By Lynn Ashby 20 Sept. 2010
THE ASTRODOME – It slumps here, water stains running down the outer walls, the grass needs mowing, the roof could use some work. Has the Eighth Wonder of the World used up its nine lives? Is the Dome doomed? Let’s discuss what to do with the Houston Astrodome, if anything, how to pay for any plans and – no matter where you live in Texas — why you should care.
Our mullings are timely because residents of Harris County (that’s Houston and then some) were recently asked to vote via e-mail on three possible plans for the 45-year-old Astrodome and 35-year-old Reliant Arena next door. The choices ranged from tearing them down to a billion-dollar re-do. Eighty percent voted to keep them.
Something needs to be done. The county spends about $5 million annually on debt and interest, insurance, utilities and other maintenance costs. There is still $32 million owed in bonds, which won’t be paid off until 2032. Part of the debt – including for the construction of new suites — was incurred when Oilers owner Bud Adams threatened to leave town in the 1980s. After all the improvements, Adams moved the Oilers to Nashville, Tenn.
In case you are among the two dozen Texans who at one time or another didn’t visit or at least drive by the Dome, let’s take a look at how we got here. The idea for this place came from former Houston mayor and county judge Roy Hofheinz. He wanted an indoor stadium to combat Houston’s awful climate, and to house both major league baseball and football and anything else he could book – college games, basketball, demolition derbies. He wanted — get this – luxury suites for fat cats to watch the events, complete with TV, wet bar, bathroom, sort of a hotel suite. At the time, the idea was revolutionary.
Another idea caught on everywhere: Although the Dome was, uh, a dome, it had real grass, but baseball outfielders said the sun bouncing off skylights interfered with their catching fly balls. The plastic ceiling was painted, but that killed the grass. So the Dome gave the world AstroTurf. Hofheinz got government help in the total cost by putting cans of food rations and water cans in the cellars – instant civil defense shelters. He had living quarters built for himself high up to look out at the events, but it is not true he made it his legal residence so, under the Texas Homestead Law, no one could take the Dome away from him in case of bankruptcy.
The Dome was built in a run-down part of town because, it was said, the new massive structure would bring renewal to the area. Only one middle-size hotel was built, and it went belly up. The Eighth Wonder cost $32 million to build, could hold an 18-story building, when fully lit consumed more electricity than did a city of 9,000 people, and it was a huge success. The Oilers, Astros, UH Cougars played home games there. The Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo called the Dome home. The Oilers and Astros were so dreadful that some years the two-week rodeo outdrew the pro teams’ season attendance.
On June 15, 1976, an Astros’ game was rained out. The Dome was dry inside, but city flooding was so bad the fans couldn’t get to the park. In 1968, UH, 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 was before a sell-out crowd during the rodeo. Not long after, she was fatally shot by her fan club president. The largest crowd ever was 68,266 for George Strait’s concert in 2002.
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 the new home of the new Texans, Reliant Stadium (2003). Since then, the Dome has been sitting lonely, empty and costly. It is rented out to Hollywood for filming, such as the climatic finish of the movie version of “Friday Night Lights” (even though the actual play-off game was not held there). Its last big jobs were in 2005 as a shelter for some 13,000 Hurricane Katrina evacuees, and 2008, when it was a staging center for workers after Hurricane Ike.
It is not included on the National Register of Historic Places, so some argue that we should tear it down, but even that would cost $128-million. Since the Astrodome opened in 1965, domes have been built and demolished in Seattle and Indianapolis. Open-air Yankee Stadium, Giants Stadium, Philadelphia’s Veteran’s Stadium and Texas Stadium were demolished and replaced.
Various ideas have been trotted out about what to do with the old gal. Someone proposed making it an indoor drive-in movie theater. Other suggestions have included a water world, apartments and condos, a racetrack, an amusement park. Something called the Astrodome Redevelopment Corp. planed to spend $450 million to install a 1,200-room hotel, restaurants and shops in the Dome. That plan seems to have been shelved.
Now, why should you care? We look east to the Louisiana Superdome. Note, it is not the New Orleans Superdome. The entire Pelican State owns that place, and in recent hard times the taxpayers there faced bailing it out (this time, only financially).The Astrodome, however, is owned by the county and was originally called the Harris County Domed Stadium.
Other Texans need not worry about the upkeep, but they might be interested in cutting their taxes, especially since the state faces a huge budget deficit. So here’s my plan: we turn this big bubble into a state-owned hotel-casino. We reap hundreds of millions in tax dollars from out-of-staters (what’s “sucker” in Cajun?), then balance our budget and cut our taxes. Hello, Mister Chips!
Texas’ financial problems have now been solved. That’s why you should care.
Ashby is brilliant at email@example.com