HOUSTON - The long saga of the empty Astrodome has taken another turn with a powerful county leader's proposal to convert the aging architectural icon into the world's largest air conditioned park.
Standing on the floor of the vacant domed stadium, Harris County Judge Ed Emmett pitched the idea of turning the former ballpark into a public park complete with green space, athletic facilities like an archery range and possibly even indoor hike and bike trails.
"I believe it is time to put forth a new vision for the future of the Dome," Emmett said. "With that in mind, I am suggesting that we explore the concept of creating an indoor park and recreation area inside the Dome for the people of Harris County: The world's largest indoor park."
But Emmett's proposal was long on concept and conspicuously short on specifics, as he tossed out vague ideas about what a dome park might include and how it might be financed. The county judge -- who has ridiculed others for proposing dome ideas without offering any thoughts on how to pay for them -- referred his concept over to the Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation, which has repeatedly been assigned the task of reviewing other plans for the Astrodome's future.
County officials emphasized that the proposal wasn't a done deal, but Emmett said he had discussed it with county commissioners – who would ultimately vote on the idea – and he's heard an enthusiastic response.
"The plan is in progress," Emmett said. "It could be stopped, but I think there's a certain excitement about this, to finally do something that the public can use."
Emmett has puzzled over the fate of the Astrodome – also known as the Harris County Domed Stadium – ever since he assumed office in 2007. Voters last year rejected a $217-million plan to convert the dome into a multi-purpose convention and sports facility, a referendum that was widely interpreted as a plebiscite on tearing down the dome.
But Emmett quickly said the failed referendum didn't necessarily mean the dome was doomed. And lately, he's touted newly revised figures on how much the county spends maintaining the building – roughly $166,000 a year out of a county budget totaling more than $2-billion – to argue for preserving the empty shell of a stadium.
One serious question looming over Emmett's idea: Will voters have a direct say in the Astrodome's future? Without any specifics on how much the plan would cost or how it would be financed, it isn't clear whether Harris County would have to borrow money through a bond issue, which would require approval from voters.
"Depending on the cost, we can choose to go look for private funding for various pieces of it," Emmett said. "Or if the funding was such that it required a bond election, we'd come back to the voters."
Emmett said he hoped the sports and convention corporation will produce a more specific plan within the next three months.
Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo's released the following response to the announcement:
Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo officials have received only a preliminary conceptual briefing on a proposal for repurposing the NRG Astrodome into an air conditioned indoor park. The briefing contained no drawings, renderings or detailed information. Show officials look forward to evaluating the proposal in depth when they are presented with a defined plan that exhibits program space, planned vehicle and pedestrian ingress and egress, and operational and economic feasibility. Until such detail is presented and until such analysis is completed, Show officials will have no further comment on this proposal.