskin to make a handful of fine boots — is something unavailable anywhere else in the Greater Houston area, with the possible exception of the old Sharpstown Mall.
You must be over 48 inches tall to attempt the Rain Forest Run. Vaccines are available at a reduced price for those who sign up; antidotes (market price) are available for those whose luck or skill abandons them on their journey.
Overpriced, watery Cokes and beers are still available in the same concourse locations as before. Visitors are advised, however, that the pythons have developed a taste for Dome Dogs.
The Floor of the Dome
What was once cheap plastic grass is now lush emerald veldt, an enchanting world where nature rules. The only place on earth where Bengal Tigers and African Lions roam free together, the sacred spot where Earl Campbell once plowed through Dolphins on Monday Night Football is now an arena where only the strongest truly survive.
The deluxe $13,500 "Bwana" package offers a chance to cruise the floor in an impregnable titanium mini-tank armed with an M2 .50-caliber machine gun and an MK19 .40-mm grenade launcher, as used in the U.S. Army's Stryker armored combat vehicle. For $39.95 (with coupon or Coca-Cola bottletop), a "Junior Bwana" package offers a handgun and some Off spray. Visitors are advised to choose wisely.
(County Judge Emmett, when asked if the "Junior Bwana" package might possibly endanger customers, said pricing was "all about choice," while emphasizing that the less-expensive package "does include mosquito repellent.")
The location of the old Dome dugouts is now a watering hole for elephants, dubbed Tusk Town. Customers are strictly limited in the amount of ivory they may take home: One can take only what one can transport off the floor, another incentive for taking the full "Bwana" package with its sturdy vehicle. Ivory from dead elephants that cannot be carried off the floor will be sold through Black Markets R Us, with Fertitta and the county splitting the profits 90-10.
Those who traverse the floor are encouraged to head to the south ramp of the Dome. There, animals that did not attract sufficient bids at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo are set free from their loathsome confinement, with the encouragement of cattle prods. The ensuing demonstration of what scientists call "The Food Chain" is said to be a wonder to behold.
Breathes there the hunter whose heart quickens not at the thought of Africa or South America? Perhaps.
And so AstroSafari will offer a more Texas kind of attraction, located in what used to be the loge seats: The Cheney Chamber of Horrors.
It's Lone Star State hunting — with a twist. Currently anyone, as we all know, can go to some luxurious ranch where the hired help directs the birds, or the deer or the whatever to wander slowly across your line of fire: Where's the thrill of that?
On the loge level, you'll not only be treated to a faithful replication of a South Texas oilman's hunting lease (note: all Cheney Chamber hookers receive weekly STD testing), you'll also find yourself facing off with an animatronic vice president, ready to blast your face to pieces at any given moment.
The advertising brochure prepared for this attraction emphasizes "the honor you will feel being shot by a man who was only one heartbeat away from the presidency."
To further enhance the experience, visitors will undergo a 3-D re-enactment of a press conference where they will be awarded points for how convincingly they insist it was their fault for daring to be alive within 50 yards of the vice president, who was absolutely not to be blamed for anything. Those who fail to be sufficiently convincing will be shot once again by the animatronic veep. (Just to emphasize, the Liability Agreements are pretty ironclad in stating any and all of this will be the customer's fault, should any injuries occur. And injuries will occur.)
A tip to participants: You can always keep Robo-Cheney on your side by maintaining a steady patter on how the Obama administration is putting America at risk because it has yet to invade any countries that haven't done anything to us, or hasn't based its rules of engagement for interrogations on the methods used on 24. Robo-Cheney will be so busy nodding in agreement and drooling over the "I told ya so" possibilities of another terrorist attack that he'll be too busy to empty his shotgun into your face.
The Cheap Seats
The vast acreage devoted to very high seats with awful sightlines — a charming aspect of the beloved Astrodome years — does not go to waste in the county/Fertitta plan. Under a licensing agreement with the former half-term governor of Alaska, The Sarah Palin E-Z Hunt is an attraction where humans get to experience the advantages of modern technology in the endless battle against predators.
Mini-helicopters hover over the orange seats, where majestic moose nuzzle on strategically deposited piles of whatever it is moose eat. As the fragile warbirds dance their dangerous tango in the air, ever vulnerable to an attack by a flying, big-horned moose, a calm AstroSafari customer takes his aim. Knowing that — at any second — tragedy might strike and he may be forced to slightly readjust his aim even as a blood-crazed moose stares him down, the intrepid hunter keeps his cool in the unbearable war of nerves.
His wily adversary may take refuge in the superbox of the man who built the Dome, Judge Roy Hofheinz; this calls for nerves of steel on the shooter's part, knowing that patience will eventually be awarded, since moose have an inherent inability to stay in any area so hideously decorated as the Judge's (what hunters call the "Naugahyde Rule").
Savvy guides will direct customers' attention to the east side of the building, where BARC — the city dog pound that will have finally become a "no-kill facility" — lets its nonadoptable animals back into the wild, joyfully free to enjoy life outside the cramped cages they have been calling home. Until they're eaten by a moose. Or a loose python from the concourse area.
