Astrodome reboot will be determined by one of these two courses of action
Here we go again. The Houston Astrodome Conservancy held a press conference Thursday to announce a two-month effort to survey Harris County residents for suggestions on how to re-purpose and essentially save the Astrodome as a vital, functioning facility.
Two-month effort? Last-ditch CPR may be a more accurate description.
Residents are being asked to click on future-dome.com and leave their ideas on what to do with the Dome.
Haven't we been through this several times? In 2013, a $227 million proposal to convert the Astrodome into a convention and event center was rejected by Harris County voters. At the time, and for a period after, many thought the bond referendum was a vote on whether to spend taxpayer money to support the project or tear down the Dome. However, tearing down the Dome was not an option in the referendum and wasn't on the ballot.
Later Harris County Commissioners Court, led by then-County Judge Ed Emmett, approved spending $105 million on a bare bones plan to turn the Dome into an underground parking garage and ground-level public park.
Before that plan could be implemented, current County Judge Lina Hidalgo was elected and put the kibosh on the Astrodome re-do. She said her focus was more on flood control and social issues, and placed the Dome on, as Mattress Mack would say, the back-back-back burner.
That's where it's stood for the past several years. The Astrodome sits, forgotten and forlorn, unloved and uncared for, home to cats and rodents, a molding eyesore next-door to Houston's gleaming, modern NRG Stadium.
And that's where the Astrodome Conservancy comes in. The group wants to celebrate Houston's futuristic imagination by preserving the greatest architectural achievement of our past. They didn't call the Astrodome the "Eighth Wonder of the World" for nothing.
However, residents have offered thousands of suggestions for the Astrodome in recent years. They've ranged from the reasonable, like build a combo hotel and convention center, to creative, like a massive indoor amusement park, to the outlandish, like indoor ski jumping and, my favorite, flooding the Astrodome floor and recreating historic naval battles.
While it appears an uphill climb, the Astrodome Conservancy has some factors in its favor. In 2017 the Astrodome was designated a State Antiquities Landmark by the Texas Historical Commission. That means the Dome can't be demolished without the commission's approval, which will never happen. So a wrecking ball never will get near the Dome. We can take demolition off the table.
Private funding vs. public money
That seems to leave a choice between finding private funding and pleading for public money to repair and repurpose the Astrodome.
Factors working against the Conservancy resurrecting the Dome as a thriving, functioning facility are many. The group would have to develop a plan that will convince private corporations to fork over as much as $500,000 to convert the Dome into a … what? That's the big question the Conservancy hopes to have answered by the public.
The Conservancy has met with Judge Hidaldo, who didn't budge on her lack of interest in renovating the Dome, and certainly doesn't want to spend one penny of taxpayer money on any such project. However, according to Conservancy officials, Hidalgo gave the Conservancy her blessing to poll the public and try to seek private funding to support whatever project may be feasible.
"Feasible" is the Conservancy's biggest mountain to climb. While the public submitted hundreds of suggestions to former County Judge Emmett in the past, not one excited private investors enough to open their wallets.
That's where the Astrodome stands now: legally impossible to tear down, and financially impossible to fix up.
My position has always been: fix it or demolish it. The Astrodome is broken. The current situation is sad and unacceptable. Houston is criticized for not celebrating its past by preserving its legacy buildings. Well, letting them rot is worse.
Of course, there is one simple solution that would have public support, financial backing and bring in billions to our state coffers: turning the Astrodome into a magnificent hotel-casino resort. But that won't happen because Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick and the Texas Legislature refuse to let residents vote on legalizing gambling. Instead, they care more about telling people how to run their lives and what they can and can't do with their bodies. Stupid, stupid, stupid.