Wanna Buy a RoboDome?

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.

"The Astros were claiming they were losing money before," says a source. "Well, yeah, they might have been losing money on the baseball field. But if [the fans are] paying four bucks to park, buying hot dogs and everything else, who's making the money? John McMullen or Drayton McLane?"

Oilers executive vice president Mike McClure complains, "We are the only NFL team where the landlord is also fielding a competitive team in professional sports. We are the only one. And I'm not suggesting that they go out of their way to create problems for us. But as the landlord of the Astrodome, [Drayton McLane has] a vested interest in doing what's in the best interest of baseball."

Should Major League Baseball's Players' Association ratify a proposed team realignment -- and it's expected that it soon will -- McLane's Astrodome USA could guarantee the Oilers only three home dates in the first nine weeks of the season. McLane has requested that the Oilers schedule road games against Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Cincinnati in November and December. In addition, he suggests the Oilers be ready to "flip-flop" those games should the baseball teams from the aforementioned cities be involved in a playoff or World Series.

In Bud Adams's view, playing key division games in open stadiums on the road -- usually in poor weather -- forces the Oilers into a competitive disadvantage. He also contends that switching an NFL game at the last minute is not exactly conducive to ticket sales.

Adams's concern about the fans and scheduling may be real, but it is also largely superficial. His real motive for leaving the Astrodome is in securing a McLane-like lease on the new stadium. During the NFL regular season, McClure estimates, McLane's Astrodome USA reaps between $2.6 and $2.7 million in direct revenues off the Oilers alone. "We are paying their rent to Harris County for the entire facility," says McClure. "And they get another one million in their pockets."

"Sure, that's a big part of our income," concedes McLane. "[But] if they build another stadium, it's not just the loss of the Oilers. They would attract other events that we have now. We would probably lose 30 to 40 percent of our business."

McLane concludes almost plaintively, "It's just not fair for them to build another domed stadium to play basically football in, and have it competing with the Astrodome."

McLane has a point. According to sources in Astrodome USA's upper management, in 1993 the Astrodome was utilized a mere 45 percent of the time. Including the Astros' 81 home dates, the Dome was booked 150 days. "Not a bad year," says Astrodome USA spokesperson Skip Balcomb. "A little above average."

Astros management staunchly refuses to divulge what a downtown dome could cost them in actual dollars. On the surface, they feign nonchalance. "Anything like [the dome] is years and years away from development," says Ethan Cartwright, director of marketing for Astrodome USA.

The truth, contends Balcomb, is that operating the Astrodome solely on the Astros, the rodeo and a few tractor pulls and boat shows would be "awfully, awfully tough."

For Bud Adams to float his downtown dome proposal, he needs two things to go his way: Rockets owner Leslie Alexander and the legalization of casino gambling.

Bud and Les are united by their grievances. In their eyes, both the Oilers and Rockets compete in facilities that are aging hard and fast

-- the Astrodome was completed in 1965, the Summit in 1975.
"I've been to every stadium," says a local NFL writer, "and the Astrodome is the worst.... The [playing] surface is brutal, and you've got rodents and ants living there. You've probably got people living there, for all anybody knows."

Says a current Rockets employee: "The Summit used to be one of the premier buildings. Now we're in the lower half -- capacity-wise and age-wise. We're still in the upper third as far as quality of building. But look at the Great Western Forum [home of the Los Angeles Lakers, completed in 1967] -- that's a piece of shit. There are rats running all over the place. It's gross. Here, it's like it was built last year. It's immaculately kept."  

It's useful to keep in mind that neither Houston facility is exactly in danger of imminent collapse -- and that, in fact, the average NFL stadium was constructed in 1966. NBA venues average 1974.

It appears, at least for the moment, that Adams and Alexander will find little sympathy from county officials because (1) the county rents out the Astrodome, and (2) county taxpayers will be paying off bonds from the 1989 Astrodome improvements until the year 2012.