It is in this area where the moose are easiest to strike.
This is Survival of the Fittest as experienced by only the most audacious of hunters, like Sarah Palin. It is for those who have the intestinal fortitude to shoot wild game from a hovering helicopter. (For those who can't afford a helicopter ride, the "Brewster McCloud" option offers the chance to get off some shots while barreling to earth in a homemade glider.)
Users of the McCloud option are encouraged not to land on the Dome floor, unprotected as they would be without either an armed vehicle or Off.
The VIP Areas
Formerly limited only to the elite of Houston, these sections of the Dome will now be open to one and all — as long as they bring their appetites!!
The Shoot & Eat restaurant will take your day's results and prepare a rib-ticklin' meal fit for a king. Shot too much to eat in one sitting? Take your choice and have the rest made into Earl Campbell Sausages or Nolan Ryan (Not-So) Aged Beef. They both feature generic packaging that doesn't specify such details as "zebra" or "hippo," so give 'em as gifts!! Tastes like chicken!
(Even though the aforementioned Liability Agreement — which all visitors are encouraged to bring at least two lawyers to analyze — specifies that AstroSafari is not responsible "for any meat-carried diseases," it is considered de rigueur to "get in the spirit of the thing" and eat heartily. Anything deadly, doctors say, is likely to strike quickly enough to make "suffering" irrelevant, as the fine print of your Agreement spells out.)
But convenient food is not the only attraction you'll find in this area. Tilman's Taxidermy Shoppe can make a priceless souvenir of your AstroSafari experience "while U wait," and you'll be doing a public service — one-tenth of one percent of the net profits of each sale goes to charity, thanks to some hard bargaining by the county.
This area is also where the smart visitor heads before venturing out into the Great Unknown of the Dome — Carter CountryDome has all your safari needs, from stylish pith helmets to burial shrouds for those in your party whom fate chooses to send to the Great Hunting Grounds in the Sky. (Note: That does not refer to the Sarah Palin E-Z Hunt.)
AstroSafari, of course, will not just be designed for adults. Accessible from the VIP areas will be the Kiddie Killin' Zone, a fun place where the young'uns get their own chance to wield death-dealing iron against a menacing foe. Worry not, though — that "menacing foe" has been rendered safe through modern science, not to mention generations of evolution.
Drowsy goats, who have spent the day "sippin' goat syrup," as their handlers colorfully put it, are penned in an enclosure 15 feet away from where your towheaded youngster will be happily peering through a 10x40 mm fixed-power SuperScope with laser sight attached to a Remington M700 BDL sniper rifle balanced on a tripod.
A deep breath, a cool wait for the precise moment and WHAM! One less goat to threaten the human race. The thrill of the hunt will be something your kid will treasure forever, at least until he moves on to torturing cats by inserting firecrackers up their butts. (Note: Negotiations for "BoomTown," a place where such wholesome firecracker-related species-thinning can occur in safety, are still underway, despite the interference of such socialist/communist/Democrat groups as PETA and the Humane Society.)
This is where the elite meet. An annual membership (its price is listed in county documents only as "If you have to ask...") gets customers access to this exclusive area, where Dan Pastorini once took post-game showers.
"Safari Superstars" have their hunting done for them by hired bearers and guides; an over/under competition on how many of their temporary employees survive the experience can result in savings of up to 15 percent on rare elephant-tusk good-luck charms.
It's definitely "The right crowd, and no crowding" as the roster of Superstars is limited to two dozen handpicked über-Houstonians.
The contract signed by the county mandates that Commissioners Court be given free membership in the Superstars; also granted automatic acceptance into the club is any district-court judge who ends up hearing a lawsuit filed by the survivors of any AstroSafari "victim." Membership is otherwise limited to those willing to pay the $150,000 annual fee, or any seafood vendor Tilman Fertitta needs to cut a deal with ASAP for his restaurant chain.
The Safari Superstar package also includes parking.
Such are the details set to be announced next week by county officials. Some people contacted by the Press say they are appalled.
"We will protest this with all the vigor and effectiveness with which we close down the rodeo each year," said PETA spokeswoman SunGod Nature (née Susan Greenberg). "Harris County authorities don't realize just who they're messing with."
Others protested the behind-closed-doors negotiations. "It is simply appalling that — in Harris County, Texas, a place that has set the example for government on every level to operate transparently — the public has not been involved every step of the way with this," said permanently outraged blogger Kevin Black. "It's almost as if they are trying to make deals out of the public eye, and that is something with which Houstonians simply won't put up."
While it is true that local elected officials have learned in Houston that sweetheart deals with prominent local businessmen are done at their own peril — unless they involve lucrative pieces of property given away for a song, and then it's perfectly okay — it seems clear that the AstroSafari project will go through. Not only does it include El Franco Lee's TIRZ and Ed Emmett's Superstar membership, plans include an enclosed, weatherproof Roller Derby track, thus ensuring Steve Radack's vote. And that makes three votes out of five.
So weep and wail all you want when this project is announced next week, you Houstonians with no vision.
Even those who complain will reap the benefits of this spectacular attraction.
Just like they do with the downtown Aquarium, safe as it may be.