DONE WITH THE DOME?

It's back to square one for abandoned Astrodome money pit

Photo courtesy of City of Houston.

This article originally appeared on CultureMap.

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 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 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 slapped a "condemned" sign on the building.

In 2013, there was a vote 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."

Continue on CultureMap to find out if the Dome could be demolished.

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A new hotel is in the works near Minute Maid. Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Astros owner Jim Crane says the team is ready to break ground on a major construction project that will include a hotel and entertainment complex across the street from Minute Maid Park as soon as the 2023 baseball season wraps up – hopefully with another World Series parade in downtown Houston.

AstrosWorld!

But another hotel? Another entertainment complex? More construction downtown? My first reaction was, how much more does Houston need? I remember when the Super Bowl was held in Houston in 2004, clubs and restaurants sprung up downtown practically overnight, only to disappear virtually the morning after. When it came to downtown development, the expression “less is more” turned out true. At least that Super Bowl.

I asked my contacts in government and the Houston welcome wagon, is this a good idea, building a hotel and entertainment complex next door to Minute Maid Park? Do we need it? Can we sustain it?

The answer every time was a resounding yes! For a couple of reasons: first, downtown Houston, coming out of Covid, is booming, leadership is creative and budget-minded these days, and most important, if Jim Crane is behind the idea, you can trust it’ll work. The guy’s got a track record.

“In 2004, the idea was to turn downtown’s Main Street into Bourbon Street. Is that what we really want? It was a misguided plan, the wrong philosophy, and businesses opened and closed in short order,” a source told me.

It was a different story when the Super Bowl returned to Houston in 2017. This time Houston saw the Marriott Marquis, a 1,000-room hotel complete with an iconic Texas-shaped swimming pool, open in time for the tourist onslaught. Also, Avenida Houston greeted downtown visitors with new restaurants and entertainment venues. Both the Marriott and Avenida Houston have continued to thrive long after the Super Bowl left town.

“We want our downtown to attract visitors while providing services for the growing number of singles and families who are making their home downtown. As we continue to host major events and conventions, there will be a need for more hotel rooms,” the source said.

The Astros’ plan to build a sprawling hotel and entertainment complex originally was discussed in 2021 but was put on hold due to Covid. Now Crane and the Astros are ready to come out swinging. Similar complexes operate successfully next to the baseball stadium in St. Louis, Chicago and other cities.

An Astros-themed hotel adjacent to Minute Maid Park is particularly intriguing. The lobby could be home to an Astros museum and team Hall of Fame. Rooms and restaurants could be decorated in honor of Astros legends – the “Nolan Ryan honeymoon suite,” or “Strech Suba’s Bullpen Bar and Grille.” There could be meeting space for autograph and memorabilia shows. There could be a broadcast facility for post-game interviews and analysis. And maybe one day, fingers crossed, a betting parlor like the Cubs have at Wrigley Field.

The Astros have a contract to play at Minute Maid Park through 2050 – the only long-term contract that doesn’t make Crane cringe. Anything that enhances the fan experience and generates revenue is good for the team and the city. I might even consider going downtown on non-game nights.

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