Astrodome Update 1
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Wouldn't it be nice to have a non-humid, air-conditioned, bug free Rain Forest conveniently located inside the Houston's Loop 610?


Astrodome Update 1: May 2015

Written by Rick Archer
May 2015

Back in September 2014, I published an article regarding possible uses for the Houston Astrodome.

At the time, I recommended turning the Astrodome into an air-conditioned rain forest complete with restaurants and the world's largest indoor river walk with a nod to San Antonio's main attraction.  Now I wish to share some developments.



In 2013, a $217 million bond to redesign the Astrodome lost the support of Houston voters. 53 percent voted against it.

On a personal note, I voted against it too.  The plan was to turn the Astrodome into a giant convention and event center.

My attitude was simple: Houston does not need another convention center.  We already have the George R. Brown Convention Center.  We already have an exhibition hall standing next to the Astrodome.  Why pay all that money for something the city doesn't need?

What Houston needs is a tourist attraction!! 

At the time, most people expected the building to be torn down, but miraculously it continued to stand.

That said, Houston appears to still be divided as to what to do with the Astrodome's future.

As an outsider to Houston politics, I am totally dependent on the media to understand what is going on.  As everyone knows, the media is quite reluctant to make enemies, so whatever I read or hear is quite likely to be watered down.  Furthermore, as I have come to realize, the message in the media is typically heavily controlled by moneyed interests who wish to manipulate public opinion.  Therefore I have no idea what exactly is going on behind closed doors.

That said, my gut tells me there is a huge power struggle taking place between County Commissioner Ed Emmett and the people who control NRG Stadium, the Texans football team, and the Houston Livestock Rodeo.

Indeed, I ran across this useful comment in the Houston Chronicle:

The Texans and Rodeo want the Astrodome demolished and replaced by a park and parking spaces.  The county wants to keep the Dome in some fashion.  (source)

Last summer in 2014, my wife Marla and I took a trip to Vancouver, Canada.  I was in complete awe of the beauty in this area.  Tourist attractions abounded... Stanley Park, the Capistrano Bridge, and ski resorts.  There were also beautiful buildings everywhere.  It didn't take long to realize these buildings had been erected in anticipation of the 2010 Winter Olympics that had been held in Vancouver.  Hosting these Olympics had clearly brought huge prosperity to this region.

Recalling Houston's failed effort to lure the 2012 Summer Olympics, I could see that the physical beauty of the Vancouver region had played a big part in luring the 2010 Olympics to the city.  I lamented that Vancouver had a huge advantage over Houston in this area.

If only Houston had a tourist attraction!!

When I returned to home, it dawned on me that the Astrodome could be remodeled on a grand scale to give Houston exactly what it needs: A TOURIST ATTRACTION!

So in September 2014 I wrote my initial article on the Astrodome Project

I put every idea I could think of into the article... mountain, waterfall, lagoon, river canals, restaurants, hanging bridges, Magic Fountain, maze, Japanese garden, the works! 

Then I emailed my suggestion to Judge Emmett.  I received absolutely no response. 

Considering I had put two solid weeks into the effort, I was clearly peeved.  So I shrugged my shoulders and moved on. 

Then to my surprise, after seven months had passed, in late March 2015, I received an email titled Astrodome Report.  The email was from Judge Emmett's office.  Apparently someone had noticed I had written them after all.

To my further surprise... and delight... it looked suspiciously like Judge Emmett is in favor of turning the Astrodome into a giant indoor park.  Judge Emmett announced he is planning to visit Tropical Island Berlin in early May 2015.

Tropical Island Berlin

Wikipedia reports that Cargolifter AG bought a former military airfield 30 miles south of Berlin and designed a hangar to create giant zeppelin airships in 1992.  At a cost €78 million ($87 million dollars), the hangar became the world's largest single hall without supporting pillars inside. 

Commissioned as a place to build large aircraft, unfortunately the airship the oversized hangar was intended to house – the CL160 – was never built.  CargoLifter went bankrupt in mid-2002.  One year later, the Malaysian corporation Tanjong purchased the former airship hangar and transformed it into the Tropical Islands Resort.

Wikipedia pegged the cost of Tropical Islands to be somewhere around €100 million. According to figures published by the company, Tropical Islands spent EURO 23 million on further development and expansion work. The original total investment sum announced was EURO 75 million, including a EURO 17 million subsidy from the federal state of Brandenburg.

Tropical Islands officially opened its doors on 19 December 2004.

Inside the hall, the air temperature is 78°F and air humidity is around 64%. Tropical Islands is home to the biggest indoor rainforest in the world, a beach, many tropical plants and a number of swimming pools, bars and restaurants. It is open around the clock, every day of the year.

On entering the hall, visitors choose between different basic admission options with different prices. Visitors can move from one area to the other by paying an additional daily charge. Additional charges also apply for areas such as the water slide tower, crazy golf course, African Jungle Lift, evening show and internal accommodation area. The entertainment program comprises a gala evening show, smaller shows during the day (variety acts, kids' entertainment) and various events.

The different areas include the Tropical Village, featuring accurate copies of traditional buildings from Thailand, Borneo, Samoa and Bali. The Rainforest contains 50,000 plants and 600 different species, including some rare plants.  The Tropical Sea is a 460 foot pool with an area of 47,000 sq ft and a depth of 4 ft 5 in designed to look like the waters of a coral island. The Sandy Beach is 660 ft long complete with 850 wooden sun-loungers.  The water temperature 82 °.

The Bali Lagoon has an area of 13,000 sq ft) and a depth of less than 3 feet in places.  There are fountains, a current canal, whirlpools and two water slides; water temperature 90 °F.

Rick Archer's Note: 

To be honest, I never heard of this place before until a few weeks ago.  However, the picture of a tropical setting definitely caught my eye.  Indeed, this place was very similar to what I had envisioned when I wrote my Astrodome Project article.

Tropical Islands is 16 acres. The Astrodome is 9.5 acres.

Clearly Tropical Islands has nearly twice as much surface space as the Astrodome.   That said, the Astrodome doesn't need to waste space with a giant ocean in the middle.  A lagoon will do just fine.  Since Tropical Islands had so much surface area to work with, I suppose there was no need to develop upwards.

As the picture shows, there is a surprising amount of unused space at the hangar.  What if they put two, perhaps even three tiers inside the Astrodome?  

Since the Astrodome was built to withstand hurricanes, I suspect the Astrodome has the ability to expand upward and allow different levels to be built. 

My original plan called for a tier of elevated restaurants that would rise above the floor level and overlook the river canal system below.  The restaurants would be placed on a platform that would extend 1/3rd of the way inward. 

I would extend the platform 2/3rds of the way around the ring.  In the third section, I would place a giant mountain complete with the world's largest indoor waterfall.  The waterfall would create a lagoon and the waters from the lagoon would create a canal system utilizing all available surface below.

By using a two-tier system, I imagine the Astrodome can pack just as many interesting features as Tropical Island.

Since I am admittedly no architect, no doubt many of my fanciful ideas are impractical.  That said, it doesn't hurt to dream.


The Product of Fertile Imagination


Rick Archer's Note:  I found an excellent Tropical Islands article from the Daily Mail, an online newspaper.  I have posted these amazing photographs because I think they provide a powerful demonstration of the potential for something similar in the Astrodome.


The eerie parallel between the airship hangar and the Astrodome is unmistakable. 

The airship hangar was a massive structure just sitting there accomplishing nothing, so they made it an indoor paradise.

