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Space waste: Future of long-dormant Astrodome remains up in the air

The lawn of the Astrodome being used as a space for the wine garden during RodeoHouston in 2023.
Mark Norris/Houston Public Media
The lawn of the Astrodome being used as a space for the wine garden during RodeoHouston in 2023.

Houstonians have historically referred to the Astrodome as the "Eighth Wonder of the World." More recently, though, they might just wonder what has become of it.

The world's first domed sports stadium, a colossal, air-conditioned creation of former Harris County judge, Houston mayor and Houston Astros co-owner Roy Hofheinz in the early 1960s, housed the city's professional baseball and football franchises as well as the United States' largest rodeo. The Astrodome also hosted a Republican National Convention and some of the biggest events and stars in American sports and entertainment, with Elvis Presley, Selena and George Strait performing concerts there, "The Battle of the Sexes" tennis match being staged there, Muhammad Ali fighting there and the "Game of the Century" – a nationally televised college basketball showdown between the University of Houston and UCLA in 1968 – being played there.

Now, as the NCAA Men's Final Four brings a national spotlight back to Houston this weekend, the Astrodome just sits there, having been mostly unused and unoccupied for the last two decades. It could be described as a 9-acre waste of space next to NRG Stadium, which dwarfs the once-iconic dome and will play host to the college basketball games on Saturday and Monday.

And while seeing the Astrodome might inspire awe and conjure fond memories among those coming to town, it also figures to be a source of curiosity for visitors and locals wondering what’s going on with it. The state of the dome and prospects for its future weigh on the minds of those who scout the surrounding NRG Park for special events, according to Ryan Walsh, the CEO and executive director of the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation, a governmental nonprofit that manages the complex on behalf of the county.

"It's coming up in conversation more and more about, ‘What are you guys doing with that?'" Walsh said. "When people come and tour these facilities, for these large events, it's, ‘What about that large building over there? What about the Astrodome?' Unfortunately, it's been the same answer we've had for, gosh, a decade or more now."

That answer is nothing and no changes are imminent. The Astrodome was condemned by the City of Houston in 2009 and does not have a working HVAC system or plumbing, according to Walsh, and a series of ideas to refurbish and repurpose the building since that time have not come to fruition.

Former Harris County Judge Ed Emmett led a $105 million proposal to convert the county-owned Astrodome into a multi-purpose event space with under-the-floor parking, which county commissioners approved in 2018, but the project fizzled out after Emmett lost an election to Lina Hidalgo later that year. There were concerns about the plan's long-term cost and viability, according to Hidalgo and Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who voted in support of the proposal but said he always had reservations about it.

Ellis, who represents the part of Houston where the Astrodome is located, said there is no longer an interest in spending taxpayer money to refurbish it as construction costs have escalated and county leaders have more pressing priorities such as flood control, community healthcare needs and a backlog in their criminal justice system. Walsh said the county spends about $150,000 per year in utility and insurance costs for the Astrodome as a part of the larger NRG Park complex, and Ellis said any additional funding would need to come from the private or philanthropic sectors.

A plan to resurrect the Astrodome also would need the support of the NFL's Houston Texans and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which are NRG Park's primary tenants. Tearing down the mostly revered domed stadium – an idea for which many Houstonians have expressed support over the years – is off the table after the Astrodome received a state historical designation a few years ago that largely protects it from being demolished or significantly altered.

"We're really in a conundrum trying to figure out how to reuse it, how to make it work," Ellis said. "We've got to make sure we comply with historic preservation and rehabilitation standards but also come up with some design and philanthropic or private-sector funding to make it work.

"I hope it happens," Ellis added. "I haven't seen it."

Looking back, moving forward

Walsh said his nonprofit is starting to have conversations about the future of NRG Park with the Texans and rodeo, which have leases at NRG Stadium through 2032, adding that the Astrodome will be part of those talks. Rodeo president and CEO Chris Boleman, who recently wrapped up the 2023 event, said he wants to see the Astrodome become a usable space and would support a plan that benefits the rodeo and its operations.

