It's a nondescript weekday afternoon, and there is something highly unusual going on in the Reliant Astrodome. Actually, what's highly unusual is the fact that there's something going on at all.
The activity isn't too awe-inspiring: The high school football team from the tiny East Texas town of Newton is practicing for a playoff game. But still, something is going on. And for the Dome these days, that's reason to celebrate.
Except for the occasional scholastic playoff game, the 39-year-old Eighth Wonder of the World is all but abandoned. Even the religious revivals like the annual Jehovah Witnesses' convention have been seduced by the glamour and luxury of Reliant Stadium, just 30 yards away. The Dome is reduced to hosting dinner parties for nostalgic Houstonians on its floor, even a bar mitzvah or two.
The Oilers' locker room is office space; the Astros' is used for random storage. There is what appears to be an inch-thick coating of dust on the ceiling speakers; cleaning them would require rappelling down from the roof, and no one thinks it's worth it.
A skeleton crew of maintenance workers roams the murky hallways, checking lights and pipes and making sure the Dome is ready for the occasional onetime event like the filming of the movie Friday Night Lights. It doesn't happen too often, but the building has to be maintained just in case.
And doing so costs Harris County taxpayers $1.5 million a year. That may not seem like a big deal for a government entity with a billion-dollar budget, but $1.5 million could buy a lot of library books and after-school programs.
No politician in these parts wants to be the first to call for the demolition of the Dome, at least not until it's proved beyond any doubt -- and any should be underlined and boldfaced -- that the building can't be renovated for other uses.
Initial attempts to try such a renovation have been somewhat fumbling. The only proposal considered even halfway workable has come from an untested company that is vague on its financial strategy. But officials are convinced that, somehow, they can buck the reality and successfully rejuvenate an outdated stadium.
Expect a lot of fantastic architect's renderings of hotels and roller coasters inside the shell of the Dome, wonderful ideas that eventually will likely founder on the economics of Houston -- a city still struggling to fill 50 percent of its hotel rooms -- and the unique conditions at Reliant Park, where powerful tenants like the Livestock Show & Rodeo hold sway.
Some terrific plan may finally succeed, or it may take ten or 15 years to show that nothing can. And what's $15 million to $20 million in maintenance costs between friends?
Owning a white elephant, it appears, can be a bitch.
It wasn't supposed to be this way.
In reality, there wasn't a lot of attention paid to a new football stadium when voters narrowly approved a sports facility referendum in 1996. Most of the campaign's focus centered on a new baseball stadium for the Astros, who were threatening to leave town. The Oilers had already announced their departure for Tennessee, and football had become a back-burner issue compared to the unspeakable tragedy of possibly losing two major sports franchises in a short period.
The referendum included language funding both the Astros' new home and a future football stadium that could play a role in luring back the NFL. Until that vague effort succeeded, the Dome would continue to house concerts, college football games and other big events. And county officials assumed that even the new football stadium, which opened in August 2002, wouldn't have all that much effect on the Dome.
"We were hoping that there'd be a market for the dirt events -- the tractor pulls, the motocross races -- and concerts and events that don't need the football-type layout, that those could be held in the Astrodome," says County Judge Robert Eckels. "There has not been as much of that as we thought. The folks who do come out there, everyone wants to go into the new stadium."
(That's not necessarily a bad thing for the county. People who attend events at Reliant Stadium tend to spend more on concessions and souvenirs than they do at the Dome, and the county gets a cut of that.)
"I probably expected there to be more activity than we currently have," says Willie Loston, executive director for the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation. "To have it go down to a dribble, to a trickle, is not what I was expecting."
Harris County owns the Dome and all the facilities at Reliant Park; Loston's organization manages them, and a company based in Philadelphia called SMG books the events.
Shea Guinn, the head of SMG's Reliant Park operations, understood the novelty and the high-tech lure of the new stadium. "From day one those events like motocross moved into Reliant Stadium," he says. "We're getting to the point where we're pretty much not going to be booking anything into the Astrodome anymore."
"Which leaves you," Eckels says, "with the Dome sitting there, and what to do with it."
Not that there weren't plenty of ideas. Loston's got drawers full of unsolicited ideas from people.
