Photo: Ryan Holeywell.

Ryan Holeywell | February 2, 2016
The new plan would cost considerably less than the $217 million overhaul voters rejected in 2013.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett revealed more details about his latest plan to renovate the Astrodome, pitching a concept that he says can move forward without the approval of voters and would likely cost less than $65 million.

Emmett, the top elected official in Harris County, which owns the Astrodome, insisted in a "State of the County" speech Tuesday that "2016 is the year we make something happen with the Dome."

"It is an asset that belongs to the taxpayers, so the decision is really a matter of asset utilization -- period," Emmett said, arguing there's still useful life ahead for the 50-year-old building. "It cannot and should not be torn down."

Since the Houston Astros baseball team left the stadium after the 1999 season for a new downtown facility, the county has been unable to answer the question of what it should do with the Astrodome or how it should pay for it.

There's been many calls to save or preserve the historic structure, which was the world's first multi-purpose domed stadium and host to events as diverse as Elvis Presley concerts, the "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match, and the 1992 Republican National Convention, in addition to football and baseball games.

In 2013, county voters rejected a $217 million bond referendum that would have funded the building's transformation into a sort of convention center. At the time, Emmett heavily insinuated that a "no" vote to that plan would prompt the county to demolish the Astrodome. Since then, he's walked back that threat and continues to enthusiastically make the case for renovation.

During a press conference after Tuesday's event, Emmett told reporters the county hopes to release a renovation plan for the stadium in June.

"We're making a lot of progress," Emmett said. "Everybody realizes we can't tear it down."

But at the same time, Emmett said, it's clear that the private sector has no interest in the building and has no viable plan for how to repurpose it.

Emmett said the county's preliminary plan is to raise the floor of the Astrodome, put a 9-acre park atop it, and leave room for storage or parking underneath. In the future, a conservatory could be developed that might be able to fund a system of trails within that park.

Emmett said he did not know exactly how much the proposed renovations would cost. But, he added, "I think you're talking about a lot less than what we spent on the 1910 courthouse."

The county re-opened its historic courthouse in 2011, following a $65 million renovation.

Emmett said he isn't worried about the political risk of pursuing the project even though voters previously rejection renovation, in part because the cost of the latest proposal is so much lower than what voters saw in 2013. The county often renovates buildings without getting specific approval from voters, he added.

He also said the county is exploring the possibility of creating some sort of light show that would be displayed on the exterior of the stadium -- and possibly on the interior as well -- to coincide with the February 2017 Super Bowl that will be held next door at NRG Stadium.

Emmett suggested funding streams for the renovation might include parking fees and payments from the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo and its vendors, who might want to move some of their activities from the Astrodome parking lot to the building's interior.

Emmett said the Dome has a pending application before the state historical commission that could deem it a a state antiquities landmark. While pending -- and if approved -- any changes to the Dome would have to first be approved by the Texas Historical Commission. That, he suggested, could make demolition all but impossible.

He also said the county can't simply let the Dome continue to deteriorate because it's obligated to maintain all of NRG Park's facilities, per the terms of its contract with its tenants, the Houston Texans the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.