The Astrodome was a massive structure just sitting there accomplishing nothing, so they... wanted to tear it down??

Germany has a harsh winter.  In Berlin, the citizens hunker down for four to five long months of captivity.  Meanwhile, inside Tropical Gardens, as the snowfall reaches as high as six feet outside against the building's base,  there are 175 million cubic feet of air kept at a temperature of 79 degrees round-the-clock, 365 days a year. 

It may be the dead of winter, but people walk around in their bare feet.  Meanwhile there are eight football fields worth of landscaping with plants fooled into thinking they are growing in some Polynesian paradise in the middle of German winter.

If the Germans can do it, why can't the Texans do the same?

Houston has a harsh summer.  With temperatures approaching 100 degrees, humidity that makes hot air cling to the body, and mosquitoes driving everyone nuts, citizens hunker down indoors for five months as they await October.

Meanwhile Houston has a structure so powerful that it was built to withstand hurricanes. The building is large enough to house a climate-controlled indoor river walk comparable to San Antonio's most famous attraction. What if we had the guts to think creatively how to make the Astrodome an urban oasis?

What if we made the Astrodome into the Pleasure Dome? 

Build an artificial mountain fit for climbing no less (using steps of course).  From the top of the mountain, put in the world's largest indoor waterfall.  Make it spectacular and make sure it can be seen from every corner of the building.  Then tell the entire world about it!!

Build a river walk complete with parallel walkways and restaurants lining the waterways.  Put in gondolas.

Have a stunning system of maze-like pathways winding through a dense Rainforest.  Have a system of water canals  complete with romantic arched bridges above.

Think about it. No matter what the weather conditions are outside, Houston's inhospitable hot climate will pose no problem year-round.  The Astrodome will shield us. 

Houston will finally have a place to go on New Year's Eve.  The Astrodome can house the biggest party in Houston.

Right after the Football game, people can visit the Astrodome and have dinner while the crowds dissipate. 

What about a central area with a Lagoon to showcase performances on a nightly basis?   Why not install a Magic Fountain like Barcelona complete with music and light show? 

What about a raised platform for Rock bands and C&W bands with a plaza below large enough for the crowd to dance? 

What about staging Cirque du Soleil-style shows at night?

What about charging admission to enter the place???

Every night can offer a different performance meant to draw customers to restaurants and bars that will be tastefully woven into the complex.  Over margaritas and Mexican dinners, people can watch the waterfall cascade from the ceiling above and wave at people in the riverboats as they pass by below. 

Houston can have its very own Riverwalk.  We won't have to drive four hours to San Antonio.  We won't have to listen to San Antonio brag about being the tourist center of Texas.

We know this can be done.  Germany has already set the precedent.  All we need is the civic willpower.

This is an example of a beautiful indoor waterfall. 
Why not put an even bigger waterfall in the Astrodome?
 Put in a giant mountain and let the waters cascade from the roof to the Lagoon below.

This is an indoor canal at the Gaylord Hotel in Memphis. 

This canal is wide enough and deep enough for riverboats to sail through the complex.  Why not put an even larger canal system in the Astrodome?




Rick Archer's Note:  Yes, it is going to cost money to build the Pleasure Dome.

The Astrodome has many enemies.  Before I make my case in favor of proceeding forward with this ambitious project, let's hear from Chris Baldwin.  Mr. Baldwin does a thorough job stating why the Astrodome should be torn down.


2013: The Astrodome needs to be blown up to make way for Houston's future Super (Bowl) visions

By Chris Baldwin

2.26.13|3:39 pm

It's long time for the Astrodome to be leveled to make way for Houston's Super feature.



The old Yankee Stadium — the House that Ruth Built no less — started to get torn down almost as soon as the new one was safely up.

The Astrodome still stands, a rotting giant in a vast parking lot, 13 years after Minute Maid Park debuted — five years after the fire marshal shuttered it for good, leaving it for the rats and that noxious dust. This isn't Fenway Park. It's not Wrigley Field. It's not that old Yankee Stadium that went through all those remodels. It's a relic that long ago lost its last bit of charm.

And the Houstonians who insist it needs to be "saved" are showing as much sense as someone featured on Hoarders.

Blow it up — already!

This is coming up (yet again) because the leaders of Houston's bid committee for the 2017 Super Bowl were officially revealed at Reliant Stadium Monday — in one of the few rooms not commandeered by the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. While everyone has known that former Secretary of State James Baker III would be a key player since this year's Super Bowl week, it was still impressive to see him standing in front of that Houston Super Bowl LI logo.

With Baker as the honorary chairman and Ric Campo, the self-made CEO of Camden Property Trust, as the chairman, it's easier than ever to see a clear path to Houston landing hosting duties for another Super Bowl.

Houstonians who insist it needs to be "saved" are showing as much sense as someone featured on Hoarders.

As Texans owner Bob McNair pointed out, it's not like Baker is some politician or actor. He's "a statesman."

Houston has the guy who helped bring down the freaking Berlin Wall advocating for it. There is clout. And then there's clout.

Who is Miami going to find to match James Baker III?  Gloria Estefan isn't going to cut it.

Houston is on roll. National publications are tripping over themselves to tout the Bayou City's "surprising" restaurant, museum and cool kid cred. The NBA All-Star Weekend just rolled out of town and H-Town proved to be more than party worthy for the likes of Jay-Z, Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley. It's hard to keep track of all the studies declaring Houston the City of the Future.

And then you get to the hulking ghost in the center what should be a high-tech, hip sports and retail corridor. It doesn't matter how gigantic Reliant Stadium's new video scoreboards are . . . they can't hide the dump of the Astrodome.

"The Astrodome has been a problem for a while," Campo said. "And it continues to be a problem."

This just isn't about one Super Bowl bid. Houston is already a finalist for the 2017 game, set to compete against San Francisco or Miami (those two cities are finalists for Super Bowl 50 in 2016 and whichever one loses out will compete against Houston for Super Bowl LI). It's about Houston finally turning the page and embracing its future.

Yes, imploding or tearing down the Astrodome — and making good use of the space to create some there there around Reliant Stadium — would help Houston's bid to host the 2017 Super Bowl. As McNair noted, "You never know what might be the difference in your bid."

But this isn't a one week issue — not even if it is the biggest week in American sports.

This is about allowing the city to move on. When the Astrodome opened in 1965, it deserved its Eighth Wonder of the World moniker. It screamed innovation.   Now, it screams . . . embarrassment.

You know what visiting sports writers inevitably ask about first when they arrive in Houston?  They see the Astrodome sadly looming in a parking lot and wonder why it's still there. This happens regularly at Texans football games. It happened again and again during NBA All-Star Weekend.

People from elsewhere don't understand Houston's insistence on continuing to pour money into a broken down stadium that, let's face it, was already outdated 15 years after it opened. Yes, the Astrodome hosted some great, monumental events and it will forever live in the memories of local sports fans.

But it's simply not usable anymore. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Elvin Hayes are not going to be strolling into the Astrodome to relive their colossal clash. Those days are long over. Just like the dome should be.

At one point the Astrodome likely could have been salvaged. Some of the ideas for its possible second life were intriguing, many were downright absurd. No matter. That day is also long gone.

There have been more than enough multi-million studies. There is no need to put off a decision yet again. Sometimes, the simplest choice, the most obvious choice, is the best one. Put together a demolition crew.

The Dome Ghost

McNair is not going to come right out and say that the Astrodome needs to be torn down. The Texans owner isn't going to try and dictate what the county commissioners do. It's not his way. The Texans owner only allows that both his team and the Rodeo could really use the space.

