Houston's Astrodome, which opened in 1965, was replaced by Reliant Stadium in 2002. Voters defeated a $200-million rehab proposal Nov. 5.
Don’t say it’s the end, but the future is looking bleaker than ever for Houston’s famous Astrodome, dubbed the eighth wonder of the world when it was built in 1965 by Judge Roy Hofheinz and friends for baseball and football and rodeo, three franchises under one dome.
On Nov. 5, the voters of Harris County rejected the latest, possibly last, plan to rejuvenate the Astrodome, turning it into 350,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space at ground level. The $200-million price tag would have been paid with a property tax on county residents.
There have been several ideas, some fantastical, some functional, about what to do with the Astrodome, which has not had a certificate of occupancy since 2009. Mark Miller, general manager of Reliant Park for SMG, recalled that point in time when a fire marshal’s routine inspection led to discovery of a slew of building permits on the aging Astrodome that had never been closed. They went through the methodical process of closing out the permits until it was down to a handful that were going to require reinspection and considerable time and money. Much of the history and paperwork was missing. Since there was no pressing need to use the Astrodome again, the idea was shelved.
But Miller emphasized that the Astrodome was never condemned. It simply lacks a certificate of occupancy … and a pressing use.
The last event in the dome was in February 2009 when the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo hosted its annual Hideout, its dance club featuring country music, there. The majority of the rodeo, along with the Houston Texans of the National Football League, moved to Reliant Stadium next door when it opened in 2002.
Leroy Shafer, president and CEO of the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, said the rodeo endorsed the latest plan for rehabilitating the Astrodome, encouraging its 28,700 volunteers, those who lived in Harris County anyway, to “analyze the issue, to understand we could utilize [the Astrodome], and vote their convictions. Our volunteers are a cross section of the Gulf Coast area. If it’s a divided issue with the public, it’s a divided issue with our constituents also.”
The proposal was defeated with 53 percent of those who voted against funding the renovation. Most of those interviewed for this story have a long history with the Astrodome, but also noted there are thousands of newcomers to Houston that have never seen an event there. It has been mostly inactive for 13 years.
“In 13 years, since we’ve known we need to do something with that venue, we’ve seen a lot of proposals,” Shafer said. He added that the HLS&R board had great concerns with this last proposal because there are three other facilities on site — Reliant Stadium, Reliant Arena and Reliant Center — that need ongoing maintenance and operations investments. “We wanted to be sure if this building was brought back on line, there would be adequate operation, maintenance and replacement revenue for that building and the others on-site,” he said.
They were particularly concerned about aging Reliant Arena (formerly Astro Arena), where the rodeo hosts horse shows, commercial cattle shows, premium auctions, poultry shows, and llama and alpaca shows. It was brought on line in 1975 and donated to Harris County.
“Right now, it is not in a condition we feel meets our lease agreement,” Shafer said. “In return for our endorsing this referendum, county officials agreed for funding in the current and next year’s budgets to bring Reliant Arena up to the condition specified in our lease agreement. They also agreed to work with the rodeo to seek funding in midterm future to replace Reliant Arena.”
That maintenance work is estimated to cost about $12 million, Shafer said, and he expects the work to proceed. And, had the measure to refurbish the Astrodome passed, “that was 350,000 sq. ft. of space we would have found good use for, but it would not have relieved our need for the arena. We can use that space either way. If it’s taken down, we could use it for outdoor space.”
Miller said the arena needs some major investment, including a new building automation system and new telescopic seating in the pavilion. The Harris County Commissioners Court, ultimate owner, has to approve all the funding and the work hasn’t started yet.
The county has still not named a next step. The local scuttlebutt is that they may have run out of options because the goal was to reposition the Astrodome before Houston hosts the Super Bowl in 2017.
The Astrodome Garage Sale drew 6,000-9,000 memorabilia seekers and raised $800,000.
SMG staged an Astrodome Yard Sale and Live Auction a week prior to the vote, the timing of which was due to scheduled asbestos removal in early December, according to Miller. The response was overwhelming and seemed to indicate a real passion of the dome.
Miller had expected 1,500 attendees, instead finding 6,000 lined up to buy Astrodome memorabilia. The sale raised more than $800,000, including: $146,192 from the live auction; $63,629 from AstroTurf; $569,808 from seats; and $30,865 in miscellaneous items.