"As far as I'm concerned," says County Commissioner Steve Radack, "we don't need to reinvent the Dome. We already did that once, and it's still standing."

But the building of a downtown dome isn't about run-down facilities. It's about how much money Adams and Alexander could be making if they move their teams to a more "modern" building. Central to the debate is the issue of luxury boxes. A proposed NBA collective-bargaining agreement factors luxury-seat revenue into the ever-expanding salary cap. If passed, this proposal would put the Rockets at a financial disadvantage; the Summit houses only 20 boxes, each of which retails for $57,500 per season. The Rockets maintain only one of the boxes -- the other 19 are controlled by Kenneth Schnitzer's Arena Operating Company. (The Detroit Pistons, in contrast, control all 180 luxury boxes at their Palace of Auburn Hills, which opened in 1988. The Pistons' boxes cost corporate patrons from $50,000 to $100,000 per season.)

"It's all about money," explains the Rockets employee. "If someone has 100 of something and you only have ten, where does that leave you?"

A downtown dome would -- at least for now -- satiate Bud Adams's incessant demands for additional seats. In 1987 Adams was so frustrated with the Astrodome's capacity that he took a camera crew to Jacksonville, Florida, and threatened to move the Oilers.

At least some onlookers, then and now, doubt Bud's sincerity. "Bud was no more gonna go to Jacksonville than you or I are gonna go to the moon tomorrow," says a source close to the negotiations. "Bud's just doing the things he needs to do to posture himself with McLane, rather than go in there with his hat in his hand."

Bud's Jacksonville ploy worked -- in 1988 then-Astrodomain leaseholder John McMullen convinced the county to approve an $80 million public bond issue for Astrodome improvements. Included in the renovation were approximately 10,000 additional seats and 66 new luxury boxes.

This time around, sources close to the ongoing negotiations say Adams is trying to convince the mayor that the new dome will be Bud's lasting legacy to Houston. Oilers executive VP Mike McClure argues: "Certainly, the Oilers, after 25-plus years of being a tenant in the Astrodome, are prepared at this point to not only control their destiny a little more, but are more prepared to make a more significant contribution to the cost of the stadium."

McClure acknowledges the NFL's official stadium-size rankings: in terms of maximum capacity, only four stadiums are smaller than the Astrodome, which seats 59,810. But McClure says that figure is effectively an exaggeration. Because of the 5,439 seats in the Dome that he considers undesirable -- limited-view, partial-view or single seats -- McClure says the Dome is actually the second-smallest, larger only than Washington's RFK Stadium.

Of course, even with this "small" capacity, the Oilers were unable to sell out three home games this season; by the Thursday prior to games, under the NFL's TV blackout rules, Randall's supermarkets purchased the remaining low-visibility seats so the games could be televised. If the Oilers build a stadium that seats 70,000, will they expect Randall's to come in and buy 18,000 unsold tickets, instead of 1,800?

"If I were to suppose that we can only sell 58,000 seats," McClure responds, "then I would be accepting the fact that in this market of over three million people, that's the total number of Oiler fans. That goes against the example you have of Buffalo, which has a population of about 600,000, and an 80,000-seat stadium that has led the NFL in attendance the last three years in a row."

(Lest one forget, the Bills have also advanced to the Super Bowl the past three years, and are usually not immersed in crowd-displeasing controversy. The former is not an Oiler tradition -- the latter is.)  

Dome-watchers do agree on one thing: because of its construction cost, a new stadium cannot survive on football alone. Money is made on the number of events scheduled, the subsequent attendance, concessions and parking revenue. With only eight regular-season games guaranteed by the NFL schedule, Bud cannot float his new dome solely on the promise of the Oilers. But by allying his Oilers with Alexander and the Rockets, he gains 41 additional home dates, and the deal starts to look financially plausible.

