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A STEM vision for the Astrodome

Tory Gattis has an idea for what to do with the Astrodome.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Where can America’s kids go to be inspired toward careers in our country’s most crucial need: science, technology, engineering and math (aka STEM)? Something far beyond their little local science or children’s museum?

Houston could be that city, building not only on our energy, chemical, aerospace and biomedical industries, but also on our top-rated and very popular existing STEM museums like Space Center Houston, The Museum of Natural Science, The Health Museum, The Children’s Museum, Moody Gardens and The George Observatory. But we really need one additional anchor “mega-attraction” that will give us critical mass and undisputed STEM leadership. That flagship would be the National Museum of Technology and Innovation, the world’s largest engineering and technology museum – something in the class of D.C.’s National Air and Space Museum (the second-most popular museum in the world), Germany’s Deutsches Museum, San Francisco’s Exploratorium or Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. It could even be one of the Smithsonian’s network of national museums, which have started to move out beyond Washington, D.C., like Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York and the Smithsonian affiliate, National Museum of Industrial History in Bethlehem, Penn.

Think of it as Houston’s version of Paris’ Louvre or London’s British Museum. And with the right design, it could attract STEM-related academic and commercial conferences from around the world to Houston (imagine a Davos of STEM).

By showing students stories of the great historical innovators who invented technology to address civilization’s problems, we can inspire America’s – and especially Houston’s – youth into STEM careers. They can see how they could become the next Edison, Bell, Ford, Gates, Jobs or Musk. But this institution would not just look backward at history. It would inspire kids into STEM fields by framing the great challenges of the present and future, such as the 14 Grand Challenges for Engineering by the National Academy of Engineering, including limitless fusion energy, health informatics, better medicines, artificial intelligence, carbon sequestration, preventing nuclear terror, securing cyberspace, advancing personalized eLearning and more.

Where can Houston find a grand structure to house such a grand institution? Yes, the Astrodome.

The problem with most of the Astrodome proposals so far is their isolation from a bigger civic vision. If a purely for-profit enterprise were feasible, it would have happened by now. Houston’s philanthropic community needs to be inspired to invest in the future of the Astrodome (in partnership with Harris County).

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County officials have already stated a STEM museum is one of the best ideas they’ve been presented for repurposing the Astrodome, but they want to see philanthropic backing. The Getty Trust stepped up to build the spectacular $1.3 billion Getty Center in Los Angeles. Ross Perot’s family donated $50 million to kick off a successful $185 million campaign to build the stunning new Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas. Bernard Marcus, founder of Home Depot, donated $250 million to build the world’s largest aquarium in Atlanta. Does Houston have such a visionary leader?

We certainly have no shortage of people who could do this. The tricky part is getting one of them on board with a vision like what Tory outlines. It’s obviously a massive commitment, and you still have to find a way to bring that vision to reality. It’s also not certain that a for-profit enterprise isn’t feasible, since the discussion about the Dome’s fate didn’t really begin until after the economic downturn of 2008. However, if a commercial project is not worth doing now, it likely will never be. Any billionaires out there want to take a crack at this?

Meanwhile, today is the day that the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation votes on what it wants to recommend to Harris County to do about the Dome. Here are some more details about what they might have in mind.

Officials on Monday said it does not involve a specific project or proposal for what to do with the empty stadium, but rather a timeline for making a decision.

“This vote is not project specific or project related,” said Willie Loston, the agency’s executive director.

Loston said they have “established a timeline for within which any number of decisions could be made” and that “All the options are still there, but we’ve laid out a timeline for that to basically come to a head.”

What kind of timeline?

Loston declined to specify, saying only that “it’s probably a good time to try and bring this debate to an end” with the city bidding to host the Super Bowl in 2017 and the county receiving pressure from the Houston Texans and Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo to do something with the decaying structure well before then or risk losing out.

