It's been a common theme every year around RodeoHouston season: Houstonians start asking again about the plight of the Reliant Astrodome and arguing among themselves about what is to be done with the dilapidated Eighth Wonder. It's a giant elephant sitting in the middle of Houston's biggest annual event, and no one can agree on how or if we can part with it.
This week was no different as Houston news outlets began reporting on the study that the Houston Texans and RodeoHouston released as the last cowboy and carnie left the city. The study found that it would cost $29 million to demolish the Dome and replace it with a 1,600-space parking lot.
The price tag alone enticed some who are sick of staring at the damned thing. Still other previous studies place that number higher, if a plaza were to be built in the Dome's place.
The main narrative goes that, if you are hoping for another Super Bowl to come to Houston, as soon as 2017, something, really anything, has to be done with the Dome, simple as that.
But on Thursday afternoon, Harris County Sports Convention Corporation chairman Edgar Colon said that the Dome wasn't the only thing hindering a bowl bid.
What those other things were he didn't specify. What could they be? A hulking mass of steel and concrete smack in the middle of the complex isn't the only thing?
Speaking among dusty left field-line seats, he took questions about the $29 million figure, which he seemed to have pushed up to $40 million during the press conference, confusing most of us.
Last year around this time, I was part of a media group allowed into the Astrodome for a visit. We came back with embarrassing pictures of Harris County's neglect of the building that seemed to break Houston's Astrodome-saving spirit. How did it get this bad, why was no one doing anything and why were we still paying for it years after it was suitable for public use?
The pictures and TV footage seem to serve two audiences: those that want it to be restored and renovated for something, and those who see the neglect and decay as good reasons to implode it.
And maybe sell grandstand seats in the parking lot.
With the Dome in the news again this week, of course the time has come for another stroll through the stadium. This trip was a bit shorter, though, and not as intensive as last year's.
The Dome floor is covered in RodeoHouston supplies, from trams and barricades to seats. The rubber floor covering for Reliant's football games is stacked in left field in giant piles. Turf used for high school and college games is also stored on the floor in huge spools.
The stadium is still in football formation, north to south, with the old turf still laid down. This was the turf used for the filming of Friday Night Lights, complete with the last official Astrodome logo attached.
The Oilers and Astros signs on the south end zone were also props from the Lights shoot. Inside the old Oilers locker room on a whiteboard is a list of Permian and Carter jersey numbers not being used for filming. The team locker rooms look the same as last year, though the shattered glass in the Oilers' room has been swept up. Last year vandals came in and smashed a few windows in a coach's office.
Things overall looked cleaned up inside the Dome, save for the stray varmint droppings visible down some aisles in the seating areas. The weather was milder than last year and the humidity was minimal. On that last trip it looked as if we had caught the Dome in between maid visits.
We weren't allowed to wander the stadium floor this time around, as some of the metal gratings were not safe for walking on. We maybe got out to the spot where home plate once was but no further. The foul net behind the plate is still standing. The foul poles are not.
Inside one of the stadium suites, a TV is eerily filled with white noise, and everyone rushes to capture the image of public tax dollars going to waste. The suite is designed in '80s chic. Grays, reds, black tabletops.
Dust covers almost every surface, but the smell of the building is the same. Somewhere between an old church, a dusty industrial warehouse and a junior-high gymnasium.
The view from the seventh level, among the rainbow-gut seats, is still as thrilling as it ever was. A stadium official says that the Astros organization took commemorative items from the Dome when they left in 1999, including the starred seat where slugger Eric Anthony's 440-foot homer landed in the upper deck.
Someone asked if the Dome was capital-C condemned, and the answer we got was no. The Dome has no certificate of occupancy from the city, which means it is not up to code for occupancy. We all signed waivers to come inside at our own risk. But the Dome inside is not in shambles to the extent that we were afraid of falling beams and tiles. In fact, you may remember me writing last year that the Dome suffered minimal damage from Hurricane Ike, which battered Reliant Stadium and Reliant Center next door. The Dome only lost a handful of tiles up top. The reordering process was hell, if I remember correctly.
My colleague Abrahán Garza came up with the idea that the stadium could be gutted, the floor brought up to street grade, and it could be turned into a pavilion for Texans tailgating or even RodeoHouston exhibits and food.
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Sixteen hundred additional parking spaces and a dinky plaque or statue seems like a waste of space for more than 50 years of Houston history, but then again, if Yankee Stadium could get torn down and sold off piece by piece, why can't the Astrodome?
Sell the rainbow-gut seats off in sets of four, to get that rich color scheme in man caves all over Houston. I'd buy a patch of AstroTurf, a ceiling tile.
Click here to see our slideshow of the inside of the abandoned Astrodome.