The other day, I drove past the Astrodome, expecting to see workers scurrying, getting the once “Eighth Wonder of the World” back on its feet, back in business. Wasn’t the plan to raise the floor to ground level and build a parking garage with 1,400 spaces below?
Didn’t the county commissioners approve $105 million for Phase 1 of returning the Astrodome to a useful, money-making building? Wasn’t the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo onboard with the project?
The ghost Dome
However, current Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Commissioners Court have brought everything to a screeching stop at the Astrodome. It’s a ghost building again. Speaking on Houston Public Media, Hidalgo questioned if the $105 million plan “is fiscally responsible, that it will actually, with the funds committed to it, that it will actually get us to a point where the Astrodome is self-sustaining. What I’m discovering is that the 105 (million dollars) that was allocated is not enough to air condition the building. Is the current design enough for folks to actually want to rent it out?”
Hidalgo is unclear about what to do with the Dome, and it’s simply not a priority with her. She says she is concentrating more on issues like flood prevention and criminal justice reform. And certainly there is work to be done there.
Hidalgo’s communications director, Kiran Khalid, put it more bluntly in Houstonia magazine, “This is really on the back burner for us at this juncture. Speculating on what will happen with the Astrodome, and when, is not at the top of mind for us.”
Back to Square One
And with that, we are back to Square One on what to do with the Astrodome, with nothing being done and nobody, well, mostly nobody happy.
This was after a decade of emotional, countywide wrangling about what to do with the aging, forlorn, and forgotten domed stadium — including suggestions like turning it into a convention and hotel center, and some rather out-there ideas, like an indoor ski jumping attraction or movie studio.
I remember writing a column: My position was either do something with the Astrodome — or tear it down. Leaving it to rot was not acceptable. My dream solution would be to turn it into a magnificent hotel and casino. Harris County and Houston would sit back and watch the money roll in, enough to fix every problem and pot hole five times over. But casino gambling is illegal in Texas. (That’s so dumb and backward.)
The Dome deserves better
Built in 1965, the gleaming Astrodome, the world’s first covered sports stadium, was Houston’s logo and greatest accomplishment — until we put a man on the moon. Over the years, primary tenants like the Houston Oilers fled to Tennessee, and the Houston Astros built a new home, Minute Maid Park. And we built a new football stadium and home for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo right next door to the Astrodome.
The new stadium, with every bell and whistle imaginable, only made the Astrodome look puny and old, an embarrassing, dingy public eyesore. In 2009, the Houston Fire Marshal declared the Astrodome unsafe for occupancy. He might as well have slapped a “condemned” sign on the building.
In 2013, there was a vote on whether to spend $217 million of public money to renovate the Astrodome, if not to its past glory, at least to modern usefulness. Many mistakenly considered the election a referendum on the Astrodome itself. Yes to fix it up, no to tear it down.
Ed to the rescue
The public spoke a resounding no, 53 to 47 percent. But Harris County Judge Ed Emmett was not willing to take no for an answer. Practically tying himself to the Dome as a human shield against the wrecking ball, Emmett was determined not to see the Dome demo’d on his watch.
Emmett insisted that his determination to keep the Dome standing was based on fiscal responsibility, not nostalgia or fear of being tagged “The man who lost the Dome.”
A documentary, The Eighth Wonder of the World, aired on the MLB Network. The film was a toast to the Dome, recounting all the historic events that took place inside: Luv Ya Blue, Astros playoff games, college basketball’s “Game of the Century,” a Muhammad Ali knockout, tennis’ “Battle of the Sexes,” Elvis concerts, WrestleMania, and more. The documentary included interviews with President George H.W. Bush, Nolan Ryan, Billie Jean King, and Elvin Hayes. The film’s producer told me that only one person refused to be interviewed: Willie Nelson. “He said the Astrodome had the worst acoustics of any place he ever performed.”
Kenneth Womack wrote a book, The Eighth Wonder of the World: the Life of Houston’s Iconic Astrodome. I asked him, why do you think Houstonians seem willing to let to Astrodome be torn down? I can’t imagine Chicagoans ever letting go of Wrigley Field, or Bostonians turning their back on Fenway Park.
His answer surprised me but made sense. He said it had to do with human touch. In Chicago, people can walk up to Wrigley Field and take a souvenir photo. Same with Fenway Park. Same with the Coliseum in Rome, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Great Wall of China.In Houston, the Astrodome was always locked up behind chain link fences, hundreds of yards from entrance gates patrolled by security guards. Unless it was game day or Rodeo night, regular folks couldn’t get near the Astrodome.
Two years ago, the Texas Historical Commission declared the Astrodome a “State Antiquities Landmark.” That meant any changes in the building must be approved by the commission. That’s true. It was reported, and generally accepted, that the designation saved the Astrodome from ever being demolished.
That is not 100 percent accurate. It would take some end arounds, legal maneuvering, public relations mastery, and putting Harris County residents through more anguish, but the county could move forward with demolition of the Dome. It is unlikely, however.
So, back to Square One. That’s not progress. That’s just dumb.
What should happen to the Dome? Let Ken know on Twitter.