McClure says the Oilers will present an official, detailed outline of their proposal to the city within the next 90 days. The general concept has already been offered, and the proposed technology is -- depending on your perspective -- impressive or absurd: a colossal, shape-transforming gizmo, what might be called Houston's new "RoboDome." According to McClure, the RoboDome will hold 70,000 fans for football games. When the Rockets come to town, the sideline seats will telescope back, allowing one end zone to roll in on tracks. A hydraulic system would then lower the basketball floor eight feet into the ground -- a special touch that would create a more intimate setting than exists in some of the other domed basketball venues. Finally, a temporary roof would be lowered, creating the illusion -- so the planners insist -- that you are in a cozy, 24,000-seat building.

Neither Leslie Alexander nor Rockets ex-president Tod Leiweke (who resigned from the Rockets last week, after only a four-and-a-half-month tenure) cared to discuss the proposed basketball amenities.

"This dome will be revolutionary -- it's never been done before," says McClure. "We're talking about a facility that's designed to meet the needs for the year 2000 and beyond."

Don't forget about Kenneth Schnitzer," says a local politician. "He may not be talkin', but he's thinkin'. I mean, look at how much impact he can have, like at the Port of Houston as far as going with non-union labor. He's been known to win things that no one ever thought he could." (For a look at Schnitzer's dealings down at the port, see the Press's "A Fishy Romance," September 17, 1992.)

"Don't think ol' Mr. Schnitzer is gonna say, "Okay, go ahead and move the Rockets,'" the source continues. "Expect some real hard-ball playing over that."

"I'm not gonna just sit around and be a spectator in this thing," responds Schnitzer. In the early 1970s, Schnitzer led a group of landowners that gave the city seven-and-a-half acres of land along the Southwest Freeway, a gift which became the Summit and Greenway Plaza. In exchange for the donation, Schnitzer's Arena Operating Company retained the lease to the Summit until 2003, when the construction bonds will be paid off. When that happens, the city has the option of taking over the daily operations. In addition to a $1.2 million annual debt payment, Schnitzer contends that over 19 years, he has paid the city "something in the neighborhood of $1 million" in interest. Schnitzer also claims that "we have never asked them for a dime for our capital improvements, and that includes a new roof."

An ex-Rockets management source says the Rockets pay Arena Operating Company $22,000 per game or 15 percent of the team's gross after parking and taxes, whichever is greater. At present, the Rockets and Arena Operating share all of the Summit's revenues -- the Rockets reportedly receive 49 percent. Should the Rockets leave, Arena Operating would lose substantial revenue from the exodus of concessions, suites, parking and -- most important -- advertising.

"Nobody is going to buy a sign to advertise in the Summit if there are no games or events in there," a source points out. "Nobody is going to buy a suite. It could kill the Summit."

While the Rockets' lease with the Summit officially runs through 2003, the source says there are at least two business maneuvers Les Alexander could conceivably employ to free up the Rockets. Since a downtown dome wouldn't be ready for business until the 1998 season -- at the earliest -- Alexander could then buy out the remaining five years in one lump sum. Schnitzer could simply yield.

Or Alexander could break his contract, and move the Rockets to the new dome. Schnitzer could then take Alexander to court, but that move could cost Schnitzer much more in legal fees than accepting a single payment.

Schnitzer apparently is ready to fight to the bitter end. "This is not a maiden voyage for us," he says. "Years ago, Bob Lanier and I were serving on Louie Welch's steering committee when Louie was wanting the [Astrodome] facility to go downtown. We were in his office with 15 or 20 of the other business leaders. We were shown a rendering of the new facility that was going to go where the Wortham Theatre now is, and span the bayou.  

"I asked one little question at that meeting: "Where is the parking?"
"I was told that the parking was going to be in the existing parking at the civic center. To the extent that that was inadequate, [parking would be] in other garages that were privately owned. I knew right then that it was dead."

Schnitzer's group is currently working on a counter-proposal of its own -- $30 million in improvements to the Summit, which reportedly includes a three-story glass building to the west of the Summit that would house a practice gym, administrative offices and additional food courts.

