|By Bill Murphy, Houston Chronicle
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Aug. 18, 2005--An investment company has obtained financing for a $450 million project that would transform the Reliant Astrodome into a 1,200-room convention hotel with a winding indoor waterway, county officials said Wednesday.
The county, which owns the 40-year-old landmark that once was called the Eighth Wonder of the World, has yet to greenlight the project. But by obtaining financing and providing renderings and economic studies, the investment company convinced the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp. that its plan is viable.
"If they can get it financed, that goes a long way toward saying that it can work," said Willie Loston, director of the Sports and Convention Corp., which oversees Reliant Park.
The developer's proposal calls for nine acres of the Astrodome's interior to be reserved for trees, walkways, mill wheels and the waterway, which would be plied by tourist boats similar to the ones on San Antonio's River Walk.
Astrodome Redevelopment Corp., the investment company, said the project's theme would be the Best of Texas, and it would feature buildings that evoked the state's past. A building designed to look like a historic Texas courthouse would be at the interior's center.
"It literally would be a village under glass," Loston said.
It won't happen unless Astrodome Redevelopment signs a letter of intent and Commissioners Court approves the project, said Mike Surface, chair of the Sports & Convention Corp. The company and the Sports and Convention Corp., he said, would be unlikely to work out a letter of intent before late this year or next year.
Scott Hanson, president of Astrodome Redevelopment, couldn't be reached Wednesday.
The question of what to do with the Astrodome has lingered since the Astros relocated to Minute Maid Park five years ago.
Many Houstonians are sentimentally attached to the building and took pride in its being the world's first domed stadium. Because of those sentiments, county officials, especially elected ones, are reluctant to become known as the bureaucrats who razed the Dome.
"It just has too much historical significance and emotional ties for the community," Surface has said.
But the building is expensive to maintain and has become a bit of an albatross. The county has been spending about $1.5 million annually to host a few events there.
Even if it were mothballed, the county still would spend $500,000 annually on basic operations.
The county still is paying off bonds issued to pay for Astrodome renovations in the 1980s.
Reinventing the Dome would be extraordinarily expensive. Building from scratch is typically much cheaper than doing a massive renovation, especially of an oddly shaped structure like a domed stadium.
Astrodome Redevelopment's convention hotel would be four times more expensive than the city-owned convention hotel, the Hilton Americas, which opened next to the George R. Brown Convention Center downtown in late 2003.
A number of large, well-known and well-heeled companies are investors in Astrodome Redevelopment. They include Oceaneering International Inc., a publicly traded firm working in engineering, science and technology; URS, a large architectural and design firm; NBGS International, a theme park developer; and Falcon's Treehouse, a Florida-based design firm.
Loston said the hotel would be a boon to Reliant Center, the convention hall next to Reliant Stadium, helping draw conventions and meetings whose planners want a nearby hotel.
The convention hotel would try to mimic the success of Gaylord's luxury convention hotels in Nashville, Tenn., Orlando, Fla., and the Dallas suburb of Grapevine.
Astrodome Redevelopment's renderings show banks of buildings, some rising eight to 12 stories, along the walls of the Dome. The interior would include retail stores, nightclubs, restaurants and possibly a performing arts stage, Surface said.
Astrodome Redevelopment Corp. initially considered building a space-themed amusement park, but rejected that idea for the convention hotel concept.
Surface emphasized that at this stage, there's always the risk a huge project like this could founder.
"While I'm optimistic and excited about the concept, you have to realize there are a lot of moving parts," he said.
--Houston Astros: 1965-1999
--Houston Oilers: 1968-1996
--Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo: 1966-2002
--Ceiling height: 208 feet.
--Outside stadium diameter: 710 feet.
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