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Designation as 'state antiquities landmark' could make it harder to tear down Astrodome

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HOUSTON - Efforts to protect the Houston Astrodome from demolition have taken a new turn, with a Texas agency looking at designating it as a "state antiquities landmark."

After voters last year failed to approve a referendum that would have authorized up to $217 million in bonds to turn it into a giant convention and event centre, the Astrodome seemed likely headed for the scrap heap. The stadium has been closed since 2009 and various ideas over the years to refurbish it — from water park to sports memorabilia museum — have gained little traction.

But efforts to save the so-called Eighth Wonder of the World gained momentum after an advisory committee of the Texas Historical Commission voted late last month to recommend that the Astrodome get the antiquities designation. The commission is expected to make a final decision during its meeting on July 30-31.

If the Astrodome is designated a state antiquities landmark, any proposals to alter or demolish it would have to be approved by the commission, making it more difficult to tear it down.

"There are an awful lot of people who love that building who would do anything for it," said Cynthia Neely, a Houston writer and producer who along with Ted Powell, a retired chemical engineer, submitted the antiquities designation application earlier this year.

But Harris County Judge Ed Emmett isn't as excited about the potential antiquities designation. Emmett will hold a meeting Wednesday with stakeholders who have expressed interest in the Astrodome's future to discuss this and other developments.

Joe Stinebaker, Emmett's spokesman, said the county judge doesn't want the Astrodome demolished, but Emmett believes the antiquities landmark designation could make it more difficult to attract investors who want to refurbish the stadium. Emmett has said any ideas for the Astrodome will have to be paid through private sector funding.

"He's opposed to anything that ties the county's hands, which this does in no uncertain terms," Stinebaker said.

Opened in 1965, the Astrodome hasn't been home to a sports team since 1999 and has been closed to all events since 2009. While still structurally sound, the iconic stadium had fallen into disrepair. Stadium seats, pieces of AstroTurf and other Astrodome items were sold to the public late last year.

The stadium's most prominent use in recent years was as a shelter for Louisiana residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

In January, the National Park Service added the Astrodome to its National Register of Historic Places. While this federal designation was mostly honorary, it was needed for the state antiquities designation to proceed.

Neely said she believes the antiquities designation will not "create a monument that sits there and does nothing." The designations at the state and federal level will qualify the Astrodome for grants and tax incentives that can help pay to revamp the stadium, she said.

"Up to now, they have waited on a white knight to ride in, hand them a bunch of money and take this problem off their hands," Neely said. "That is not going to happen. But there may be a lot of knights that can help them."

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