"We think we have a very plausible and feasible response," says Schnitzer, "that deals in logic and not fairy tales and fantasyland."

Before the 1992 NBA season, a group led by Leslie Alexander attempted to buy the San Antonio Spurs, with the apparent intent of moving the team to Anaheim. According to an informed source, the deal was all but inked. But at the last minute, then-Spurs owner/car dealer Red McCombs suddenly had doubts: "Red got scared that if Les bought the team and moved it, the people of San Antonio would be so pissed off that he would never be able to sell another car in the city."

The NBA in San Antonio was saved only because of a last-ditch counter-offer led by Southwestern Bell and USAA Insurance. Alexander, unfazed, reloaded and locked in on the Rockets. The insider consensus is that despite his public denials, Les apparently has every intention of moving his new purchase.

"Bud [Adams] at least has some commitment to the city," says an ex-Rocket employee. "But with Les, it's just purely money. Purely deal. He doesn't give a shit about what city he's in or what business he's in. He doesn't care about Houston. He doesn't want to buy a house here. He doesn't have to worry about selling cars. His wife hates Houston."

Alexander got off to a rough start with the Rockets. On his first day of ownership, just hours after his inaugural press conference, he fired three Rockets office employees. Later, without informing then-General Manager Steve Patterson, Alexander backed out of an all-but-signed television deal with Channel 20/KTXH. Then followed the clumsy firing of Hall of Famer Calvin Murphy.

"Les's biggest mistake coming in here," explains a current Rockets employee, "was not knowing about Rocket tradition -- that Calvin and Rudy [Tomjanovich] were really the heart and soul of the team. That they had been here forever."

To his credit, Alexander rehired Murphy within 24 hours. He then placed all employees under a trial year, with equal opportunity to justify their importance to the ballclub. Though he fired Patterson, he has since hired a vice president for sales and marketing and a director of corporate sales, installed new carpet, and is actively interviewing candidates for the vacant general manager position.

Whatever else he may be, Alexander is, it's clear, a shrewd businessman. A well-placed source claims that Alexander bought the Rockets for a mere $70 million (contrary to reported prices of $81 and $85 million). To put the purchase in perspective: the Miami Heat, a perennial lottery franchise, is rumored to be sold next month for $120 million.

But according to a current Rockets insider, Alexander's bargain buy of the Rockets has left him cash-strapped and in a recoup mode. In a sold-out downtown dome, Les could draw twice as many fans and fill the projected 100 luxury boxes.

A source close to Kenneth Schnitzer disagrees. "How are they gonna sell a couple hundred new skyboxes?" he asks. "They can't even get the skyboxes at the Summit and Astrodome sold out." (As of press time, Arena Operating Company had sold 18 of its 20 luxury boxes for the season. Financial details concerning the Oilers' boxes were unavailable.)

"In Les's situation, he's got salaries that are gonna go off the charts," says Schnitzer. "Because Les made that investment -- which I didn't make him do, which you didn't make him do -- he's gonna beat on anybody he can beat on to try to get some bottom line.

"He's gonna try to beat on us. He's gonna try to beat on the city. He's gonna try to beat on McLane. He's even gonna try to beat on Bud Adams."

If Harris County hadn't succumbed to Bud Adams's Jacksonville bluff back in 1987, perhaps this dome mess could have been avoided. Because it was the first dome built, the Astrodome has drawn more tourists than any other dome. Instead of replacing the garish but traditional scoreboard with the 10,000-seat expansion, the owners could have maintained the building's historical value and billed it as a historical landmark for domed stadiums.  

Instead, the city of Houston may be on the verge of having two stadiums that will provide virtually the same service. Though Lanier failed to return calls from the Press, a source in his office says he is "gung ho to do something downtown." A county source adds, "[Lanier] wants to get all the county money he can into the city. Obviously, he'll take anybody else's money. If it means competing with county money, I don't think it will bother him one bit."