All of Houston could use a new space. How about another Discovery Green type park with a great hotel around it?

Houston's Super Bowl bid will tout the impact of Discovery Green, how it was used for big-time concerts during the 2011 Final Four, how the new Marriott Marquis that is set to be built closer to Minute Maid will add a further destination feel to the area. Campo himself seems particularly enamored with Marquis' "Texas waterway" on the fifth floor (the Lone Star State-shaped pool CultureMap was first to report about on Dec. 17).

What about a second gathering place right by the stadium?

One thing is sure. It's time for the Astrodome to make way.

In officially accepting the Super Bowl job, Baker noted how he's one of the "dwindling breed of native Houstonians." In a city with a sometimes appalling history of leveling perfectly-useable historic buildings, a broken down, obsolete stadium is championed.

James Baker brought down that wall. Who would ever thought the Astrodome would be even harder to topple?

"I think more than any other U.S. city, Houston maintains the brand of entrepreneurial spirit and work ethic that has fueled our nation," Baker said.

Except when it comes to an old useless stadium that continues to haunt as it wastes away.

Rick Archer's Note:  Please note Mr. Baldwin's original article can be read here: Blow Up the Astrodome



2015: Astrodome indoor park plan gets a new powerful push: Voters' will ignored in Save the Dome frenzy

BY CHRIS BALDWIN  3.23.15 | 4:12 pm

National experts recommend that the Astrodome be turned into a multi-use park...
Courtesy of City of Houston



The Astrodome's received another powerful endorsement in the fight to keep the hulking, rotting Houston landmark standing.

The Urban Land Institute just released a report recommending unanimously that the Dome be given new life as "a grand civic space that communicates the can-do spirit of Texas, Harris County and Houston to the world." Specifically, the nationwide panel of land-use experts calls for the Astrodome to be converted into a multi-use indoor park.

"It's gratifying to me to see that even a large group of experts from all across the nation recognized the Astrodome as the unique and beloved asset that it is," Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said in a statement upon the report's release.

The Land Institute's recommendations are extremely similar to the plan Emmett has already pushed for the Dome. The Harris County Commissioners Court will formally hear the ULI report at its next meeting on March 31.

This is the surest sign yet that the Astrodome is likely to live on despite Harris County voters rejecting a plan to save it at the ballot box.

This is the surest sign yet that the Astrodome is likely to live on despite Harris County voters rejecting a plan to spend $217 million on saving it at the ballot box two years ago. The Urban Land Institute estimates that its recommendations will cost $243 million.

This plan would not necessarily ever have to go to the voters to be implemented.

Using the Astrodome and its new indoor park as part of Houston Texans pregame activities and featuring it during the Rodeo are also encouraged by the Land Institute. More parking is included in the plans (1,500 to 2,000 parking spaces in the Dome's lower levels). The perimeter of the Astrodome is also cited as fertile ground for commercial tenants.

Are you ready for an Astrodome restaurant?

It's likely much too late to implement these plans in time for the 2017 Super Bowl in Houston. The Land Institute projects a 2025 completion date.

Want to relive the great Astrodome debate?  Read the contrasting viewpoints of my column on the need to tear down the Astrodome and preservationist James Glassman's plea to save what he calls "Houston's Eiffel Tower" at all costs.

Rick Archer's Note:  Please note Mr. Baldwin's original article can be read here:  Voter's Will Ignored

The Story of the Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower of Paris is quite possibly the most powerful icon on our planet. 

Along with the Statue of Liberty, the Great Pyramids of Egypt, and the German castle Neuschwanstein, and the Roman Colosseum, one look at the Eiffel Tower immediately conjures up images of the place it represents.

Has it occurred to anyone how helpful it would be to have a powerful iconic image of our own to advertise Houston world-wide?

Rick Archer's Note:  I find it interesting that Mr. Baldwin's article above concluded with a mention of the Eiffel Tower of Paris. 

Did you know the Eiffel Tower has something in common with the Astrodome?  In 1909, they almost tore the structure down.  Yes, indeed, like our own Astrodome, the Eiffel Tower was no stranger to controversy.


Most of the people of Paris opposed the construction of Eiffel Tower.  The citizens thought it was nothing but the wastage of money.

The citizens of Paris were shocked when they saw Gustav Eiffel along with his workers start constructing the tower. The thing that shocked them was the hideous design which he imposed upon their city.   Mais oui, très répugnant!!

In dispute, many reputed personalities from various fields like composers, artists, writers and leaders of cultural heritage went to the minister of Paris to complain the tower was a monstrosity, a waste of public money and useless.

There was great fear as well.  The residents who were living at the Champ de Mars thought that the monster made up of metal would surely fall, destroy their homes and crush them in the process.

The issue became more drastic when a nervous citizen filed a suit against the Paris City to restrict the construction work of tower. The construction process came to halt.  Now Gustav Eiffel was forced to provide assurance to the residents about the tower.  He promised he bore all responsibility for accidents that might occur because of this tower.  

The scientific community was convinced Eiffel didn't know what he was doing.   One professor of mathematics at a Paris university wrote that if the height of tower increased to 748 feet, the tower would definitely fall (the Tower is 986 feet high).  

Sight lines were being ruined.  Residents living along with the tower complained the tower would disrupt the natural beauty of the city.

There were great fears about lightning.  At that time, people had no idea about thunderstorms and lightning.  Would the Tower be struck by lightning and cause a great fire with sparks flying everywhere? 

Some worried that electrical currents from lightning would be transmitted through the metal structure deep into the ground and kill the fish in the nearby Seine River.

Most of the people who love nature were against the construction of this tower too.  What a shame that a lovely park full of trees had to be destroyed to make room for this eyesore.   (source)


The Eiffel Tower was named after engineer Gustave Eiffel.  It was his company that designed and built the tower. Erected as the entrance arch to the 1889 World's Fair, it was heavily criticized by some of France's leading artists and intellectuals.

Nobel prize winning author Emile Zola pronounced it the "Tower of Babel" and considered it dishonorable to the spirit of Paris.

Author Guy de Maupassant had a famous insult.  He hated the Tower so much that he paradoxically chose to eat lunch there every day.  Why?  Being on top of the tower was the only place in Paris where he didn’t have to see the damn thing rising into the sky. 

Even after it was built, the Eiffel Tower controversies continued.  Everyone continued to complain about it.  Believe it or not, the Eiffel Tower was very nearly torn down.

Although it seems impossible to imagine Paris without the Eiffel Tower, the Tower was scheduled for demolition in 1909.  The only thing that saved the Eiffel Tower from being heaved onto a massive scrap pile was the realization of its potential importance in a burgeoning new form of communication: transatlantic radio communications.

Although the height of the tower was a factor in much of its early criticism, ironically it was the height of the tower that ultimately saved it.

Today all that controversy is laughable.  Over time, the Eiffel Tower has become one of the most recognizable structures in the world.  The Eiffel Tower is now the dominant global icon of both Paris and France as well.  No picture of Paris is complete without it.

The Eiffel Tower received its 250 millionth visitor in 2010.  According to Wikipedia, the Eiffel Tower is the most-visited paid monument in the world. In addition to millions of people who simply walk over to take a look, seven million people ascended it in 2011.

Out of curiosity, do you still want to tear down the Astrodome?


"Compared to other cities, Houston is pretty ugly."


Rick Archer's Note:  Several years ago I ran across a story in the San Francisco Chronicle that made my blood boil.

