Houston voters skip nostalgia, reject measure to save Astrodome

HOUSTON -- The Astrodome, once lauded as the "Eighth Wonder of the World," may soon be a landmark of the past.

About 53% of voters Tuesday rejected a ballot measure that would have paid to renovate the country’s first air-conditioned domed stadium. 

The nostalgic value of the now rusty Dome, shuttered in 2009, may have been lost on new voters in Houston and surrounding Harris County, which adds about 10,000 residents a month and is now home to about 4.4 million, officials said. Many local sports fans are drawn to the nearby gleaming Reliant Stadium, which opened in 2002 and hosts the Houston Texans football team.

“Some people were scratching their heads saying, 'What dome? The Salt Dome?’'They don’t know what the Astrodome is. Think about all the people who have move into Harris County since the Dome closed,” said Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack.

“There’s not a huge groundswell of people who want to keep it. A whole lot of taxpayers said, 'Hey, it’s time to move on,' " Radack said, "You have to admit when you drive by and look at the Astrodome and Reliant Stadium — it’s quite an image."

Supporters disagreed, and were still hoping Wednesday the iconic stadium might be saved.

“The Astrodome is a site of national significance for many reasons: in addition to being a modernist structure in Houston, it was the first domed stadium, the first to have sky boxes and AstroTurf, or artificial turf,” said Andy Grabel, a public affairs office manager at the National Trust for Historic Preservation in Washington, D.C., which was involved in efforts to save the building.

“It really reflects the ingenuity of Houston and America in general,” Grabel said.

The referendum would have authorized up to $217 million in bonds to turn the Astrodome into the “New Dome Experience,” clearing seats and 350,000 square feet of exhibition space inside and creating 400,000 square feet of plaza and green space outside.

Recent studies estimated Dome demolition costs as $29 million to $78 million.

No private supporters have surfaced to back the Dome renovation.

Now the building’s fate rests with Harris County's five commissioners, who voted unanimously to place the bond issue on the ballot. Some have said they favor demolition.

“That does appear to be the most likely outcome at this point,” said Joe Stinebaker, spokesman for Harris County Judge Ed Emmett, who leads the commissioners court, adding that unless private funding surfaces, Emmett supports demolition.

Radack has floated a plan to save some demolition costs by turning the site into an enormous retention pond.

“Just because it failed doesn’t mean Harris County Commissioners Court is going to have the money to tear it down — we’ve got a lot of needs right now,” he said.

The commissioners’ next schedule meeting is Tuesday. It won’t be clear until Friday whether the Dome is on the agenda.

Leading up to Tuesday, local and national preservation groups and a political action committee made the case for saving the Dome on social media, at community meetings and by touring 30 sites countywide in a 26-foot truck they dubbed the "Dome Mobile." Inside, visitors wrote favorite Astrodome memories on a truck wall.

Opened in 1965, the Astrodome was home to the Houston Astros and the Oilers, hosted the "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King in 1973 and the Houston rodeo. But it hasn't been home to a sports team since 1999. It housed evacuees from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 before it closed four years later.

At an Astrodome auction Saturday, thousands of people lined up to buy stadium seats, pieces of AstroTurf and other memorabilia.

“The turnout that exceeded all expectations showed the Astrodome means something to people in Houston,” Grabel said.

But experts say the educational campaign failed to persuade voters that the renovated facility was worth the hefty price tag -- particularly the older, tax-averse conservatives who typically turn out for off-year elections.

Mark Jones remembers stopping to see the inside of the Astrodome before Katrina, and volunteering with evacuees there after the hurricane.

“It was run down, rusty. I’ve walked past it a dozen times over the past dozen years going to games at Reliant. It just stands out — you have this beautiful ultra-modern stadium and you have what is effectively an abandoned building next to it,” he said, “It’s no jewel.”

Jones, chair of the political science department at Rice University in Houston, said residents may not be as sentimental as other Americans about the Astrodome.

“Compared to other cities, Houstonians are less convinced with arguments of historical significance — Houston tears things down and builds new things,” he said.

When it comes to tearing down stadiums, Jones noted that most cities make way for the new.

“Most old stadiums get torn down, like Tiger Stadium, because there’s no use for them and they almost always occupy valuable real estate," he said, "This was an attempt to find a medium between tearing it down and using it."


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