Estimates for the cost of the downtown dome start at $235 million. Oilers spokesman Mike McClure contends that this figure has been derived from the cost of San Antonio's Alamodome (estimated at $170 million four years ago), and reconfiguring for Bud's fancy gimmicks and 1998 inflation.

Dome opponents scoff.
"North of $300 [million]," estimates one.
"Between $300 and $325 million," conjectures Schnitzer. "Depending on how much bells and whistles you put on it, and how far back you push the project."

Regardless of price, it appears that for the downtown dome to have any chance of success, the Texas Legislature must legalize casino gambling in the 1995 session.

Newspaper guesses on Houston's financial share of a stadium facility range from $6 to $15 million a year. One popular potential source for that city funding is only theoretically available in Texas: legalized gambling. Should gambling be legalized and come to Houston -- and here, again, there are no guarantees -- the city's revenues from a local casino should, it is estimated, more than cover the cost of the downtown dome.

"Gambling will be available to most of the population of the United States in the next five to seven years," says Jack Pratt, chairman of Dallas-based Hollywood Casinos. Since its recent approval in Louisiana, casino gambling has become a hot legislative topic in Texas. Estimates of potential gambling revenue are notoriously unreliable, but according to Pratt, an estimated $1.25 billion will leave the state of Texas in 1994. If, on the other hand, gambling were to be legalized in Texas, Pratt's studies indicate that the state could gross $8 billion.

"The taxes we would pay on our gambling facility would finance the dome twice over," Pratt concludes.

But even if gambling legislation is passed, sources claim that Adams and Alexander will be hard-pressed to pony up the $75 million they would reportedly have to kick in.

"First off, Les doesn't have any money to spend on the building," says the ex-Rockets employee. "He's completely tapped out from his purchase of the Rockets."

Leslie Alexander failed to return calls from the Press about his current financial status.

"Then there's this talk that Bud is gonna provide money for the building," the source continues. "Bud's concept of putting money into the building is to sell seat preferences -- whether it's like $1,000 or $5,000 bucks a seat -- and to sell skyboxes and suites. Well, that's not his money. That's money from somebody else."

Says Schnitzer, "The day you see Bud Adams put $50 million of his own hard-earned money into this facility, you can believe in the tooth fairy."

Meanwhile, both sides of the debate support their positions with some questionable number-crunching.

In the November 25 Chronicle, the Oilers claimed that their preliminary studies "show that an estimated 2.2 [million] to 3 million additional annual visits will be made to downtown Houston for domed-stadium events." The study's source went unnamed.

"You have to be concerned with what the source is," says Kenneth Schnitzer. "If I were setting out today to prove a feasibility study, I could prove whatever I wanted to prove. So don't listen when you have someone with a vested interest."

Soon after this conversation, Schnitzer's own office provided a Heartland Institute study that questioned whether stadium building stimulates a city's economy. The Illinois-based Heartland Institute is described as a conservative, free-market think-tank. Its most recent stadium study, Stadiums, Professional Sports and Economic Development, by Lake Forest College professor Robert A. Baade, argues that cities which built domed stadiums between 1958 and '87 "did not appear to have any significant growth in real per capita income." Regarding the revitalization of a downtown area, Baade says, "The odds are against it. I would be very skeptical.... You're just moving people from one part of the city to another."

Not to be outdone, Lanier is also paying for his own study. On January 5, the Chronicle reported that Lanier had approved city funds for a study on whether a domed stadium can really have a tangible effect on downtown revitalization. As of this publication, the study was still in progress.  

A fan's introduction to San Antonio's Alamodome is, well, rough. The virgin downtown dome-goer arrives at the just-opened Alamodome 15 minutes prior to kickoff. But the 3,000-space parking lot is entirely filled. Seems like half the crowd, still cruising, has no idea about the planned parking shortage. The fans drive through about a quarter-mile of hellacious traffic, finding an uncertain home in a chaotic array of privately run dirt lots that charge $5 for uncovered, unguarded parking.