The story was written by a smug San Francisco sports writer to explain why San Francisco was chosen as the USA finalist for the London 2012 Olympic bid over Houston even though Houston had a far stronger bid at the time.

Let me share some choice quotes from the article: 

Compared to other cities, Houston is pretty ugly.  -- San Francisco Chronicle, 2002


Perhaps Houston was so desperate to put itself on the global events map that it chose to overlook the boring flat-terrain flood basin where it is located.  -- San Francisco Chronicle, 2002


So it's rather amusing that second-tier towns like Houston continue to huff and puff when they get left at the threshold when competing against the San Franciscos of the world... or for that matter, the likes of London and Paris and New York.  -- San Francisco Chronicle, 2002


For all those civic wannabes in Houston who like to think their city's stock is now on par with the likes of New York and San Francisco, it helps to remember the small things.  The 110-degrees-in-the-shade concept is a sure brochure bouncer.

Oil refineries may be a great boost to the local economy, but smoke and haze and skylines full of petrochemical plants don't exactly send Europeans racing to their travel agents.

The good people of Houston will accept this over time, just like all the other cities have when they try to pass themselves off as the equal of San Francisco or Paris.  
-- San Francisco Chronicle, 2002


I could share some more quotes, but I think I have made my point.  Incidentally, if you would like to read the article in its entirety, be my guest:  Hey Houston... Better luck next time!

On the other hand, maybe it's time we all took a good look in the mirror.  When it comes to natural beauty, Houston has little.  Our city could be a forest, but it is a concrete nightmare instead.  When it comes to a choice between billboards or thick groves of trees lining our freeways, we all know who wins that battle.  When it comes to surefire tourist attractions on par with Las Vegas as a magnet to bring people to our city, not much comes to mind.


San Antonio, the Tourism Leader of Texas

Currently, San Antonio has the strongest tourist industry in Texas. Tourism brings huge dollars to the city. 

According to Wikipedia, over twenty million tourists visit the city and its attractions every year.  This is primarily due to the Alamo and the Riverwalk as well as SeaWorld and Fiesta Texas. 

As one might guess, these tourists contribute substantially to the city's economy.  The Henry Gonzalez Convention Center alone hosts more than 300 events each year with over 750,000 convention delegates from around the world.

And why do so many people want to come to San Antonio for these events?  Because the Riverwalk gives them something fun to do in the evening after a long day of meetings and lectures.

Tourism employs 94,000 citizens and makes an economic impact of over $10.7 billion (yes, Billion) in the local economy.  This is revealed in the Economic Impact Study conducted every two years by the San Antonio Tourism Council and Trinity University.

Tourism brings in an additional $300 million in annual revenues to the City of San Antonio and other governmental entities. This comes from hotel taxes, sales taxes and other revenues from hospitality agreements and contracts.

Yes, it is true, by lucky coincidence, the Alamo, our greatest Texas icon, is conveniently located right across the street from another state icon, the San Antonio River Walk.  Nor do San Antonio's blessings end there... the Alamodome and huge convention centers are all within easy walking distance. 

However, does that mean we must cry in our beer?  We have NRG Stadium right next door to the Astrodome.  If we put a rain forest and a river walk in the Astrodome, then maybe we could attract more events to NRG Stadium. 

For that matter, a renewed Astrodome could fuel economic development in the area.  Economic development would surely follow the moment the tourists start to show up.  One can imagine structures such as hotels being built nearby. 

Tourism is a valuable commodity for any city. If we do the Astrodome project the right way, then it could become a tourist magnet just like the San Antonio Riverwalk.

But first we need the attraction. 


The Lament of Houston: We Want More Tourists!!!

Rick Archer's Note:  This article appeared in the Houston Chronicle recently.  I thought this article would help illustrate my points about the dire straits of Houston's current tourism industry and explain the economic benefit of creating a major tourist attraction.  

Houston Tourist Board Pushes Harder

Latest Push includes major marketing to Mexico visitors
(Houston Chronicle story)

By Erin Mulvaney and L.M. Sixel

April 28, 2015

Boasting the state's largest airport system and a thriving business community, Houston has long been known as a hub for business travelers. But when it comes to drawing tourists, the city can't compete with places like Chicago, New York or even San Antonio.

Now, local tourism officials hope a spike in their promotional budget and the opening of several new international flights in and out of town will convince leisure travelers that Houston is a place to visit in its own right.

They are set to unveil what they call the city's "boldest bid ever" to increase the number of annual visitors by 35 percent over the next three years.

The project being announced Wednesday is the first major initiative since the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau Houston was folded into Houston First Corp. last summer in an effort to eliminate overlapping functions and more efficiently attract conventions and tourists.

Adding resources from the better-funded Houston First increased the budget to promote Houston to $8.8 million, from $5.1 million.

The plan includes the first major marketing push in Mexico, with television and newspaper ads as well as promotional trips for travel agents.

The city already attracts 1 million Mexican tourists annually, and new international flights could increase that number further.

Local boosters also want to tap the millions of potential visitors from elsewhere in Texas and nearby Louisiana.

The quasi-public Houston First owns the Hilton Americas-Houston hotel and manages several city-owned properties, including the George R. Brown Convention Center, Miller Outdoor Theatre, Wortham Center and Jones Hall for the Performing Arts.  Revenue from those projects is helping to pay for the broader promotional efforts.

Houston First hopes to boost the number of visitors to 20 million by 2018, up from 14.8 million people last year, and add 20,000 new hospitality jobs while increasing local and state tax revenues.

Stephanie Haynes, president of Hotel & Lodging Association of Greater Houston, said corporate and convention visitors keep hotels full during the week, but hoteliers want to increase weekend and holiday traffic.

"I think Houston has had some issues with defining the role of tourism and understanding its impact in the city," Haynes said. Houston First, she added, "is trying to shift the image of the city as truly being something that is not just a convention and corporate destination, but somewhere you can bring your family or where you want to visit."

Haynes added that Houston's lack of an iconic image "has been a major challenge for us."

"Houston is almost a hidden gem when you realize all the things there are to do in the city," she said. "We are trying to get the word out and create a plan."

Past efforts to attract tourists have included advertising campaigns such as "Houston's Hot" and "Houston: Expect the Unexpected" and promotions with celebrity Houston natives like Jim Parsons, Lyle Lovett and ZZ Top.

The newest effort from the expanded visitor bureau also has focused on attracting more conventions to Houston which could, in turn, boost tourism as convention-goers linger a few extra days. Boosters say Houston also benefits from hosting big upcoming events like the Super Bowl and the NCAA Final Four.

Already, most of the visitors to Houston are classified as leisure travelers. Of the 14.8 million who came to Houston last year, about 9 million were leisure travelers while the others came on business. The majority of visitors come from inside Texas, including Dallas/Forth Worth, Austin and San Antonio.

By comparison, Chicago gets 42 million visitors annually, New York City 54 million and San Antonio attracts 31 million.

Jorge Franz, senior vice president of tourism for Houston First, said that even though Houston doesn't have the Magnificent Mile, it has the Galleria - already a huge draw for Mexican tourists. Instead of the San Antonio River Walk or SeaWorld, it does have the Kemah Boardwalk and the Museum of Natural History.

The city is also seen as a natural draw for visitors from Louisiana, especially New Orleans, Lafayette and Baton Rouge, Franz said.

The airport system puts Houston in position to draw more leisure travel, Janice Langlinais, spokeswoman with the Texas Travel Industry Association. In 2013, she said, visitors spent $11.2 billion in Houston and $13.6 billion throughout the metro area. During that time, Austin had $5.4 billion in visitor spending and Dallas $10.5 billion.