A spokesman for Harris County Judget Ed Emmett, noting that you never know what’s going to happen until it happens, said they are expecting a vote on a timetable that will result in the Sports Corps. essentially shoving the ticking clock into the hands of the Harris County Commissioners Court this summer.

Joe Stinebaker said the timetable is June, when the county adopts its capital projects plan, meaning the Sports Corps. would gather and analyze proposals on what to do with the dome and present the best ones to commissioners court late that month.

We’ll know soon enough what they have up their sleeves. Before we get to that, however, Hair Balls notes that the original report of forthcoming action by the HCSCC wasn’t quite accurate.

“[The Chronicle's report] was just wrong,” Kevin Hoffman, HCSCC’s deputy executive director, told Hair Balls. “There’s a lot of speculation in the community regarding it, but we’ve been very careful and diligent in trying to get accurate information out.”

Joe Stinebaker, the director of communications in the Harris County judge’s office, was at least a bit softer in his judgment of the original story

“[They] got it kind of wrong,” Stinebaker told Hair Balls.

While we wait for a retraction — which, hey, might not come; that’s the blessing of anonymous sourcing — we’ll try to detail for you what’s actually going on with the HCSCC this week. The board will indeed meet this week, coming together to decide the next step on potential movement on the Dome. But there’s no “unspecified plan” that the public has thus far been kept in the dark about. Rather, according to Hoffman, the board will be looking for a resolution on a time-frame to have a set of plans to move to the Commissioners Court by June 25th, when the court will hold its annual Capital Improvements hearing.

“This is just the beginning of process — the process is going to be moving towards having something to present the Commissioners Court” by June 25th, Hoffman said. “We want to have the opportunity to put something before them, something well-thought-out that can either address a public purpose or have some private financing associated [with] the resolution.”

While Hoffman did say that there would be a vetting process involved with certain proposals — they’re not simply going to shunt every idea directly to the court — Stinebaker confirmed that he believed HCSCC would present both private and public proposals on June 25th.

“I think it’s a fairly legitimate expectation … that they’re going to evaluate and determine feasibility of privately financed proposals — to build hotels, to build indoor ski slopes — and they’ll say by June 25th, they’ll have everyone’s stuff on record,” Stinebaker said. “They’re also going to collate public use recommendations, how county taxpayers could pay to convert it into an open-air park, or an indoor festival venue. Or, No. 3 — they could say that it could be torn down.”

And the reason why it’s all happening now is so that there could be a ballot item this November to finalize the plan and have the community ratify it, whatever it may be. That’s faster than what we had heard before, which suggested HCSCC would make its recommendation by the end of this year, for a vote sometime in 2014. Maybe the county is taking the concerns about the Super Bowl bid more seriously. Speaking of which, and just because it amused me, I want to note that former Secretary of State James Baker has been told by the NFL that he can’t participate in the city’s presentation to the owners because he’s a celebrity and his presence might make them too starry-eyed to be able to objectively evaluate the city’s bid for Super Bowl LI. Or something like that. Good thing we weren’t planning to send Beyonce to make our case, I guess.

UPDATE: If you can get past the embarrassing typo in the headline, this Chron editorial calls for instant runoff voting to determine the Dome’s fate. I’m not sure that would provide more political cover for whatever gets decided than a “normal” vote would, but I do agree that this isn’t a straight-up yes or no question. It’s a choice between renovation (plan to be determined), demolition, and going back to the drawing board if neither the recommended renovation plan nor demolition is seen as acceptable. As such, a different approach to the referendum may be the best way to go about it.

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2 Comments

  1. Tyson says:

    A new museum is the best idea I’ve heard yet for what to do with the dome, aside from demolition.

  2. Tory says:

    Thanks, Charles and Tyson. Much appreciated. I also don’t know what happened to the idea a while back to put the arena functions inside a renovated Dome for the Rodeo and OTC/Reliant Center, instead of tearing down and building a completely new AstroArena. Our STEM concept could easily use the upper levels of the Dome and leave the lower levels for Arena functions.

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