"The [Alamo]dome received a lukewarm reception at first," says Alamodome spokesperson Mike Wallace. "People are creatures of habit. It was a growing and learning experience for the public. But, to be kind, the public was spoiled."

The Alamodome was funded by San Antonio's mass-transit authority, Via, and the parking scheme carried out the idea of making fans walk or take park-and-rides. This plan has (1) made it unnecessary to demolish a couple miles of lower-income neighborhood on the stadium's east side for a 30,000-car lot, and (2) made the fans so thirsty that they'll have no choice but to blow all their remaining cash at a bar in the nearby Riverwalk district.

While Houston's proposed downtown dome isn't (at least yet) backed by Metro, the concept is pretty much the same as San Antonio's. According to McClure, the plan is to have only 1,000 to 1,300 parking spots at the stadium, with many of those reserved for players, concession employees and an occasional owner or two. The remaining 60,000 spots, says McClure, already exist in Houston's downtown business district. Private-lot owners would be happy to receive the business, since downtown is pretty much empty on weekdays after five and on weekends.

"If you look at what's happening in stadium construction around the United States today," explains the Oilers' McClure, "[the 25,000-car parking lot] is a form of facility that's outmoded and has become somewhat anachronistic.

"It's become somewhat apparent that having 25,000 cars in one location is not the easiest way to move people."

Kenneth Schnitzer disagrees. "Let's assume that you're going to a key Oilers game and it's a sellout. You want to get there by kickoff and leave home knowing there's a parking facility right next to this new dome.... But by God, the thing is filled. Maybe you'll go to the Houston Center garage. But I'll be damned, that one's filled, too.

"Instead of the run-and-shoot, I call it the search-and-ride."
McClure volleys back. "If one of the pluses of this downtown dome is that downtown is filled up and 75,000 parking spaces are occupied on a Sunday afternoon, I would say that is exactly the situation everyone is hoping for."

Once again, Schnitzer disagrees. "A lot of things are being written that really aren't based on anything but, "Gosh! Wouldn't that be neat." They don't understand where the land mines are.

"So now we got 80,000 people coming downtown -- and God dammit if there isn't a fire in the number-one fire zone.... How are you gonna get the fire trucks down there?"

"Once you get to the point where you make a presentation to the mayor and the City Council," McClure agrees, "those are among the thousands of details which will be addressed."

Location could prove to be a major sticking point in the downtown dome debate. Though one source close to the Schnitzer group contends the new dome's location is a "moving target, depending on which day you ask the question," it has been widely speculated that the dome will be on the west side of I-59, close to the George R. Brown Convention Center. A Houston Post article in late November speculated that Abercrombie Company land just southwest of the center could be a probable location.

A source close to the negotiations, however, says the dome might instead be placed on the east side of I-59, behind Old Chinatown, in a decrepit warehouse district. For fans who commute from such white-bread havens as Memorial, the Woodlands and Conroe, the ten-block walk might be a tad harrowing.

"If the building is between the George R. Brown and the convention hotel, or a block south of the convention center," says the source, "that makes a hell of a lot of sense. Because people will do that.... But nobody is gonna park ten blocks away, walk under the I-59 freeway, through that whole combat zone and over to the building. That's complete horseshit."

A downtown dome would certainly justify the city of Houston's major sewage release-line project currently nearing completion in the Chinatown area. "I don't think this [new release line] is going to affect the local person living there," says Public Utilities Commission employee Richard Fernandez, who could neither confirm nor deny the dome rumors. "It's a big sewer line, not one of those smaller sanitary lines. It's more of an area-wide improvement."  

Again, dome opponents scoff. "If you're gonna drop [the dome] like some disembodied aircraft over in the warehouse district," says one, "you're gonna to wind up with exactly that. And nothing's gonna grow around it. And there's gonna be bums sleeping there except on nights of the games, when you're gonna have to shoo 'em all away. And it's not gonna do anything for the city."