Langlinais, a Louisiana native, also called the city a "hidden gem." She remembers coming to the city from her hometown as a child because of the AstroWorld theme park, now long gone.

One of the goals Houston First noted in its announcement was a "renewed effort to draw a major new attraction or identifiable icon to the area."   (Rick Archer's Note: curiously, no mention was made of the Astrodome)

"Houston is one of those places people come in and out of. It's good they are looking to increase their image," she said. "Houston can show there are interesting things to stay for."

People come from all over the world to Houston, through the Port of Houston for cruises, through its large airport system for connecting flights or for business trips and conventions, said Michelle Weller, a Houston travel agent with Travel Leaders. She said people might tack on a few days in Houston and realize there are a lot of sights to see and places to visit.

But it's not necessarily the type of place, like Orlando's Disneyland, that her clients clamor to visit.

Weller agreed that a defining or iconic venue would help make Houston a more attractive destination.

"They don't see it because we are spread out," she said. "Maybe if they just promoted everything we have a bit more."

In the last two years, the airport has welcomed several airlines from Mexico as well as Turkey, China, South Korea, Japan and Sweden. The latest announcement was an Air New Zealand flight to Auckland.

Southwest Airlines will add several new flights to Latin America once it completes its five-gate international terminal at Hobby Airport in October. Spirit Airlines is bringing new Mexico and South American flights to Bush Intercontinental next month.

Airline analysts and city leaders tout the new connections, saying they will increase Houston's visibility as an international city. About half of those who board flights in Houston begin here. A large portion of traffic through Bush Intercontinental and Hobby are connecting flights.

"It's very opportune to start an ad campaign in Mexico, where they already get traffic," said Pete Garcia, an aviation consultant and executive director of The Woodlands-Gulf Coast branch of the U.S. Mexican Chamber of Commerce. "Houston does need to promote themselves to stimulate the market."

Franz will present a study by Partner International, commissioned by Houston First, to the Hotel and Lodging Association on Thursday.

Comparing Houston to San Antonio, New Orleans, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta and Philadelphia, it found the total number of visitors is low, transportation and signage are issues, and the hospitality industry is not fully engaged in leisure promotion.

"It's really a perception thing," said Jason Draper, assistant professor with the University of Houston's Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management, citing the city's arts and entertainment, sports and restaurants.

"Once you come, you see how much Houston has to offer."



Rick Archer's Note:
  I found the reactions of Chronicle readers to be  particularly interesting.


01. Tom:  All of the above comments are valid and, in addition, I'd like to use the example of the future botanical garden's location, near I-610 , outside the loop, close to Hobby Airport as a prime example of how Houston continues to fail in its awareness and direction in becoming a true city in the total sense of the word , in other words, create an environment worthy of visiting.  

The powers that be either don't get it or think that it doesn't matter that the venues of interest, in Houston, are so isolated from one another as to cause a disconnect psychologically with local residents and prevents anyone who wants to find Houston as an interesting place to visit to not find it worthy of visiting. Houston has a total lack of infrastructural consistency, density, and proximity from one point of interest to another period.

Houston needs pedestrian oriented areas that can be accessed in a safe, tension free and convenient way to create that synergy that gives life to a city.

But that's just part of the issue. The other factor is that because of the amount of street people hanging around the majority of venues in downtown , midtown and the medical center, this environment is continuously in a street people mode of existence and, coupled with the homeless shelters, halfway houses and food pantries, attracts that demographic that makes a large part of the population of Houston stay away leaving whatever few tourists we have feel isolated in a hostile environment.

Houston is not a great place to visit in my opinion.

(RA Note: I agree Houston could use a nice place to walk, but I would like to point out that the sidewalks here in the Heights are virtually empty come summertime.  However, a walk inside the Astrodome sounds wonderful.)


02. Sarah: 

[The people quoted in the article are] are delusional if they think it's just a "perception" issue for tourists. Houston's attractions are spread out too far and wide and lack real mass transit options for those who wish not to rent a car.

As most residents here believe, Houston is a great city to live in because it lacks zoning and creates all kinds of opportunities for residential and commercial growth.

But the downside is that because there are several prevailing interests, zones for leisure and tourism growth will never be organized well enough to attract the kind of capital it would take to make Houston's image compete with cities who are historically and culturally more iconic than Houston which didn't really take off until after 1950.


03. Roadchick: 

[Referring to the article...]  Good luck with that. I've been around long enough to remember the spectacular failures of "Houston's Hot," which actually tried to use our humid weather as a selling point, and "Expect the Unexpected," which I believe was former Houston first lady Elyse Lanier's idea.

It's asking way too much of a visitor to rent a car and navigate a very large city with a confusing road system and terrible traffic, where most of the attractions aren't even in Houston proper. If we had committed to decent regional transportation 30 years ago, this city would be a lot more tourist-friendly.

(RA Note: The point of an Astrodome complex is that everything becomes within walking distance just like in San Antonio.)


04. Amukhi: 

I always struggle when asked "What's there to see in Houston?"

(RA Note: Amen to that.)


05. Andrew (replying to Amukhi): 

How about the Museum of Fine Arts? Wortham Theater Center, Alley Theatre. Museum of Fine Arts. The Menil Collection. Minute Maid Park. Memorial Park. The Orange Show. The Beer Can House. The Galleria. Johnson Space Center/NASA.

(RA Note: Here is my take. The Johnson Space Center is a nice place to visit, but with Houston's role in the Space Program mysteriously diminished, this is not much of a draw at the moment.  Wortham Theater, Alley Theater, museums, all good, but not major iconic attractions outside the city.

Memorial Park?  I love it, but most towns have parks of their own.  Why drive to Houston?

The only one I agree with is Minute Maid Park...


How about a weekend in Houston?  

Let's say someone lives in Cuero, Texas, halfway between San Antonio and Houston.  We are talking about a Mom and a Dad and two kids.  They are looking for something interesting to do on a weekend.  As it stands, right now San Antonio gets their business.  Sea World.  Fiesta Texas.  Whatever.

However, what if someone could park their car at the Astrodome Complex, hop a fast train to Minute Maid Park and see the baseball game?  Then after the ballgame, they could take that train back to their Astrodome hotel, freshen up, then take a monorail from their hotel over to the Astrodome for dinner.  After dinner, how about a walk along the water or a boat ride in the canal with the kids?  Or maybe Dad could take the kids and climb the Astrodome mountain while Mom enjoys the music at the Astrodome Magic Fountain beside the Lagoon.

Then the family could spend the night and perhaps even visit the Astrodome again in the morning before the two hour drive back to Cuero.


Now how about Lake Charles near the Louisiana border?  A young man wants to impress his girlfriend.  Local gambling isn't going to cut it.  Not exactly "romantic".

What if there was a nightly show in the Astrodome?   This young man and his girlfriend could drive into Houston, have dinner, take a long walk through the rain forest complete with margaritas, take a look at the mountain and the waterfall, see the Magic Fountain, enjoy a boat ride, then stay and watch the show.  Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatics, a live band to follow, dancing, a big public party.  This sounds like serious FUN!!

Take the monorail back to the hotel and head back home the next day with a big smile on their faces.

While I am at, I can't imagine why the major proponents of demolishing the Astrodome would object to attracting tourists to the Astrodome complex. 

