DALLAS — As Harris County commissioners continue to field Hail Mary proposals to save the Houston Astrodome, workers have begun $8 million of site work that could represent the first stage of demolition.

On Sunday night, crews detonated explosives that brought down three exterior ramp towers that were added to the stadium in the 1980s with the goal of keeping the former National Football League Oilers playing in Houston.

The Oilers ultimately abandoned the dome and moved to Tennessee after the 1996 seasons, with Houston-area taxpayers owing about $30 million of debt.

The Astrodome’s other sports tenant, the Houston Astros, left after 1999 for a new downtown Houston stadium, known then as Enron Field and currently as Minute Maid Park

However, the bond-financed towers did leave the Astrodome in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act for the Houston Astros, who played their last game in the dome on Oct. 3, 1999.

The Astros now play at Minute Maid Park, a $250 million baseball-only stadium that opened in 2000 in downtown Houston.

With the NFL Super Bowl coming to neighboring Reliant Stadium in 2017, the Astrodome serves as a reminder of football’s fickle fortunes. The NFL awarded the city an expansion team named the Texans in 2002.

Built for $36.5 million in 1965, the world’s first domed stadium is listed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as one of America’s most endangered historic structures, but the Astrodome does not make the U.S. government’s list of the National Register of Historic Places.

The last bonds specifically for the Astrodome were issued in 1997 as a $47 million refinancing to extend final debt maturity from 2003 to November 2012.

However, subsequent debt was issued for improvements along with other county projects, so the debate over whether taxpayers are still financing the landmark is unresolved.

After seeing the dome sit vacant for more than a decade, 53% of voters in Houston and surrounding Harris County rejected $217 million of additional bonds to convert the stadium into a multi-purpose conference and entertainment center.

The redevelopment proposal was dubbed “The New Dome Experience.”

Since then, Harris County Commissioners have not decided whether or when to demolish the dome at a cost estimated somewhere between $29 million and $78 million.

Joe Stinebaker, spokesman for County Judge Ed Emmett, said demolition funds could come from a bond issue but are more likely to come from the general fund.  The cost of demolition remains guesswork.

“Frankly there’s no way of knowing until they put it out for bid,” Stinebaker said. “We’re running under the assumption that it would be the lower of the two estimates.”

On the weekend before voters rejected the bond proposal, Astrodome furnishings and memorabilia were sold to the public, drawing thousands of potential buyers.  Orange stadium seats, metal benches and oddities such as the mock space helmets used by early grounds crews were on the block. Former Oilers quarterback Dan Pastorini showed up to autograph his autobiography.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett told county commissioners last week that he was still willing to listen to proposals from private developers, even though the cost of maintaining the vacant hulk is estimated at between $2 million and $3 million per year.

One proposal that did land in the commissioners court called for converting the dome into a fitness center and manmade park, complete with hiking and cycling trails and other forms of recreation. 

Houston entrepreneur Brendan Cooney told commissioners he would need four months to raise $100 million for the “Get Fit Houston” concept.

Emmett and the commissioners did not dismiss the proposal out of hand.

“Right now there’s kind of a hopeful wait and see mode,” Stinebaker said. “If someone gallops in on a white horse and a terrific idea about how to save that dome, they would snap at it.

“That said, we’ve been here seven years and we have yet to see one viable private sector plan where they had financing in hand,” Stinebaker added.

Potential rescuers likely have until September 2014 to think of some way to save the historic structure since asbestos abatement will take that long, according to the county engineer.

If the dome does prove to be doomed, it will join a long line of stadiums left behind by the NFL.

About 240 miles to the north, Texas Stadium in Irving, the longtime home of the Dallas Cowboys, was imploded in 2010 after the team moved to the new AT&T Stadium in nearby Arlington.

But the city of Dallas still maintains the Cowboys’ home from 1960 to 1971, the Cotton Bowl, built in 1930 for college and high school football.

Dallas issued $25.5 million of debt in 2012 to improve the Cotton Bowl just six years after a $30 million bond package that expanded seating to more than 90,000.  The latest remodeling plan was undertaken to convince the universities of Texas and Oklahoma to keep playing their annual Red River Rivalry game at the stadium.

The Cotton Bowl lost its namesake “Cotton Bowl Classic” in 2010 when the annual New Year’s Day game shifted to AT&T Stadium.

Dallas then cancelled a $700,000 subsidy and used the money to increase payouts for UT and Oklahoma to $850,000 from the previous $250,000. The annual rivalry game brings $17 million of business to the city, officials said.

While Dallas continues to issue debt to preserve the Cotton Bowl, Miami threw in the towel in 2008 by demolishing the historic Orange Bowl, which was six years younger than the Dallas landmark.

The Orange Bowl once hosted the Hurricanes of Miami University, the NFL Miami Dolphins, and the namesake bowl came, all of which have moved to Sun Life Stadium.

Marlins Park, home of Major League Baseball’s Miami Marlins was built, at considerable public expense, at the site of the Orange Bowl stadium.

In Atlanta, the city council in March approved $200 million of municipal bonds secured by a local hotel-motel tax to support a new $1 billion stadium for the NFL’s Falcons. The Georgia Dome where the Falcons now play, opened in 1992 at a cost of $214 million and was remodeled for $300 million in 2009.

One active NFL stadium that might beat the Astrodome to the scrapyard is Candlestick Park in San Francisco. After the 49ers complete this season at the 53-year-old stadium, the team will move 37 miles southeast to the $1 billion Levi’s Stadium under construction in Santa Clara, financed through a complex deal between a new stadium authority, the city of Santa Clara, and a banking syndicate led by Goldman Sachs.

After the 49ers go, Candlestick Park is expected to face demolition, and no groundswell of support is expected for the aging stadium, improbably sited at one of the windiest and coldest locations in the region.

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