Sunday, April 14, 2013

Seizing the Astrodome opportunity to establish Houston's new global identity

The Chronicle published my op-ed this morning, although with an inaccurate headline (it would cover all technology and innovation, not just locals).  The headline above is the original one I proposed.  As I always do with such op-eds, I put a full copy on the blog here as a backup.  If you'd like to contact me to discuss it in more detail, I can be reached at tgattis (at) .  Looking forward to your comments.  If you're interested in the bigger picture behind this, see here: The Ultimate Houston Strategy.


"Houstonians love Houston. So do U.S. business owners. The rest of the world ... not so much. With lax zoning laws and plentiful space, Houston's low cost of living and doing business is a dream for American businesses and middle class workers, but the rest of the world pretends as though the city doesn't exist. The city has fewer international tourists than any other comparable global city."
  • Price WaterhouseCoopers survey of the best cities for business, life and innovation
Unfortunately for Houston, other cities have staked out the best tourism identities: family fun in Orlando, adult fun in Las Vegas or New Orleans, beaches in Miami or Honolulu, Hollywood glamour in Los Angeles, romance in Paris, culture in New York and so on. But there is a city Houston can learn from: Washington, D.C., a city where millions of families and school groups visit to learn about our country's history and culture through the great Smithsonian Institution and government institutions and monuments around the National Mall.

Every year, countless children are inspired toward careers in public service by this experience. But 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 ScienceThe 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). If it fails to act, based on the latest buzz, the Dome simply will be torn down for parking, and Houston's once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and historical icon will be lost forever. Imagine if Paris had torn down the Eiffel Tower after the World's Fair there, or if Rome had torn down its epic Coliseum?
Houston, we have our biggest problem since Apollo 13. It's time to come together to solve it.
The city has a great history of big visions and big projects that have paid off big time, from the Ship Channel to the Texas Medical Center to the Manned Spacecraft Center to the original construction of the Astrodome. Can we uphold that legacy and muster that civic will again for another round? Can we channel part of this great energy boom we're enjoying now into investments for our long-term prosperity? And most important, will a farsighted philanthropist step forward to champion a new vision for the Astrodome?
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?
As we bid for the 2017 Super Bowl, it's widely acknowledged that the time is now to decide on the fate of the Astrodome.
In two years, on the 50th anniversary of its opening, will we be celebrating a grand second life for this Houston icon, or will we be looking at a little golden plaque among a sea of parking spaces saying "The world's first domed stadium and Eighth Wonder of the World once stood here"?
Gattis writes the Houston Strategies and Opportunity Urbanist blogs.
UPDATE 4/24/22: this could also be integrated with the annual high school FIRST robotic championships which are held every year in Houston and bring thousands of top STEM students here!

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At 12:58 PM, April 14, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Send me email to...

...and I will send you my slide show for the Houston Engineering Museum that I have been showing around town.

Doug Leyendecker

At 1:06 PM, April 14, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Between the Texans and rodeo schedule somewhere between 15 and 20 out of 104 weekend days are blocked out for any worthwhile activity at a redeveloped tourist related Astrodome. This doesn't even count the weekday rodeo activities. Redeveloping the Astrodome is really impractical. It will probably cost more money on a retrofit than on something new that can showcase our talent. In addition, there is no walking distance added economic development in this area. The Astrodome is not the Parthenon or Coliseum. If NYC can tear down the house that Ruth built and not sweat a beat then we should quit beating this dead horse. An Engineering Museum is something Houston should obviously do but there are much better places to locate it.

At 4:14 PM, April 14, 2013, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

I think Rodeo and Texans days are great days to attract visitors to those events to such a museum. I know they have rights, but it can be worked out. I also know it would be expensive. But it's an iconic landmark building that will (hopefully) motivate philanthropists in this town and elevate the notoriety of the museum.

At 8:33 PM, April 14, 2013, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Astrodome was designed by engineers and not architects. It is an ugly building that has no sense of timelessness. Why saddle any valid concept with a building that is not economically feasible. My suspicion is that it is more economical to build any great building from scratch than to saddle the architects with trying to salvage a great project from the Astrodome. Put a great new museum in the museum district where it can achieve some synergy. There is no synergy between football, rodeos and museums. In a few more years, the dome will look like the Parthenon or the Coliseum. Tear it down.

At 9:36 AM, April 16, 2013, Anonymous Mike said...

The idea is perfect - what better to house an engineering and technology museum than one of the greatest engineering landmarks of the twentieth century? The building that tripled the existing world record for longest unsupported roof span! No other technology museum I know of can claim to be housed in a building that is itself a technological landmark known around the world.

Can't wait to look out under that vast dome and see airplanes, oil rigs, steam engines, a submarine or two...

Hard to believe the naysayers this city manages to produce. Someone above said that in a few years the Astrodome will look like the Parthenon or the Coliseum - and this was a reason for tearing it down!! You can't make this stuff up.

At 10:04 AM, April 16, 2013, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Thanks for the support, Mike. Very much appreciated. Fingers crossed we find a philanthropist...

At 4:45 PM, April 17, 2013, Blogger Michael said...

>> In a few more years, the dome will look like the Parthenon or the Coliseum. Tear it down.

Guess they should tear down the Parthenon and Colosseum too?


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