September 2013  

Harris County voters to weigh in on Astrodome

By Charles Taylor
Senior Staff Writer
County News
National Association of Counties

Artist rendering of the proposed New Dome Experience

Artist rendering of the proposed New Dome Experience

If you ask a Texan to name the Eighth Wonder of the World, don’t be surprised to learn it’s not the Empire State Building, the Panama Canal or the Sydney Opera House in Australia — all three laid claim to that moniker during the 20th century.

To Texans, the title belongs to the county-owned Harris County Domed Stadium, more popularly known as the Astrodome. And “wonder” or not, it was, when built, the largest covered stadium in the world.

But it’s fallen on hard times since its heyday. It’s been more than a decade since a professional sports team called it home — the last big game played there was staged for the 2004 movie Friday Night Lights — and it has been declared uninhabitable, while costing the county more than $2 million a year in upkeep.

On Nov. 5, county voters will decide whether the future of the iconic structure that they, as taxpayers, own is to be a resurrection. The Harris County Commissioners Court recently voted, unanimously, to place a $217 million bond question on the ballot. If it passes, the Astrodome would be transformed into what’s being called The New Dome Experience, a multipurpose covered, climate-controlled venue that could be used to host everything from trade shows to Super Bowl revelers when the big game comes to adjacent Reliant Stadium in 2017. The bond issue would add a half-cent per $100 of assessed valuation to residents’ tax bills.

Renovations to the former home of the Astros and Oilers would begin immediately and take about 30 months, according to County Judge Ed Emmett.

“For that $217 million, we will completely gut the stadium, take everything out,” he said. The exterior shell of “the Dome,” as locals call it, would be refurbished with new ceiling glass and “fancier, bigger glass windows and doors, so you’re not just behind metal walls,” Emmett added. “At that point what we have is unique space, and that space can be used for any number of things. So we’re referring it as really a special events venue.”

The plan, devised by the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp. (HCSCC), wouldn’t be another convention center — the Houston area already has two — but rather it could be used for events like an annual Offshore Technology Conference, which brings in huge exhibits related to the oil and gas industry, or the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the nation’s largest.

Kevin Hoffman is deputy executive director of HSCC, the county agency that oversees the development, maintenance and operation of Reliant Park. “Whenever you have 350,000 square feet of unobstructed air-conditioned space that you can utilize, you want to take advantage of it,” he said. “It certainly is going to improve our overall competitiveness and marketability of Reliant Park, and create new event opportunities.”

One event Emmett can envision is hosting a major international cricket match — not the chirping variety. “We have a huge Indian and Pakistani population here, so my dream would be to get an India-Pakistan test match going for cricket,” he said. The dome could also be used for high school graduations, sporting events and playoffs.

County Commissioner El Franco Lee, who represents the district that includes the Astrodome, said, “We would be derelict if we didn’t look for creative ways to project it into the future, if at all possible. The challenge is to tell the Dome’s story, and its potential, so people can make up their own minds to give informed choices on Election Day.”

Robert Eckels, a former Harris County judge, said there appears to be a lot of support for the idea, which among other things, would preserve the domed structure for uses that future private developers might propose and fund. “So far we haven’t found any strong, organized opposition,” he said, “but I expect there will be a share of people who say why spend tax money for exposition space?”

Early public sentiment, as expressed on a local newspaper website’s comments section, ranges from “Whatever it takes: Save the Dome!” as one person wrote, to “Is this a joke? Blow it up, already ….”

While other iconic sports palaces like Seattle’s King Dome and New York’s Yankee Stadium have bitten the dust, Emmett said the Astrodome is different. “Yankee Stadium was just a stadium. The Astrodome was more than that. Muhammad Ali fought there; Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs played tennis there … We had a bullfight here, we had a Billy Graham Crusade, and on and on and on,” he said. Elvis Presley performed there several times in the early 1970s; the 1992 Republican National Convention was held at the Dome. More recently, thousands of evacuees from Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Louisiana were housed there.

As landmarks go, the Dome is often spoken of by locals — without a hint of grandiosity — in the same breath as another city’s greatest icon. “Paris has the Eiffel Tower,” Hoffman said. “It’s one of the things really makes the city stand out as the Astrodome has done historically for Harris County, and we want to continue with that legacy.”

County leaders have about two months to plead their case to the voters. “I think it’s our job in the county to explain why we want to keep it, and to me it is asset utilization,” Emmett said.

“The taxpayers of Harris County own a very unique asset called the Astrodome. And yes, it costs money, and I’ve been badgered by some in the media who say well, show us the business model,” he added.

“Well you don’t have a business model for a park. There are a lot of things that government does that provides an asset or a service to the taxpayers that doesn’t necessarily pay for itself.”