If anything, I would imagine the Houston Texans and the Houston Rodeo would stand to gain from a tourist attraction on the magnitude of something like an Astrodome River Walk.  Come see the Rodeo, stay for the Astrodome!

An aerial view of the NRG complex shows a vast amount of unused space just begging for economic expansion.

Has anyone ever considered that all that room could be used for new convention centers, new hotels, and even a "Mall"??

Both entities say they crave more parking.  I confess this argument leaves me baffled.  I have a simple reply: "Parking Garage".

What about the tailgating experience?

People have the ability to adapt.  Design each level in a parking garage to have areas reserved for tailgate groups. 

A roof will reduce the temperature, fans will do the rest, rain won't be a factor and the music will be just as loud.


06. Frank (replying to Andrew above): 

Really, JSC, baseball, museums, etc, those are Houston's big tourist selling points?

You can do every one of those things in most other U.S. cities.

In fact, there are way better tourist locations in the U.S. than Houston. I mean, if you really want theater, you go to New York.  Baseball you can find in any major city USA.  Heck, NASA is even better in Florida plus they have beaches and great amusement parks. I don't think the Astros and Texans are a big enough draw. I think Dallas or San Antonio are better Texas tourist spots.

Houston needs something better.

(RA Note: Amen to that.  Houston clearly needs something better.)


07. Nick: 

A lot of people that come into Houston and stay downtown end up with a bad image of the city because it's nearly impossible to get around without a car.  So they're stuck Downtown where there's been very little to see.

Forget Kemah and the Astrodome, that's just more sprawl. Keep committing to putting more interesting things Downtown and Houston will surely become an interesting tourist attraction.

It's a shame that the Southeast Texas Historical Museum or whatever isn't being built after all...

(RA Note: And what exactly did Nick have in mind to put downtown?  I say connect Downtown and the Astrodome complex together by rail and have the best of both worlds.)


08. Doris: 

need a themepark

(RA Note: I admire Doris.  She has the ability to say in three words what takes me a book to write.)


09. Marsha: 

Instead of focusing on words, promotion and image, how about creating some actual places that are worth visiting?

It wouldn't be a bad idea to make the city pleasant to look at while we're at it. As long as we're beholden to business (resulting in our blight of billboards), allow things to be constantly torn up due to lack of planning (with resulting streets, ramps and overpasses that look bizarre and/or hideous), and suffer the effects of lack of zoning (which has its charms, but more so its dysfunctions), we aren't going to win any beauty pageants.

As a visiting friend put it: "Houston has a tremendous amount of visual clutter."

(RA Note: Tell it like it is, Marsha!  I agree...  "How about creating some actual places that are worth visiting")


10. Ralph: 

We need an iconic image to enhance tourism?  Why not the historic Astrodome, the city's most recognizable structure?

(RA Note: Amen, Ralph)


11. Frank (replying to Ralph): 

I guess you didn't get the memo, the Astrodome is closed.

(RA Note: Thanks, Frank, we appreciate the sarcasm.)


12. Matthew: 

If some kind of train connected the airports to downtown and other tourists destinations, then more people might come into downtown Houston.  (Yes!!)

Imagine if you could fly into Hobby, then jump on a train to Galveston.  Then visit the JSC on the way back, then on to the museum district and then downtown for a night baseball game.  Big day!

Chicago and New York have a train to get around. San Antonio doesn't have a system, but it seems most people either are going downtown to the Alamo/Riverwalk or Sea World/Fiesta Texas.

Houston actually has a lot to offer visitors, but it's just hard to get around, especially with every highway seemingly under construction.

(RA Note: Amen, Matthew. Rapid mass transit is an important feature of every major city in the world. When I was in Paris, I took a train to Versailles ten miles outside Paris, rode the train back to the Eiffel Tower and then walked through scenic Paris back to my hotel.)


13. Frank (replying to Matthew): 

Ugh, tired of seeing baseball as a selling point. Frankly there is really nothing worth visiting in Houston.

Dallas and San Antonio are much better tourist destinations. Galveston can also stand on its own. I'd rather spend some time and money in Galveston than in Houston.

(RA Note: I agree.  When my relatives come to visit, I agonize over what to take them to see here in Houston.)


14. Matthew (replying to Frank): 

You would be surprised how much baseball brings visitors to cities. Several major league teams now organize and sell vacation packages for fans to go to away games. The ones I have seen usually go to more typical vacation spots though (west coast, New England, Florida).

Tourism is fickle business because it is completely based on people's opinions. For instance, baseball to me is a selling point. I've planned trips to a couple of cities solely based on wanting to see a baseball game in their stadium, then I did other stuff while I was there. People who like to ski go to Denver and Salt Lake City. People who like history might go to Washington D.C. People who like theater and shows might go to New York or Las Vegas. Not all of those appeal to everybody.

If Houston wanted to stake a claim to one big tourist attraction, it could be wildlife viewing. Houston's position along the upper Texas coast actually makes it one of the most popular spots in the country, and the world for that matter, for viewing birds/wildlife. So much so, that a National Recreation Area has been proposed to encircle Galveston Bay to help promote outdoor recreation in the Houston area. There are also already 6 federally managed National Wildlife Refuges within an hour's drive of downtown Houston. The proposed recreation area would include most of those among other parks and be managed and promoted by the National Park System. This doesn't necessarily promote Houston specifically, but the area as a whole (all who would have to drive through or fly to Houston).

Promoting nature in a city built on oil might help change the public's perception of it and bring more tourists in.

(RA Note: In my opinion, baseball, wildlife, the museum district, Johnson Space Center and the Beer Can House can all contribute to varying degrees.  But anyone who thinks these venues have major iconic value across the world, much less here in Texas, are just plain delusional.  These locations will not draw people from outlying areas to our city.

As one cynical relative said to me, the only good reason to come to Houston is to make money or get cured of cancer.  Gee, now let's send that tourist slogan over to the Tourism Board. 

What Houston needs to do is restore our iconic image.  We need to remind the world that the Houston Astrodome, the Eighth Wonder of the World, is Back in Business.)



What Are We So Afraid Of?


Rick Archer's Note:  By coincidence, as I write this article, Judge Emmett appeared on last night's news announcing his trip to Germany to see Tropical Island.

Am I the only one who thinks Judge Emmett acts like he is treading through a mine field??

For example, when telling about his upcoming trip to Germany, he pointed out that "no tax dollars are being used to fund this fact-finding trip."  He added, "It's important to note that we have no intention of turning the Astrodome into a tropical island resort!"

Judge Emmett seems like a man who is used to looking over his shoulder.

If I didn't know any better, Judge Emmett has probably heard the story of Bugsy Siegel. 

Bugsy Siegel is the man widely credited with the vision to make Las Vegas what it is today. 

Las Vegas was a two-bit town that no one cared about until they began building Hoover Dam back in the Thirties.  This project was a gamble to help America out of the Great Depression.  Suddenly 25,000 men flocked to Hoover Dam looking for jobs.  Very few of these men brought their families along, so a shanty town called Boulder City was hastily erected nearby.  This was good enough as a place to sleep at night, but soon enough these countless men wanted something to do with their free time.

This influx of men had created an instant market for large scale entertainment.  Las Vegas was located twenty miles away.  This was the place where the first casinos were built.  Showgirls, booze, prostitution and gambling were thrown into the mix as a way to entertain the male construction workers.  Las Vegas quickly earned its reputation as a pretty wild town.

There was a lot of speculation what would happen to Las Vegas when the dam was finally completed.  Would everyone go home and let Las Vegas turn into a ghost town?  It sure seemed a waste to let all that investment go down the drain when the party was over.

