Preservation groups, PAC working to save Astrodome

AP News
Posted: Sep 13, 2013 5:48 PM
Preservation groups, PAC working to save Astrodome

HOUSTON (AP) — When it comes to the fate of the iconic but now shuttered and dilapidated Houston Astrodome, take your pick from a variety of sports clichés to describe the stadium's dire situation.

The bottom of the ninth and down to the last out. On the ropes. A must-win ballgame.

A last-ditch effort has been organized to save the dome, with local and national preservation groups and a new political action committee banding together to come up with a solution for the stadium that involves rebirth and not razing the structure. The coalition is taking to Facebook and Twitter less than eight weeks before voters decide whether to approve authorizing up to $217 million in bonds to pay for a plan to turn the stadium into a giant convention center and exhibition space.

Houston-area leaders say the so-called "Eighth Wonder of the World" will more than likely be torn down if the Nov. 5 ballot measure fails to pass.

"It's going to be tough," said David Bush, deputy director of Preservation Houston, one of the groups in the coalition. "What we have going for us is that so many people have many positive feelings for the Astrodome."

Opened in 1965, the Astrodome became a symbol of Houston's innovation and ingenuity. As the world's first multipurpose domed stadium, it was home to Major League Baseball's Houston Astros and the NFL's Houston Oilers. But it hasn't been home to a sports team since 1999 and has been closed to all events since 2009.

While structurally sound, the stadium —with moldy walls and torn seats — looks its age and now sits in the shadow of the adjacent Reliant Stadium, its larger, sleeker big brother and home to the Houston Texans.

Coalition members, which also include the National Trust for Historic Preservation, say while nostalgia will be important in their strategy, they also must make the case that the renovation plan will allow the stadium to be reused in a practical and beneficial way.

A variety of ideas — from a shopping center, an indoor amusement park and even an indoor ski resort — have been proposed for the Astrodome in recent years.

But in June, the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp., which maintains the Astrodome, opted to go with its own renovation project, dubbed "The New Dome Experience."

The proposal would take about 2½ years to complete and calls for creating 350,000 square feet of exhibition space by removing all the interior seats and raising the floor to street level. Other changes include creating 400,000 square feet of plaza and green space on the outside of the structure.

"I think overall there is a desire to see the building saved and reused," said Beth Wiedower, senior field officer with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In June, her organization placed the Astrodome on its 2013 list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

This week, the coalition of preservation groups launched its educational campaign with a Facebook page called "Our Astrodome," the Twitter handle @OurAstrodome and the Twitter hash tag #SavetheDome. It also plans on holding town hall meetings and other events.

The coalition plans to work with a newly created political action committee, "The New Dome PAC."

Former Harris County Judge and state Sen. Jon Lindsay, one of the PAC's co-chairs, said the PAC's goal is to raise between $200,000 and $250,000 to use for television and radio advertising and other political campaign efforts.

Officials say eight weeks should be sufficient to convince voters to approve the referendum, as people already know the Astrodome and political campaigns don't really get going until after Labor Day. Often with referendums, voters have very little knowledge about the proposals.

So far, Lindsay and others working to save the Astrodome haven't heard of any organized effort against the referendum. But Robert Stein, a political science professor at Rice University in Houston, said he is expecting some opposition.

Three polls Stein has conducted since 2007 on the Astrodome have shown support for keeping the stadium but the margin of support has lessened with each poll.

"I think it will probably pass," Stein said. "But I think even a weak opponent campaign can defeat this."

One thing that could hurt the effort to save the Astrodome is the lack of high-profile races — aside from the mayor's race — on the ballot. Bush of Preservation Houston doesn't expect voter turnout to be high.

James Glassman, founder of Houstorian, a local organization that works to preserve the city's cultural and architectural history, said Houston doesn't have the best track record when it comes to saving historic buildings and other landmarks but he's confident in the Astrodome effort.

"I think if we lose the Astrodome, it would be criminal," he said.


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