A lot of the history was already gone well before SMG took over management, Miller added. The judges' quarters and bar and the Lyndon Johnson suite, had long ago disappeared when the baseball team went away in the 80s. Miller said he has kept some memorabilia in the event there is a museum on site at some point in the future.
The New Dome PAC, a totally separate entity from the rodeo (tenant), SMG (management company) or the Harris County Sports Commission (landlord), lobbied for the ballot measure to convert the dome. The decision to put the issue on the ballot came a little over two months before the vote. There was also a measure for a new football stadium in Katy, also part of Harris County, which was defeated by voters, Miller noted.
For SMG, the future is more of the same at this point. “We’ve maintained Reliant Park for 11 years, since the new stadium opened,” said Miller, who has been in Houston for 33 years, working early on at the now-converted Summit, an arena which became a church.
SMG has been intimately involved throughout the process of deciding the Astrodome’s fate. “We’ve been studying this since 2002, trying to figure it out,” Miller said. From an event perspective, he liked the exhibit space use. But he also acknowledged the arena has 275,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space, and Reliant Center has 706,213 sq. ft.
There have been a slew of other ideas, some private, some public. “I liked the idea of a 1,000-room hotel inside the Astrodome, that would be cool. But we couldn’t get a developer with enough confidence in our location to support that kind of development. We don’t have enough nightlife and retail in the area for a major hotel inside the dome.”
The rodeo invited AEG to take a look at the Astrodome years ago, hoping they could repurpose it as they had done with the Millenium Dome, now O2 Arena, in London, Shafer said. It was not deemed economically feasible.
The Astrodome is located in the heart of Reliant Park, making access a problem for private development, which would have to factor in a tunnel or bridge over the rodeo.
From a business perspective, the Astrodome in its current configuration is not a viable, marketable building, Miller said. While it deserves a lot of respect, no one builds stadiums for baseball and football anymore. The Astrodome was the first and, while more followed, that day is gone.
Shafer recalled some outlandish ideas about what to do with the dome, including turning it into an indoor ski slope, a space museum, and a greenhouse environment.
“It comes down to is it economically feasible, where is the money?” Shafer said. Since 2007, he estimated the rodeo alone has invested $250,000 exploring options for the Astrodome.
“No one can say they have more memories of that building than me,” said Shafer, who is celebrating his 40th anniversary and 300-plus rodeos and concerts at the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo. “But I also know the shape it is in. I know what it would take to bring it up to shape for occupancy and presentation. At some point, you realize if it cannot be adequately upgraded it needs to come down.”
There is no Plan B at this point. The Harris County Comissioners Court, ultimate decisionmaker, has not found the heart to announce or the funds to implement demolition to date. There is that looming deadline of 2017 and the ongoing maintenance bill estimated at $2- $3-million a year just to keep the dome from falling down.
“Multipurpose no longer works. It was built for capacity and presentation of a certain era, that is no longer workable,” Shafer said. “And these buildings were never built to remain state of the art and state of presentation. They didn’t know to take new technology into consideration 50 years ago.”
“We just want something done,” Shafer said. “It’s been 13 years since we knew we had to do something with it. Let’s get something done.”
Neal Gunn, retired, who managed the Astrodomain, as it was known, from 1983 to 1996, has to agree. “It had its glory,” Gunn said. He could not reconcile the idea of another 300,000 sq. ft. of exhibit space for $219 million when Reliant Park really needs a 15,000- 18,000-seat arena much more desperately.
“If I thought it would do some good, I’d be all for it,” he said, waxing nostalgic about how well the Astrodome was built and what a good ride it had. His favorite memory was the Republican National Convention for George Bush with jeeps and machine guns and snipers on the roof. “It was cool,” said the venue manager.
“Sometimes, you just have to let things go,” Gunn said. “It’s the real world.”
The real question on what to do with the Astrodome, whatever is decided, is simple, confirmed Kevin Hoffman, deputy executive director, Harris County Sports and Conventions Corp.: “How do you pay for it?”
Even demolition faces that issue.
Interviewed for this story: Leroy Shafer, (832) 667-1193; Mark Miller, (832) 667-1775; Neal Gunn, (713) 248-0163; Kevin Hoffman, (832) 667-1416