HOUSTON -- Behold what has become of the eighth wonder of the world. The Astrodome sits dark, dusty, dilapidated and haunted by Houston’s history.
Giant signs touting bearing outdated logos for corporate sponsors like Continental Airlines hang over orange seats with ripped cushions. Skyboxes are furnished with outdated furniture and old Zenith television sets. Astroturf sits carelessly tossed on the stadium floor, folded over like discarded carpet left behind in an abandoned home.
“What do I see?” said Edgar Colon, chairman of the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp., as he looked around the empty stadium. “I see a lot of history.”
Once a centerpiece of civic pride, the Astrodome now sits at the center of a squabble between civic leaders. On one side sits a couple of very influential tenants, the Houston Texans and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which lease Reliant Stadium and Reliant Center. On the other side sits leaders of Harris County, which owns the complex that includes the long-vacant Astrodome.
For the Texans and the HLSR, the dome is the eyesore next door, a grungy and rundown neighbor next to one of the finest football stadiums in the nation.
For Harris County leaders, it’s an expensive and politically vexing conundrum that’s costing millions of taxpayer dollars and will inevitably cost tens of millions more.
In the latest development in this long-running feud, county officials who took reporters on a tour of the dome take issue with a study commissioned by the Rodeo and the Texans that says the old stadium could be demolished for as little as $29 million. They also disputed the NFL commissioner’s implication this week that resolving the Astrodome’s fate could help Houston’s latest bid for a Super Bowl.
“There’s more to it than just $29 million,” Colon said. “Their own report said that there are some things that they are not considering that may add up to $20 million.”
Rodeo officials defended their study and readily admitted they are trying to pressure Harris County into finally doing something about the empty dome.
“It’s dying,” said Leroy Shafer, chief operating officer of the Rodeo. “It’s decaying. You guys were in there today. You see what kind of shape it’s in. Let’s do something with it.”
The $29 million is less than half of the lowest number issued by county officials, who have estimated simply demolishing the dome would cost roughly $64 million.
But county officials have argued that even their $64 million figure doesn’t paint the whole picture of how much taxpayers will have to bankroll for the stadium.
Perhaps most frustrating of all, taxpayers are still on the hook for about $30 million in bond money borrowed to pay for the 1987 renovations that briefly kept the Oilers in Houston.
The cheapest option presented by consultants for the county suggested spending $128 million to pay down the bonds and raze the dome. The so-called “Reliant Park Plaza” plan also suggests building a hotel and replacing Reliant Arena, a package of improvements that would cost $873 million.
Other options presented by the county consultants would cost taxpayers and private investors up to $1.35 billion. Critics have scoffed at the eye-popping price tags cited in that study.
“I’ve heard the comment made in the past couple days, ‘Well, we don’t want to be rushed into anything.’” Shafer said. “Give me a break. We knew that this building had to have something done to it 13 years ago.”
The study commissioned by the Rodeo and the Texans says tearing down the dome could create about 1,600 new parking spaces. Shafer says the Rodeo would probably use the extra space for carnival rides.
County officials say keeping the Astrodome standing is costing taxpayers as much as $2 million a year.
Whatever eventually happens, voters will almost certainly have to approve in a referendum.
Even the cheapest options would cost tens of millions of dollars, which county officials have said they would have to borrow in a bond issue that Harris County voters would have to approve at the ballot box.