BRAND, Germany (AP) — It rose on a former Soviet airfield south of Berlin, a towering hangar bigger than a dozen football fields where ambitious entrepreneurs planned to revive Germany's zeppelin industry. That dream died in 2002 when funding ran out, but the building was reborn as a massive popular tropical theme park, complete with a rainforest, a beach, waterslides and more than 850 hotel beds.
On Monday, a delegation from Texas toured the facility to see if lessons learned by the Germans can be applied to converting the Houston Astrodome, the world's first multi-purposed domed stadium, which hasn't been home to a sports team since 1999 and has been closed to all events since 2009.
"There aren't too many large structures that have been repurposed like this," said Bill Merrell, a consulting architect who was part of the delegation from Harris County, which owns the Astrodome property.
The Tropical Island park, which gets more than a million visitors a year, is about two times the size of the Astrodome, and the water slides, beaches, pools and saunas were of little interest to the Texas delegation. But the 55,000 plants there fit with their plan to turn the Astrodome into an indoor park with surrounding green space.
"We're not planning to recreate this," said Ed Emmett, Harris County's highest elected official, looking around the cavernous structure. "But the fact that they could take a building two times the size of the Astrodome and repurpose it like this certainly shows that it can be done."
In Germany the dome helps shield bathers from the frequent rain and chilly temperatures; in Texas the idea is that it would provide a place away from the heat and humidity of Houston for exercise, picnics or other types of recreation, as well as bigger events.
Bernd Green, the head of horticulture for Tropical Islands, said the people creating the indoor rainforest quickly learned that they could not use artificial growing lights because the ceiling was too high. Instead, they replaced a 20,000 square meter (215,000 square foot) section of the original roof with a transparent film that would let in UV rays.
The Astrodome, touted as the eighth wonder of the world when it opened in 1965, also had problems with its grass field. That led to the development of the AstroTurf artificial surface, which still lingers in the minds of many Texans.
"We still have people who say you can't grow plants in a building," Emmett said. "Well obviously you can."
The future of the Astrodome has been in limbo since voters in 2013 didn't authorize $217 million in bonds to turn it into a multipurpose special events center. While the Astrodome is not in any immediate danger of being demolished, local officials have struggled to find an alternative use.
The new proposal calls for creating an indoor park within the stadium, with spaces for exercise and biking trails and indoor rock climbing, as well as new underground parking. The outside areas would be converted into tree-lined green spaces.
The delegation, drawing on its experience in Germany, is now trying to figure out which parts of the $243 million proposal it can include in a plan that would be presented to Harris County Commissioners within the next few months.
"The language may be different but the challenges in terms of the technology are the same," Merrell said.
Associated Press Writer Juan A. Lozano in Houston contributed to this story