By CHRIS DUNCAN and RAMIT PLUSHNICK-MASTI, Associated Press
HOUSTON (AP) — The Astrodome, a now-empty showplace that has hosted everyone from Elvis Presley to Hurricane Katrina evacuees, should be turned into a multipurpose facility that could spark fresh interest in the city of Houston, a group of consultants recommended Wednesday.
The $270 million option was one of four considered by consultants led by Dallas-based CSL. The other options included leaving the dome alone, demolishing it and building an outdoor plaza, or building a massive and expensive "renaissance" complex anchored by a luxury hotel.
In a presentation to Harris County's sports and convention agency, the consultants said the multipurpose option could turn Houston into a popular destination for special events and national trade shows. The plan would preserve the iconic structure's outer shell.
Bill Rhoda, CSL's president, said the multipurpose facility proposal "recognizes the magnitude of potential opportunities offered by this one-of-a-kind structure."
The reconfigured dome would have more than 300,000 square feet available for trade shows, exhibitions and various sporting events, including basketball and football games.
Rhoda said the multipurpose facility could be finished by 2016, when nearby Reliant Stadium hosts the Final Four in men's basketball, and help make Houston more attractive for any bid to host the 2017 Super Bowl at the stadium. Rhoda also said the multipurpose facility leaves open the possibility of revisiting the renaissance option in the future.
"It provides additional flexibility for being able to attract a variety of events," Rhoda said. "It adds the ability to move toward the Super Bowls and the Final Fours of the world, and get those events to Houston."
The recommendation now goes to the Harris County commissioners, who can review the details at their next capital projects meeting on June 26. There is no known timeline for a decision, and the dome's future could in theory be put before voters someday.
"Under the multipurpose facility, the days of the Astrodome exclusively as a sports facility are over," said Edgar Colon, chairman of the Harris County Convention and Sports Corporation. "It will be sports facilities-plus."
The Astrodome was closed for good in 2008. On a tour taken this week by an Associated Press reporter, piles of boxes littered the stadium floor alongside a crumpled mat of synthetic football field. Trash was strewn around the stands under the torn seats, mold was on the walls and dimly lit corridors were filled with a pungent, musty odor.
State-of-the-art Reliant Stadium was opened next door in 2002, and the Astrodome quickly became nothing more than a hulking relic of the city's past and a drain on taxpayers, costing between $2 million and $4 million in maintenance and insurance costs annually. In July 2010, the corporation commissioned a study to decide the building's fate, and an online survey showed overwhelming public support for the ambitious "renaissance" option.
Rhoda said the consultants determined that option would cost about $385 million, and the county would have to find a private investor to build the hotel.
"It does provide the opportunity for third-party development," Rhoda said. "It could create a regional destination. However, at this point, it's not economically viable."
Opened in 1965, the Astrodome was a revolutionary building in more ways than one. It was the first multi-purpose domed stadium and the first building of its size with air conditioning. An 18-story building can stand underneath its translucent roof and Walt Disney, according to local legend, was so blown away when he stood inside that he dubbed it the Eighth Wonder of the World.
Presley, Muhammad Ali, Evel Kneivel and the Rolling Stones all performed there, and it was the site of circuses, bullfights, polo matches, Major League Baseball's first indoor game, a Republican National Convention and the world's largest indoor rodeo.
It had luxury suites, food and beer served at clean Formica counters, comfortable press boxes and cushioned seats. The original plan called for natural grass on the field, but it couldn't grow under the skylights after they were painted to reduce glare for athletes. At one point, when the grass turned brown, groundskeepers painted it green. Plastic AstroTurf debuted in 1966 as the first artificial playing surface.
The Astrodome hosted the "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King, college basketball's "Game of the Century" between Houston and UCLA in 1968 and WrestleMania before Katrina forced thousands of people inside in 2005.
"It was an amazing structure at its time," said Mark Miller, general manager of the corporation, which oversees the Astrodome, Reliant Stadium and other complexes on a 340-acre campus.
"People were coming from all over the world to see the Astrodome. It was that significant. People like Frank Sinatra, Walt Disney, John Wayne," Miller added. "It seems commonplace now, but for its time, being the first, it was just incredible."
Other cities followed with their own domes: the Kingdome in Seattle, now gone; Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla.; Minneapolis' Metrodome; and New Orleans' Superdome, considered bigger and better than the Astrodome.
"Eventually, it's always about money," said Bob Bluthardt, former chairman of the ballparks research committee at the Society for American Baseball Research. "And the Astrodome went from being state-of-the-art to being obsolete in barely a generation."
John Pastier, an architect who wrote the 2006 book "Historic Ballparks," agreed.
"The fixed dome had a certain period of currency and then was replaced by retractable domes," he said.
The NFL's Houston Oilers left for Tennessee in the 1990s. Baseball's Houston Astros wanted their own stadium, so they built Minute Maid Park with a retractable roof. The NFL's Texans also got a new retractable-roof stadium — Reliant — that opened in 2002.
Since then, the Astrodome hasn't turned a profit.
Rhoda said the consultants also recommended replacing nearby — and also decaying — Reliant Arena, a tiny, inadequate indoor arena across a parking lot from the Astrodome. The consultants recommended building a new 10,000-seat arena, along with adding a 2,500-space parking garage and exhibition space around the Astrodome itself.
That proposal also included a hotel, with a total cost to the county of about $385 million. Miller said that option could be considered separately from the Astrodome's future — and may even be the more urgent priority for county commissioners.
"They could vote on one and not the other," Miller said. "They can do a multitude of things. It's totally up to them."
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