HOUSTON – (Realty News Report) – The Astrodome played an important role in the development of Space City and Houston’s reputation as a can-do city. The Astrodome – formally named the Harris County Domed Stadium – opened in 1965. For decades, it was the home of the Houston Astros, the city’s winning team which is currently competing in the American League Championship Series against the Boston Red Sox. But the Astros left the Dome and began playing at a new stadium in downtown Houston in 2000. The Dome was closed and some people advocated tearing down the stadium. But work is about to begin to transform the old stadium into meeting space with two levels of underground parking. Harris County Judge Ed Emmett led the campaign to save one of Houston’s most well known symbols and restoring the Dome to a new era of usefulness. To find out more about the Astrodome and its importance to Houston, Realty News Report talked with Judge Emmett.
Realty News Report: Why save the Astrodome? It’s 50 years old and past its prime. What does preserving the Astrodome say about Houston’s past?
Judge Ed Emmett: Some people have emotional reasons for saving it, but truth of it is that as Harris County Judge, I view it as a fully paid for asset. It belongs to the taxpayers and it is very useful. What is lost on most people is that the Astrodome is part of the NRG complex and the county has a contract to maintain the entire complex. Since we really only have property tax revenue here in Harris County, we view the dome as a revenue source — nine acres of covered, rentable space is a valuable asset. Interesting enough, people didn’t understand that. They understand the history of the Astrodome. They are nostalgic for the Astrodome. But it’s a building that belongs to the taxpayers. People who want the Astrodome torn down have written me telling me they’ll never vote for me again unless we tear it down. I tell them whether they vote for me or not is their choice. But if you tear the Astrodome down, you’ve got nothing. With the Astrodome, you’ve got an attraction and a revenue source. The rodeo can use it. It’s a big plus for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, the largest livestock exhibitions and rodeo in the world. There are a lot of other attractions we can bring to nine acres of indoor space!
Realty News Report: You once championed turning the Astrodome into the world’s largest indoor park.
Judge Ed Emmett: Well, that’s changed a little bit; it’s not exactly what is going to happen. One of the original thoughts was that we needed open space, green space. We plan to create nine acres of open space, but I wouldn’t call it a park. It may be more useful to use it as open space to do with what people want, including using it for all kinds of activities. It was interesting a little while ago, a guy from the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department said archery is popular now and, in the Astrodome, you don’t have wind, so you could put up a lot of archery facilities. I said half joking that you could put the state horseshoe tournament there too. The next thing I know, it’s on the radio that ‘Ed Emmett wants to turn the Astrodome into the world’s largest horseshoe pit!’ But events like that will draw lot of people to town, so we’re leaving it as open space now. The other parts of the Astrodome will hopefully be taken over by the Astrodome Conservancy, so they will come up with future creative uses. My job was to save it and make it useful.
Realty News Report: Some say the Astrodome represents the can-do spirit of Houston. Do you agree? For what reasons?
Judge Ed Emmett: Absolutely, without a doubt. Judge Roy Hofheinz gets the credit for the Astrodome as well he should, but R.E. Bob Smith and others shared in that vision, too, that changed the world of sports as the world’s first indoor stadium. They also expanded that vision and used it for other uses including basketball, national political conventions, bull fights, and a Billy Graham crusade.
Realty News Report: Too many times Houston has torn down its great buildings. Do you think saving the Astrodome help Houstonians learn to love its old buildings?
Judge Ed Emmett: I hope so. Some significant buildings in Houston are definitely worth saving because they have a place in our history. The Astrodome is not ugly; architecturally it is a fantastically designed building. Ask anyone anywhere in world to name two buildings in Texas and they will say the Alamo and the Astrodome. One is more historically significant, of course, but the other is equally important for what it accomplished in these modern times. I’m still distressed the Shamrock Hotel wasn’t saved. If that hotel was still there it would be a terrific asset for the growing Medical Center.
Realty News Report: Even now, 50 years later, there’s still vacant land around the Dome. Are stadiums really growth generators for commercial real estate?
Judge Ed Emmett: They are but the activity ebbs and flows. When the Astrodome was built, you had lot of hotels and major restaurants up and down the street including Guido’s and Kaphan’s. The Astrodome generated a lot of business and I think if we bring the NGR complex back to life, it will generate activity around it. We’ve already seen this happening downtown.
Realty News Report: What about the location of the Astrodome? If R.E. “Bob” Smith and Judge Hofheinz had located it downtown instead of 610 at Kirby, how would that most have changed the growth of the city?
Judge Ed Emmett: You have to go back and read the history. The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo was looking for a place to move from downtown. They had property around Northwest Mall. Somehow R. E. Bob Smith engineered a land swap and that’s why the Astrodome ended up where it is today.
Realty News Report: You have a lot of responsibility in directing Houston’s recovery from Hurricane Harvey and the prevention of future flooding. Houstonians have endured Harvey, numerous floods and other problems Mother Nature has thrown at it. What makes Houston so resilient? Is there something special in Houston’s DNA??
Judge Ed Emmett: I think so. I’m a native Texan and we all have that same Texas pride. The reality is, if you travel around world, you see the human spirit in many places, but it is taken to the ultimate here. Perhaps it’s because we grew up as an independent nation. We’ve learned to take care of ourselves. I also think it’s the ranching and farming mentality that built Texas — you did the work and you survived, and if you didn’t do the work, you didn’t survive. People helped each other. During Harvey, I went on TV and said, ‘if you have a boat, come help.’ People were going to do that anyway, whether we asked them or not. But we will never know how many hundreds of lives were saved by individuals taking it upon themselves to help.