The Astrodome Conservancy, a private nonprofit which formed in 2016 at the urging of Emmett, is gradually working to solicit public input, conduct market research and vet outside proposals to get the building up and running again. Executive director Beth Wiedower Jackson said she fields multiple inquiries per month about the Astrodome.

She added that the conversancy, which has a fundraising run scheduled for April 15, has a "very lean budget" and is "very much in the process" of finding a viable solution. Ellis said it's likely to be at least a couple more years before an idea could be galvanized and set in motion at the Astrodome, which is paid for and "structurally solid as a rock," according to Jackson.

The conservancy conducted a public-input campaign in 2021, with Jackson saying an overwhelming majority of the 7,500-plus respondents wanted to see the Astrodome utilized in some capacity.

"There is very much the public will, and even the political will, to do something with this building," she said. "But there is not a vision right now, today currently, for the public or the politicians to rally around or get behind. There is not even something to say, ‘No, that's not it.' We're trying to come up with that vision."

There has been no shortage of ideas, according to Emmett, who became county judge in 2007 and said he heard proposals to convert the Astrodome into a hotel, a museum, an urban park, a movie studio, an indoor skiing area, a site for archery competitions and even a place where history buffs could flood the dome floor and reenact famous battles. He and some of his staffers traveled to Germany, using money from Emmett's campaign fund, to visit a similar domed structure and get inspiration.

Harris County voters rejected a bond referendum in 2013 to spend $217 million to turn the Astrodome into a multi-purpose event space – with Emmett saying some who voted against it claimed they thought they were voting to demolish the building. A streamlined version of the plan was approved by Harris County Commissioners Court in 2018, with Emmett saying his long-term vision was to raze some of the Astrodome's sidewalls to create a covered-but-open-air facility and eventually have the upper reaches of the building, which has more than 300,000 square foot of space, house offices or businesses.

Emmett said he urged Hidalgo to keep his plan in place and blame him if it didn't work out, but that didn't happen. He said he still hears from Houston-area residents who "swear the reason I lost is because I wouldn't tear down the Astrodome."

Emmett did not express regret, though.

"I think the (plan) we had on the table is by far the most viable," he said.

Hidalgo, who was elected to a second four-year term in November, said in a statement that the previous plan was “simply unrealistic” for a variety of reasons and any proposal for the Astrodome moving forward should be "fiscally responsible and the community must be on board." A future use of the building must be self-sustaining from a revenue standpoint and would ideally come with a benefit to the public, according to Ellis.

Jackson said such a plan also would need to have enough buy-in – from NRG Park tenants, county officials and the Houston-area community – to withstand elections and shifting political winds. She envisions some sort of hub or marketplace that could incorporate local bars and restaurants and tap into Houston's standing as a national leader in medicine as well as space exploration.

"Sustainability and viability hinge on the resources to maintain the building once it's operational and to program it in a way that keeps it dynamic and keeps it on people's radar screen," Jackson said. "It's not just coming once and checking a box, but engaging with the Astrodome over and over again."

Perhaps the Astrodome could once again capture the hearts and imaginations of Houstonians and others around the country and the world, and not just those of a certain age who remember the structure in its heyday. Ellis said he guided a bike tour of Houston that included a young man from India who laughed when told the building was known as the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” until Ellis arranged for him to see the inside of the Astrodome and it “really did amaze him."

Boleman said rodeo officials are grateful for their run at the Astrodome, which ended in 2002, and recognize its historical significance as well as the deep-seated, emotional connection it has with many Houstonians. As it stands now, though, the dome is less an awe-inspiring place and more of an obstacle for those who use and visit NRG Park.

"We need to address it," Boleman said. "We need to figure something out."
Copyright 2023 Houston Public Media News 88.7. To see more, visit Houston Public Media News 88.7.

Adam Zuvanich