HOUSTON -- At a little store in The Galleria called Field of Dreams, Chris White spends his day selling sports memorabilia.
The walls are covered with jerseys autographed by everybody from J.J. Watt to Nolan Ryan. Shelves are cluttered with helmets signed by players of the past and present, from Earl Campbell to the 1972 Miami Dolphins. On one wall hang boxing trunks autographed by Muhammad Ali, on another a display featuring the signature of Lou Gehrig.
High above a cabinet full of sports souvenirs hangs a panoramic photograph of another legend: The Astrodome.
A lot of people, they just say they went there when they were a kid, White said. It's something that, they're thinking maybe they'll knock it down. They do want something like that to keep in their memory.
The Astrodome has always been a house of memories, from the 1965 game when Mickey Mantle knocked the ballpark's first home run into the stands. Oilers fans remember #34 on Earl Campbell's chest, baseball fans remember #34 on Nolan Ryan's back. But after all the memories, the moment has come for a cold, hard decision.
Harris County voters will determine the fate of The Astrodome in a bond referendum on the November ballot, a $217 million plan to convert the dome into a convention and exhibit facility. The Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation put forth the proposal after rejecting a number of privately-submitted proposals that it decided weren't financially feasible.
It would be a shame, in my mind, to see that asset go away, said Harris County Judge Ed Emmett. Because ten years from now, somebody looks up and says, 'Well, if we had the dome, we could do this.' Well, this is a use for the dome that makes sense and it preserves the dome for possible future uses.
But with election day a little more than two months away, a critical component of the plan is conspicuously missing. When big bond issues backed by the county's heavy hitters appear on the ballot, political and business leaders often form committees to sell the plan to voters. So far, nobody has emerged as The Astrodome's head cheerleader.
I think it's going to take some sort of organized effort, said Bob Stein, the Rice University political science professor and KHOU analyst. Bond proposals of this sort usually succeed when there's an overwhelming majority of campaigning and spending on behalf of a bond.
Emmett said a number of people have talked about leading the effort, but nobody's grabbing the ball to run with it.
Typically, right after Labor Day is when things crank up, Emmett said. And so we don't know who all is going to be involved, frankly.
Among people who've watched with dismay as the dome has fallen into disrepair, this only fuels suspicion that a failed bond election will give county leaders political cover to destroy the dome. Even a Houston Chronicle editorial recently opined, The Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation comes to bury the Astrodome, not to praise it ...We'll see it on the ballot only with the intent of it being voted down.
That suggestion leaves Emmett visibly annoyed.
No, I don't think that's right at all, Emmett said. I think that we spent so much time trying to find a private use for the dome and none of those were funded. Then we had to decide what the best public use is, and I think that's what's before the voters right now.
Whether the referendum passes may depend largely on the age of the voters who turn out in November. Polling conducted during the past few years for KHOU and KUHF Houston Public Radio has shown a curious generational pattern. The strongest supporters of preserving The Astrodome tend to be older voters, who are more likely to have seen games in the historic stadium. Younger voters are more likely to oppose spending bond money on saving the dome.
To a lot of people that I'd say are 50s, 60s, it means something to them, said White, who sells a lot of memorabilia from the dome. To me, being 26 years old, it doesn't mean anything to me. It's a stadium. You can knock it down. You've got Reliant Stadium, which is bigger. To me, it doesn't really mean much.
We'll find out in the coming weeks whether anyone emerges as a head cheerleader for a referendum that will decide whether the dome itself will become a memory.