When several Rockets employees accompanied the team to the Alamodome earlier this year (on the night Vernon Maxwell's buzzer-beating three-pointer sealed an eight-point, fourth-quarter comeback), they were not impressed.

"I don't like it," says one employee. "It's a nice building. For football it must be great. But for basketball, Hemisfair Arena was much louder with 16,090 people than the Alamodome is with 32,000.... From a fan's point of view, I'd rather play in a place like [the Summit] and pack it every time."

A lack of noise hasn't been the only complaint about the Alamodome. Spurs fans initially complained that the luxury suites are too far from the floor, and that $5 nosebleed seats do not beat watching the game on television. When Spurs' season-ticket holders were brought in for the first time, they were upset that their seats, which had been so cozy in the Hemisfair, were now a good 25 feet from the floor.

"So what [Spurs management] did was build a five-foot extension around the floor to make it look like you were closer," adds another Rockets employee. "There were times when the coaches would be right up on the sideline coaching -- you know, like Rudy T. does -- and the officials would run behind [the coaches] going up and down the floor, because there's so much room."

Extending the floor to convince the audience they're close to the action sounds a lot like the concept of a roof that lowers to create the illusion that a fan is watching a game in an intimate arena.

But according to the Oilers' McClure, there will be "no similarities between the concepts of basketball configuration ... and what they did in San Antonio."

Luckily for the home team, the first game of the Astros' 1965 season was played in the Astrodome. Because of their outlandish uniforms, the inaugural Astros became a laughingstock in opposing venues, especially Yankee Stadium. And because the organization mandated that the team travel in nothing but western wear, the Astros' airport receptions were oftentimes no better.

The team was mocked at home games too. Parking attendants wore orange ten-gallon hats and overalls, while female ushers -- "Spacettes" -- were outfitted in gold miniskirts and space boots. In the days before an electric green stuff called Astroturf was installed, the team experimented with natural grass. When Astrodome operators discovered that nothing could grow under the grey dome, they painted the hard, brown stubble a healthy green hue. Despite these comical beginnings, eventually the Astrodome -- for good or ill -- created a new trend in the construction of behemoth sports facilities, and one, two, many domes would follow.

But in the evolution of Houston's sports franchises, it's not simply a matter of keeping up with the Joneses, per se. Houston sports entrepreneurs seem to need to go beyond their predecessors. In 1965, Houston introduced indoor baseball to the world -- certainly a most dubious gift to humanity.

This time around is no different. While other cities are building expensive retractable roofs, Houston insists on a movable inner roof. Part of the reasoning stems from what is said to be lower cost, but already the chorus has begun: No other city in the world has a movable inner roof.

"Houston could capture the interest of the nation and the world," explains a prominent local businessman. "I think that we can create a real neat facility that hasn't been built yet, which is adjustable. Somebody else will beat us to it if we don't get up and go."

There's been a recent surge in the daily newspapers' editorial pages about how the Oilers' playoff loss to Kansas City will doom possible dome speculation. While the ugly loss might delay Bud's plan, it certainly won't end it.

For Adams, this is just a stage in his cycle -- with four years left in his lease, it's time to renegotiate. In the professional sports world, threats and hardball are the norm. And no matter how bad the media might make the deal out to be, the city of Houston will probably find a way to pay -- professional sports are widely considered to be one of the advantages of living in the big city.  

Should the downtown dome become a reality, Oilers management claims they will be content for the next 30 years. Of course, they also claimed they were satisfied after the Astrodome renovations in 1989 -- five years ago.

Says Mike McClure, "This new domed stadium would enable all three pro sports franchises to have larger responsibilities to the county and city.

"If the mayor came back to us and said, 'We like everything about your deal, but we've decided to put your stadium in Allen Parkway Village,' what would we say? We would probably say, 'Thank you, Mr. Mayor. Wherever you want to put us is fine.'

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