Bugsy Siegel was the man who believed Vegas could be even bigger than it was now.  He knew a lot of high rollers who would love to have a Gambling Mecca strictly for big shots.  With the infrastructure already in place, Siegel pushed his vision.  He persuaded influential mobsters to put up a lot of money to build the Flamingo, the first modern Vegas casino. 

Unfortunately the Flamingo opened before it was ready.  The air conditioning didn't work!  The Flamingo got off to a bad start and lost "a lot of money".  There was also a rumor Siegel's girlfriend had taken off for Switzerland with "a lot of money".  The betrayal wasn't confirmed, but the rumor weighed heavily on the minds of the investors.  Tired of the losses and the excuses, the mob bosses lost their patience and ordered Siegel assassinated. 

Oddly enough, about the same time as Siegel was shot, the Flamingo had just turned a $250,000 profit in the past two months... "a lot of money" back in those days.  It was no fluke either.  Within a year, the Flamingo had turned a $4 million dollar profit.  We all know the rest of the story.

As for Judge Emmett, considering he lost one bond election in 2013 and has some of the most powerful men in Houston clamoring to tear down the Astrodome, one can understand why he is forced to tread so carefully.

"No tax dollars are being used to fund this fact-finding trip."  As we have seen with Bugsy Siegel, life isn't always easy for visionaries.  One more misstep could be the end for Judge Emmett and the Astrodome as well.

In my opinion, the Astrodome Project should not have to be completely on the shoulders of Judge Emmett.  Judge Roy Hofheinz was the man with the first vision.  He was the one who talked the people of Houston into building the Astrodome in the first place. 

All Judge Emmett is trying to do is find a way to use an existing asset for the public good.  I applaud him for his efforts.  It can't be easy.

One of the things that I find fascinating are the reasons people use to call for the destruction of the Astrodome. 

Did you know there is a plan in place to spend $66 million just to tear down the Astrodome (source)? 

Why?  Because the Astrodome is in the way of something.

"The Astrodome impedes circulation flow among two major axes of Reliant Park".

So you are the voter.  Let's play a game.  Do you want to tear down the Astrodome for $66 million and get nothing in return but improved walking paths to your car after the game?

Or do you want to put a Tropical Island (or something like it) inside the Astrodome for $111 million?  Yes, it is more money, but if you believed in the vision, would you be willing to gamble?  

To me it makes far more sense to support the construction of an iconic facility that would not only put Houston back on the worldwide tourist map, but also generate tourist income for the city. 

To me, the $217 million bond election in 2013 was defeated for a simple reason... building another convention center didn't make any sense because Houston had nothing to attract more convention people in the first place! 

But if we had a heavyweight tourist attraction, then the conventions might be more inclined to come our way.


The San Antonio Business Model Revisited


"If You Build it, He Will Come..." -- Field of Dreams

Rick Archer's Note:

I have offered two stories from the past where Gustav Eiffel and Bugsy Siegel had the guts to think big, were widely criticized, yet ultimately proven correct.  

I would like to offer San Antonio's success with the Riverwalk as a third example.

During the 1920s, no one could have possibly dreamed of the value of saving a curious bend in the river that passed through the center of town. 

Back in those days, the San Antonio River had more curves than a coral snake or a sidewinder rattlesnake.  Furthermore, the flood waters caused by those bends in the river were far more dangerous as any water moccasin. 

In September 1921, a disastrous flood along the San Antonio River took fifty lives.  Don't let this happen again!  Plans were quickly developed for flood control of the river. 

The idea was to "straighten out" the river. 

This would allow the waters to flow downstream more rapidly before they could back up in a storm and create new flooding.

As part of the Straightening Plan, the engineers wanted to bypass an unusually prominent curve in the river.  Since this headache curve was in the downtown area, it presented a real threat to property in the area should another flood occur. 

Once the new straight-line bypass channel was complete, the water in the wide bend would be drained and replaced by sewer pipes, then paved over to create new city streets. 

Work on the bypass channel began in 1926.  Just like braces and teeth, the San Antonio River now had a channel that passed straight through downtown.  Sitting next to it was the former bend in the river that was now ready to be paved over.

However, the second phase... paving over the no longer useful river bend with a street... did not come to pass.

The San Antonio Conservation Society successfully protested the paved sewer option.  So the water just sat there in that wide bend for three years while people tried to come up with ideas what to do with the stagnant water besides raise mosquitoes.

No major plans came into play until 1929, when San Antonio native and architect Robert Hugman submitted his plans for what would become the River Walk.

The leadership of former mayor Jack White was instrumental in passage of a bond issue that raised funds to empower the 1938 “San Antonio River Beautification Project”.  This began the evolution of the site into the present 2.5-mile-long River Walk.

On a personal note, I walk the entire route every chance I get when we visit San Antonio.  The Riverwalk is a special place.

To understand what the engineers did, they dug a large BYPASS channel on the left that became the straight part of the river. 

The next part of the plan was to fill the curve with soil and pave it.

Instead, they put dams between the straight part and the huge curve. 

When the river was slow, fresh water could be allowed into the giant U-Turn.  When flood conditions prevailed, the dams could be lowered to protect the Riverwalk interior from damage.

Who would have ever thought that a bend in the river could turn out to be so valuable??   San Antonio has built an entire industry around this lucrative area - hotels, restaurants, convention centers. 

The Riverwalk made San Antonio the envy of all other Texas towns.



Let's face it: San Antonio got lucky! 

Back then, no one had the slightest idea what would happen as the result of saving that curious bend in the river. 

But we know now what the benefits are.  These excerpts come from a study done on the economic impact of the Riverwalk.

Study Reveals River Walk’s Importance to San Antonio Economy  (source)
Sara Gruber | May 14, 2014

A treasure for locals, businesses and visitors, the River Walk plays a vital role in the health of San Antonio’s economy.

To better pinpoint its impact, the City of San Antonio commissioned a year-long study to learn more about the number of visitors the River Walk receives.

The study concluded that 11.5 million people visit the River Walk annually. Of these, 9.3 million are from outside Bexar County. These visitors stimulate an overall economic impact of $3 billion and directly influence 21,000 San Antonio jobs.

“It is because of significant sites like the River Walk, that tourism is one of San Antonio’s top five industries, employing one in eight locals and contributing $12 billion annually.”

Some 2.2 million River Walk patrons are locals.

Approximately two thirds of local respondents indicated they visit the River Walk more than twice a year. This is a key element as the city’s tourism infrastructure also improves quality of life for locals and businesses, enhancing the vibrancy of San Antonio.

“The conservative estimate of a $3.1 billion annual economic impact of the River Walk...

Today San Antonio stands supreme as the Tourist Mecca of Texas.  Tourism is one of the city's top five industries.  One job in eight depends on tourism.  The River Walk alone is worth $3 billion dollars per year.  

While Houston gets 15 million tourists a year, San Antonio gets 30 million.  Don't think for a minute that San Antonio doesn't know what they have going for them.  They watch their industry carefully.  An article in a recent San Antonio business journal said the following:

"Several Texas cities and markets outside the Lone Star State are throwing huge amounts of money into their tourism marketing efforts.

“The tipping point was the shear number of dollars our Texas competitors — Dallas and Houston — have brought to the table,” Decker said. “Both Dallas and Houston are going after large segments of the leisure market.”

Those cities are also chasing after a larger share of the convention business.

So is Austin, which is investing in new hotels and an expanded convention center. 

