Voters to decide on Astrodome

HOUSTON -- The fate of a plan to renovate the Houston Astrodome, an iconic stadium that's fallen into disrepair since it was shuttered four years ago, will be in the hands of voters this fall.

Harris County commissioners on Tuesday approved placing a measure on the Nov. 5 ballot that will ask voters to authorize up to $217 million in bonds to pay for a plan to turn the stadium into a giant convention center and exhibition space.

County commissioners, who unanimously approved placing the measure on the ballot, said it was important that voters decide the Astrodome's future.

Commissioners stressed Tuesday that voters must understand that approval of the measure would lead to a property tax increase of around half a cent per $100 of assessed value. Officials said they will try to make that as clear as possible on the ballot measure. On a home valued at about $200,000, officials said a person's tax bill would go up about $8 per year if the measure is approved.

County Judge Ed Emmett said for those who care about the future of the Astrodome, whether they support revamping the structure or getting rid of it, "this is where it begins."

"In my six years as county judge, it comes up in almost every speech, `What are you going to do with the Astrodome?' It will be a fascinating process to watch," Emmett said.

Officials say tax breaks, naming rights and other incentives are expected to lower the project's cost. The final figure on the ballot is expected to be lower than $217 million.

The renovation project from the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp., dubbed "The New Dome Experience," would take about 2½ years to complete.

The proposal 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.

The Harris County Sports & Convention Corp. opted to go with its own plan for the world's first domed, air-conditioned stadium instead of one of 19 private-sector plans submitted for its reuse.

Among the private plans was one that would have turned the Astrodome into a tourist area with retail and restaurant space and another that would have stripped the structure to its steel frame and turned the area into a park.

Officials have been considering the Astrodome's fate since it was deemed unfit for occupancy and closed for good in 2009. The building, one of Houston's signature structures, costs taxpayers about $3 million per year for basic maintenance.

Opened in 1965, the Astrodome was dubbed the "Eighth Wonder of the World."

The 400,000-square foot dome was once home to Major League Baseball's Houston Astros and the NFL's Houston Oilers. It was also home to the city's rodeo until 2003. Its most prominent use in recent years was as a shelter for Louisiana residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.