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Monday, June 14, 2010
Taxpayers asked to pay 1/3 of costs

Associated Press

HOUSTON -- The iconic Houston Astrodome could become a convention and science center under a $1.35 billion proposal unveiled by county officials and complex operators Monday, if taxpayers are willing to pay at least a third of the cost.

"This is a great landmark for the city of Houston," said Edgar Colon, chairman of the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp. "We would like to see it stay that way and hopefully see it returned to its rightful place as the 'Eighth Wonder of the World."'

Officials' three-option plan also includes a proposal to level the building -- the nation's first indoor air-conditioned multi-use stadium -- and replace it with a plaza, although even that project carries a hefty price tag at $873 million, said Mark Miller general manager of SMG-Reliant Park.

Miller and others at Reliant Park, which includes the dome and the adjacent larger and more luxurious Reliant Stadium, said no less than a third of any renovation cost would have to be picked up and approved by Harris County taxpayers in a referendum vote. Many public costs in Monday's proposal were uncertain and listed as "to be determined."

The $1.35 billion plan, which Miller called a "dream property" named Astrodome Renaissance, would include a science center, conference center, planetarium and county and city museum. A hotel would be privately financed along with the possibility of a movie studio.

An intermediate plan, at $1.13 billion, would be to "repurpose" the dome, make it a science and technology center and a place for storage.

Miller wants to add a 10,000-seat arena, exhibition space, a garage and other meeting space connected by skywalks to any renovation plan.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett has said the county should adopt a plan for the Astrodome by the end of the year. The public will be asked to vote on a favorite plan, but the final decision ultimately comes down to finances, said Willie Loston, executive director of Harris County Sports and Convention Corp.

Opened in 1965, the Astrodome now sits deteriorating, idle and costing Harris County officials about $2 million a year in insurance and minimal maintenance and millions more in debt and interest payments, the fallout after the National Football League's Houston Oilers left for Tennessee in the 1990s after renovations demanded by the team's owner.

The Houston Astros left a decade ago for Minute Maid Park, a $250-million baseball-only field downtown that features a retractable roof and 42,000 seats.

In 2005, the dome served as shelter for more than 23,000 evacuees from Hurricane Katrina where doctors and other volunteers greeted the newcomers from Louisiana with medical help, clothing, toys and food.

President Lyndon B. Johnson and joined nearly 48,000 others on April 9, 1965 for the first indoor baseball game, an exhibition between the Astros and New York Yankees. Mickey Mantle hit the first Astrodome home run but the Astros won 2-1 in 12 innings.

The stadium was intended to protect 55,000 fans from the searing Texas heat and Gulf Coast mosquitoes. An 18-story building could fit under the 208-foot-tall roof, although natural grass couldn't grow under the skylights, which were painted to reduce glare for fielders.

On April 18, 1966, the plastic AstroTurf made its debut as the first artificial playing surface. Ballplayers soon began complaining the surface was unfriendly to knees, backs and joints and the ball didn't fly as far in the enclosed air.

The stadium also featured a $2 million, 474-foot exploding scoreboard whose lights went into a frenzy of snorting bulls with Texas and U.S. flags on their horns, a galloping roper trying to lasso a calf and colorful fireworks after home runs and Houston victories.

The scoreboard was removed in 1988 after Oilers owner Bud Adams demanded it be replaced by 10,000 seats. Nearly 10 years later, the Oilers moved to Tennessee.