HOUSTON — Ryan Bokros was 8 years old when he attended his first baseball game at the Houston Astrodome. It was 1985. The dome was bursting with people, the famous scoreboard bright with lights and the space bigger than anything he had ever seen.
“In Houston, it was the eighth wonder of the world,” said Bokros, now a 36-year-old real estate agent, echoing a statement that many have made since the dome opened in 1965.
Nearly five decades after making history as the first indoor sports stadium of its kind, the Astrodome is covered in a layer of dust and spider webs, its entrances lined with trash and leaves, and its once impeccable turf ripped up and dirty. Houston condemned it as uninhabitable in 2009, and it is being used for storage.
The city has debated what to do with the Astrodome for years. Some have suggested tearing it down for parking; others have implored the county to repurpose it. This year, a decision may finally be made.
Over the past few months, Houston officials and community leaders have engaged in a vigorous debate over the stadium’s future.
The Harris County Sports and Convention Corporation last week unveiled a $194 million proposal to turn the Astrodome into a convention center. The plan includes tearing down the ramp towers and ticket booths, ripping out 65,000 seats to create an event floor, installing energy-efficient systems and adding restaurants on the ground floor.
“We have entertained many ideas in 10 years, and we’ve had lots of meetings with lots of people,” said Willie Loston, the sports corporation’s executive director. “It’s clearly a community asset, some say a community icon.”
The Harris County Commissioners Court is currently reviewing the proposal. County commissioners have asked staff members to determine how much the project would cost and how much taxpayers would have to pay to finance the renovation.
If the county approves the project, it will probably go before voters in a November bond election.
The Astrodome cost more than $40 million to build and was primarily paid for with county bonds. Roy Hofheinz, a former Houston mayor, led the movement to build the stadium and called it the Astrodome in honor of Houston’s space program, said Debbie Harwell, managing editor of Houston History magazine, published by the University of Houston.
In its heyday, the Astrodome featured expensive suites, restaurants, cushioned seats and a $2 million animated scoreboard. It was the home of the Houston Astros for 34 years and housed the livestock show and rodeo.
“A lot of Houston businessmen in the first half of the 20th century really saw Houston as the city of the future,” Harwell said. “It was the first major league baseball franchise that had a stadium as a part of its logo. Hofheinz was using that as a symbol of what the stadium represented to the city and this whole idea of moving forward.”
People care about what happens to the dome, said Judge Ed Emmett, who presides over the Harris County Commissioners Court.
“In my mind, this is not about saving a historical building. This is about maximizing the use of a county asset,” Emmett said. “We have a county asset in the Astrodome that is unique in the world.”