Spaced City

Ed Emmett's Magical Astrodome European Mystery Tour

Ed Emmett’s quest to deny the will of the voters continued this week with a magical mystery tour of a former Nazi airfield in Germany. It’s at this airfield that Emmett, the Harris County Judge who has made it his mission to save the Astrodome despite many years of neglect from Harris County and Houston officials and the the voter rejection of a previous renovation plan, hopes to find the answers for how to sell the voters on his latest $243 million indoor park/convention facility plan for the Dome.

The abandoned airfield was turned into a huge zeppelin hanger in 2000, but the company responsible for the hanger went bankrupt. One of the world’s largest freestanding structures, the steel barrel-bowl dome was then turned into a climate-controlled tropical water park and rain forest. And it was into this hanger-turned-rain forest that Emmett, various members of his staff, and the Houston media ventured in search of an idea, any idea, of how to transform the Astrodome into a usable facility that will past the muster of voters while gaining the approval of the Texans and the Rodeo.

“The physical nature of it is just what we were looking at,” Emmett told his media entourage earlier this week. “This [hanger] is out in the countryside; the Astrodome is in the city. The Astrodome was owned by the government and fully paid for. This [hanger] was a facility that was with a bankrupt company that the government was trying to get rid of.”

Emmett basically says he doesn't want to turn the Dome into a rain forest like the zeppelin hanger, so besides getting a European vacation out of the trip, going to the place doesn't really make much sense. After all there’s a private company running said rain forest, and that company’s goal is turning a profit. Emmett has had zero luck in attracting private investment for the Dome’s renovation, and while the Astrodome may have been fully paid for at one point, renovating and refurbishing the place is going to cost lots and lots (and lots and lots) of taxpayers dollars for a venture that’s likely not intended to earn a profit.

When is this nonsense going to stop? As long as the Texans and the Rodeo have the right to full use of the NRG Park facilities and parking for event days (and the entire damn length of the Rodeo) then there’s just no way a workable plan for saving the Astrodome can be created. No private entity is ever going to invest in a facility they and their employees can’t access on certain days, or that customers can’t access. And is there anybody who has ever been stuck in traffic in the neighborhoods/freeway surrounding NRG Stadium on event day who is voluntarily willing to try and get to the Astrodome to play in an indoor park (or whatever the hell they try to do with it) on a Texans game day?

This is all stuff that should have been contemplated in the late-1990s/early-2000s, back when city/county officials were calling the Dome an outdated facility that wasn’t equipped to host sporting events or conventions. Back when the place was called an obsolete dump that desperately needed to be replaced if Houston was going to remain a major, international city hosting multiple professional sports franchises.

After the Oilers split for Tennessee, it would’ve been easy to convert the Astrodome into a state-of-the-art baseball-only ballpark. But voters gave into Drayton McLane’s demands and built a downtown stadium that rips off the best of other MLB ballparks. And with the Astros out of the way, it would’ve been just as easy to turn the Dome into the world’s greatest football stadium. Instead, a sterile stadium with the personality of an aircraft hanger was built right next door.

And still officials ignored the Astrodome, letting it rot and become a fire hazard. Stupid plans were proposed over and over again. Remember the idea to turn it into a movie studio? Or the aquarium? Or the planetarium? Or the hotel and museum and conference center? About the only thing that hasn’t been proposed is turning the place into a Jade Helm 15 detention facility. All of these plans were shot down. Most never even made it out of the basic idea stage. Others were vetoed by the Texans and the Rodeo who consider it their god-given right to possess every parking space from 288 to Buffalo Speedway on event day (and thanks to the folks who negotiated the NRG Stadium lease with them, they mostly (slightly exaggerated) do possess that right).

So now it’s 2015. The so-called take it or leave it plan was defeated at the polls in 2013. Yet Harris County government, which supported and strongly encouraged plans to replace the Astrodome and make it obsolete now supposedly want to save it. And Ed Emmett, the most powerful of the Harris County government officials, is going off on trips to Germany in search of ideas on how to save it. It’s time that Emmett realized that it’s too late, and that it’s he and his colleagues (and the government officials in office before he arrived) who doomed the Astrodome to death.
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John Royal is a native Houstonian who graduated from the University of Houston and South Texas College of Law. In his day job he is a complex litigation attorney. In his night job he writes about Houston sports for the Houston Press.
Contact: John Royal