Make the Dome into a Houston Sports Hall of Fame, said one, which would indicate either an unhealthy interest in learning details about Houston sports stars, or a plan that would still leave one helluva lot of empty space to be filled.
Make it into a space museum, someone else wrote. Or put an indoor ski slope in there (as if the a/c bills won't already be high enough). Or install a "miniature city" that would have housing, shopping and entertainment for people who never want to see the sun.
" 'Turn it into a museum' -- yeah, right. Even if it's a good idea, who's going to pay for it?" says Loston, a lawyer and CPA. "Many of the ideas we got looked at the use of the facility, but they don't look at how financially you get to that use and support that use."
The ideas may have been somewhat harebrained, but the deluge of them made clear that the public wanted to make sure the Dome endured.
And architectural preservationists, naturally, agreed.
"I don't think any architect, or anybody really connected to the past of Houston, wants to see it go," says Barry Moore, one of the city's leading preservationists. "It was a glorious, glorious thing for the city of Houston, and it's famous all over the world."
But no one seems to think much about the fact that the renovated facility would lose a lot of the feeling of the Dome that Houston knows. The colorful seats would be gone, the Astroturf a memory -- it would just be a large shell of a warehouse with a really big roof, the world's largest atrium.
Still, the thought of doing away with it is anathema to politicians.
While the county never intended to rush into demolishing the Dome, the looming warm-glow images of Earl Campbell, Nolan Ryan and everyone's first rodeo all have pushed them into treating that idea like some sort of cloud-cuckoo-land fantasy hardly worth mentioning.
"If in the end there is no viable use for this building, we don't need to keep it just for its own sake," Eckels says in an interview. Envisioning the backlash even such an innocuous statement might trigger, he quickly adds, "And the headline shouldn't be 'Eckels Thinks We Ought to Tear Down the Dome,' because I don't think that's going to happen."
Got it. The county is definitely, absolutely, utterly committed to keeping the Dome. If it can. Which it can. Hopefully.
Of course, it's not just baby-boom nostalgia driving the groupthink. Saving the structure, if it could be converted, conceivably might be cheaper than tearing it down and putting up something new. There have been no formal studies on demolition costs, but estimates range from $6 million to $20 million.
So the county is looking for investors and developers to come forward with ideas. But things haven't quite gone as planned.
The county sent word to the cream of the crop: companies like Disney, Universal Studios, Six Flags, Clear Channel and Anschutz Entertainment, which is proposing a $1 billion hotel/entertainment center connected to L.A.'s Staples Center. Houston's local version of those giants, Tilman Fertitta, also was asked to participate.
"We were hoping that we had folks sitting on the sidelines and when we opened the box, they would just rush in," Loston says. "That didn't happen."
None of the companies responded to questions about why they chose not to submit a proposal. A spokesman for Fertitta says, "I'm sure he would say the numbers didn't work," but she couldn't arrange an interview with him.
Among the seven proposals received was one from the Texas Medical Center that called for changing the Dome into a diagnostics/research center. Others included mixed-use developments with such features as a 100-foot waterfall, a mini-rain forest and a kayaking course.
The only one deemed feasible and suitable was from something called the Astrodome Redevelopment Corporation (ARC), a wholly owned offshoot of Trajen Aerospace. It proposed a complex that included a hotel, convention space, amusement rides based on space exploration, and shopping and dining outlets.
It's modeled on a complex near the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport that serves as a one-stop destination for convention crowds and their families.
Trajen operates corporate and military airport facilities around the country, but its experience in redeveloping entertainment sites is largely limited to a movie theater in its headquarters of Bryan, Texas.
So who better to develop a $400 million project?
"I'm sure we'd all have a lot more comfort if we had a deal with someone who had actually done something like this before," Loston says.
There is no deal yet, of course. ARC is retooling its proposal to include more of a "hotel component," as the jargon goes. But the group is being tight-lipped. "We're in the middle of a sensitive time right now in terms of our development and feasibility studies," ARC president Scott Hanson says in declining to comment.
Why did the big companies pass? It could be that no one's ever successfully renovated an outmoded football stadium into something profitable. It may be due in part to the constrictions on putting something into the Dome.
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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