HOUSTON -- The Astrodome's fans cannot believe it's come down to this.
Now that voters have resoundingly rejected a $217 million renovation plan that would have saved the Astrodome, Harris County commissioners must decide what they're going to do with Houston's signature sports stadium. Although it was widely perceived as a referendum on whether the dome would be saved or demolished, the ballot language said nothing about the stadium’s future if voters rejected the bond issue. Before the election, most commissioners made it clear they thought a failed referendum would spell the dome's doom.
But exactly what will happen next wasn't immediately clear. County leaders want something done with the derelict stadium before Houston hosts the 2017 Super Bowl. Footing the bill for demolition -- supposedly at least $29 million, but the estimates have varied so wildly it's hard to know what to believe -- is just the first problem. The bigger issue may be deciding what to do with the site.
On the day after the referendum, commissioners weren't exactly leaping in front of cameras to offer their opinions. Nobody was yelling, "Tear the damn thing down" in the wake of the vote. The most pointed remark came from the outspoken Commissioner Steve Radack, who suggested turning what's now the sunken floor of the dome into a giant detention pond for floodwater. But even he made a point to say the decision is back on the plate of the commissioners.
"I'll tell you the truth," Radack said. "We're right back where we started."
County Judge Ed Emmett declined comment on the day after the ballots were counted, but on election night he offered little hope to Astrodome supporters.
"We looked at every possibility and this was the only plan that made any sense for repurposing and keeping the dome," Emmett said.
Commissioner El Franco Lee, whose political precinct includes the Astrodome, supported the referendum and pointedly made a $5,000 contribution to the political action committee formed to pass it. His office released a written statement that offered little hint of what might lie ahead.
"We will wait to see what the consensus of Commissioners Court is before we decide what to do with the Dome," the statement said. "The court will get assistance from the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp. The work that has started on the Dome is work that had to be done regardless of the bond measure’s outcome. That includes abating asbestos and removing ticket booths, seats, and exterior walkway towers."
Despite their disappointment, some diehard dome enthusiasts aren't giving up. Ed Seale and his wife Regina Pappas Seale, who lobbied for passage of the referendum, say they've got some other ideas for keeping the stadium standing.
"I'm absolutely convinced the Astrodome is not going anywhere," Pappas Seale said.
Her husband didn't want to go into detail, but he said he planned to contact Emmett with a couple of other ideas for financing a repurposing of the Astrodome.
"One of our plans involves strictly private funding," he said. "And we're looking at another that'll be a combination of both private and public enterprise, both of 'em which we feel are very viable."
Other historic preservationists were skeptical. Beth Wiedower, a local official with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, spent part of her day returning a truck used in the futile attempt to sell Harris County voters "The New Dome Experience." After weeks of campaigning, she conceded the fight.
"We are all waiting for that private developer with deep pockets to come," Wiedower said. "But common sense would tell me that if he was going to come -- he or she -- it would have happened by now."
Nonetheless, despite a decisive defeat at the polls, some dome supporters weren't ready to surrender.
"I think there will be some Astrodome angels," Pappas Seale said.