“There are a lot of reasons for more people to go to Austin now,” Decker said. “The competition is becoming so intense. Everybody sees it.  Something has to change.  That’s what has driven us to this point (of investing more money in tourism).”

Please don't misunderstand.  I am a huge fan of San Antonio.  I admire what they have done with their city.

That said, Houston has every right to compete for some of those tourist dollars. 

So where do we start?

If I have read the Houston Chronicle Tourist Board Pushes Harder article correctly, someone's idea of beating San Antonio to the punch is to spend more money on advertising. 

"Adding resources from the better-funded Houston First increased the budget to promote Houston to $8.8 million, from $5.1 million."

"Houston is one of those places people come in and out of.  It's good they are looking to increase their image," she said. "Houston can show there are interesting things to stay for."

The claim is that Houston can show there are interesting things to stay for.  Like what? 
The article didn't mention any places.  Why do you suppose that is? 

I have a question.  Does anyone really think spending more money on advertising is going to help increase tourism here in Houston without something of value to brag about?  

The people quoted in Tourist Board Pushes Harder said it themselves:

One of the goals Houston First noted in its announcement was a "renewed effort to draw a major new attraction or identifiable icon to the area."  

Ms. Weller said people might tack on a few days in Houston and realize there are a lot of sights to see and places to visit.  But Houston is not necessarily the type of place, like Orlando's Disneyland, that her clients clamor to visit. 

Ms. Weller agreed that a defining or iconic venue would help make Houston a more attractive destination.


One of the goals Houston First noted in its announcement was a "renewed effort to draw a major new attraction or identifiable icon to the area."  

I have two questions.

Just exactly what "iconic image" does Houston First expect to pull out of its hat?

Just exactly what "major new attraction" does Houston First have in mind?

Advertising geniuses can talk all they want, but it seems likely they will just be spinning their wheels unless we put something on the table to actually talk about. 

I think our friend Marsha said it the best in her Letter to the Editor:

09. Marsha: 

Instead of focusing on words, promotion and image, how about creating some actual places that are worth visiting?



Judge Roy Hofheinz


Rick Archer's Note:

I understand that most Houstonians were not around for the Astrodome construction back in 1964.  It was a very exciting time to live here in Houston.

However, due to the passage of 50 years, it is hard to conceive of the immense civic pride that the people took in realizing this fantastic dream. 

The Astrodome was the brainchild of Judge Roy Hofheinz, a colorful and quite charismatic Houston leader. 

Back in the 1950s, Judge Roy Hofheinz became perhaps the most influential politician in Houston's history.

In a career that included time as a State Legislator, County Judge, and Houston Mayor, Roy Hofheinz will be remembered best for persuading Houston's movers and shakers as well as Houston's voters to support his ambitious Astrodomain project. 

Keep in mind the construction of the Astrodome was taken at considerable risk. Building the Houston Astrodome was a huge gamble... no one had any idea if it would work or not. 

Adjusting for inflation, at a cost of $183 million, Houston showed the world what our city was capable of. 

Nor did we stop there... Judge Roy Hofheinz included the Astroworld in his original vision.

In its day, the Astrodome was described as the "Stadium of the Future" and the "Taj Mahal of Sports".

The Houston Astrodome literally paved the way to the future. 

Astroturf came into being thanks to the Dome.  The concept of skyboxes was originated in the Astrodome.

Today there are domed stadiums throughout America.  Houston was the leader.  We showed the world it could be done.

It is important to note that the Astrodome created a gigantic economic boom for Houston. 

According to an article in The Atlantic, in 1966 the year after its opening, the Astrodome became America's third-most-visited man-made tourist attraction. 

The Astrodome ranked only behind Mount Rushmore and the Golden Gate Bridge as the place to see and visit.

Furthermore, the Astrodome became the anchor for the subsequent development of south Houston.

"Rollover effect" is a term for the dollars brought into an area by economic investment, then re-spent locally.

Economists estimated that when the "rollover effect" was taken into account, in the Sixties the Houston Astrodome brought profits to the city in excess of $4 billion. (source)

As for the Dome and its current state, Dene Hofheinz, daughter of the Judge, was quoted saying her father would be disappointed to see the facility in the state it’s in today.

Ms. Hofheinz said her father never envisioned the Dome as a building to last only a few decades.

The Astrodome was supposed to be a Houston landmark that would forever provide entertainment for families.

“Dad welcomed the problem because he lived to solve a problem,” she said. “The bigger the problem, the greater the challenge, the better he felt.”

“He was thinking about Houston and Harris County up to his last breath.”

Houston, We Have a Problem

Back in Sixties, Houston was a pioneer. 

We had the Eighth Wonder of the World and our Johnson Space Center placed Houston in the center of the world's eye when America reached the Moon.

Now look at us.  The Space program is dormant, Astroworld is gone, and the Astrodome is on the brink of destruction.

Where have you gone, Roy Hofheinz?  A city turns its lonely eyes to you.

There will be politicians who scream bloody murder over the price tag.  This is as predictable as anything I have said in this article.

That said, everyone knows you have to spend money to make money.  We all know that Houston is one of the most prosperous cities in America.  We have the economic muscle to accomplish whatever we think is important.

However, Houston's prosperity has recently witnessed a serious storm cloud.  Has anyone noticed that "oil" could be in trouble?

Why allow our city to be so dependent on one industry? 

The problem with the Astrodome might actually be a blessing in disguise.  The resurrection of the Astrodome can coincide with a prudent decision to diversify Houston's economy.  It makes complete sense to add "TOURISM" to our city's portfolio.  

Unfortunately, until we create something interesting enough to generate world-wide curiosity, the advertising people will just spin their wheels.  

We have no choice but to make a sizeable investment.  I contend that the Astrodome is the most practical road to take. 

When the dust clears, even the critics will admit there is only one place in Houston capable of becoming an iconic image for Houston:  The Houston Astrodome.

The Germans have shown us the way - turn a lemon into lemonade.  No other large-scale project makes a bit of sense. 

The story of the first incarnation of the Astrodome has shown us what can happen when some real thought is put into the process.  Fortunately it is not too late for a Second Act. 

In the process of restoring the Astrodome to prominence, the entire world will watch on with fascination.  If we do it in style, Houston can regain its rightful place on the world stage.

Roy Hofheinz did it once.  His Astrodome created a gigantic economic boom for Houston. 

The Houston Astrodome was once the Eighth Wonder of the World.  The Theme of Act Two becomes obvious.  It is high time to return the Eighth Wonder to renewed glory!

We know how San Antonio makes its money.  If Houston ever intends to compete not just in Texas, but worldwide, for tourism dollars, it is high time to take a good look at the Astrodome and put something in there that will knock everyone's socks off.

With some imagination and Texas-style ambition, Houston can put itself back on the map of Texas for tourist dollars. 

It happened once; it can happen again.





About Rick Archer:

A graduate of St. John's School here in Houston, I ran SSQQ Dance Studio here in the Houston area for thirty-two years. 

After retiring in 2010, I turned my attention to writing among other things.

It is important to note that I do not have a horse in this race.  I know absolutely no one connected with the Astrodome struggle nor do I stand to make any money one way or the other.  Due to the fact that I have no economic stake in whatever happens, I have the luxury of saying exactly what I think should be done.

If you have enjoyed this article, please note there is an accompanying page: Astrodome Project.  In this article, I stated many of the same ideas I have shared here plus all sorts of fanciful ideas about what to do with the space inside the Dome. 

If you wish to contact me, I can be reached by email,

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