What cost $35 million to build, can hold an 18-story building, when fully lit consumes more electricity than a city of 9,000 people — is rotting, rusting, useless and faces an uncertain future? You know the answer. The Astrodome is like an aging maiden aunt, long past her prime, who won’t get married and go away. We feel guilty about wanting her to leave but really believe it is time.
Our own Gray Lady was originally called the Harris County Domed Stadium, then the Astrodome, and now the Reliant Astrodome. Judge Roy Hofheinz labeled it “the Eighth Wonder of the World,” and one team owner added that the Ninth Wonder was the rent he had to pay. But by any name, the structure is slowly falling apart; and, despite many false starts, no one seems to know what to do with it. Meantime, taxpayers keep paying for its maintenance.
The reason we have this problem in the first place is that (attention: cliché of the day) Our Dirty Little Secret is that during all the debates, votes by the citizens, then re-votes, when we turned down the first attempt to build a home for the Rockets, none of the supporters explained what was to be done with the old facilities. We lucked out when Lakewood Church bought Compaq Center, but no church wanted the dome. The old Colt Stadium was rebuilt in Torreon, Mexico. Unfortunately, it would be much more difficult to move the Eighth Wonder.
So, there it sits. Ever since the Houston Gamblers folded (1985), the Oilers left town (1997), the Astros abandoned it (1999), and the Houston Livestock Show &Rodeo moved across the street to Reliant Stadium (2003), various ideas have been trotted out about what to do with the old gal. Someone suggested making it an indoor drive-in movie theater. At least one state legislator wanted to turn the dome into a gambling casino. Other suggestions have included a water world, apartments and condos, a racetrack, an amusement park or — the current proposal. The Astrodome Redevelopment Corp. plans to spend $450 million to install a 1,200-room hotel, restaurants and shops in the dome. Good luck.
Then, there is the thought of doing to the Astrodome what other copycat cities did with their obsolete covered stadiums: tear it down. Although the Astrodome is the world’s first domed stadium, it is not included on the National Register of Historic Places.
Looking back, we all have other favorite memories of the dome. I have two: covering the Bobby Riggs — Billie Jean King tennis match, and attending the premier of “Brewster McCloud,” Robert Altman’s first movie after “M*A*S*H.” The film was set in Houston, the main character lived in the dome, so the structure seemed the proper place for the film’s debut. The night of the opening, I had a terrible head cold, but was determined to attend. “Brewster McCloud” may have been the worst movie ever made.
Some information you might like to know about the dome:
• On June 15, 1976, an Astros’ game was rained out. The dome was dry, but flooding was so bad the fans couldn’t get to the park.
• Not only did the Astrodome give the world artificial grass, but it popularized expensive, fancy suites with TVs, wet bars and bathrooms. Today, any sports facility, college or pro, that doesn’t have suites is busily installing them.
• In 1968, the University of Houston, ranked No. 2., played No. 1 UCLA before a crowd of 52,963 — the largest attendance ever for a basketball game. Houston defeated UCLA 71-69 and ended UCLA’s 47-game winning streak.
• The last performance of Tejano music superstar Selena Quintanilla-Perez, aka Selena, was before a sold-out crowd during a Houston Livestock &Rodeo Show. Not long after, she was shot to death by her fan club president.
• The official address is 8400 Kirby Drive, Houston, Texas, 77054.
• An attendance-record-setting 67,925 fans gathered at the Reliant Astrodome for “WrestleMania X-Seven.”
• Some 13,000 Katrina evacuees stayed in the dome, making it the largest single home-away-from-home for Louisianans.
So, there we have the happy saga of the Astrodome with an ending looking increasingly sad. But we all know Rule Numero Uno around here: don’t complain unless you have a solution. So here’s mine. At first, I thought this round building would be perfect for the Super Conductor Super Collider. Because Congress decided the half-built test facility cost too much to construct deep in the ground south of Dallas, we would bring the scientists with their thingamabobs and do-hickies (I speak fluent Nobel.) to Houston, and let them play on home plate. That motion died for lack of a second.
We could keep it just as it is in case the Daughter of Katrina hits the Gulf Coast. Only this time, we limit each evacuee to a seven-day stay.
The Astrodome was used as the backdrop for the climatic finish of the movie version of “Friday Night Lights” (even though the actual play-off game was not held there). So, we rent out the dome to Hollywood for filming all the Texans-are-red-neck-dumb-asses movies. It seems they make at least one a year, and TV does even better: “Dallas,” “The Wheeler Dealers,” “Friday Night Lights” and, of course, “Desperate Housewives.”
OK, so each idea has some drawbacks. Here is my best suggestion. It is sort of a combination of other ideas, while stealing a page from the old Albert Thomas Convention Center which was converted into Bayou Place and, apparently, is doing rather nicely. We turn the Astrodome into a casino with hotel rooms, bars and restaurants. The reason for including hotels and eateries inside the facility is that there is almost nothing else along South Main to feed and house visiting gamblers. (One of the reasons for putting the dome there was that it would “revitalize” the area. It did bring in more energetic hookers, but otherwise, not many boutique cafes sprang up.)
If you object to casino gambling in the Lone Star State, fine. We limit the clientele to out-of-staters. Hey, Texas is surrounded by casinos catering to Texans. Each year, our gamblers send hundreds of millions of dollars to Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico. Isn’t it time we got some of our money back? Think of the visitors as riverboat gamblers, only this time the dike will hold.