A Houston real estate expert suggests that the icon that is the Astrodome should be restored to be used for energy conferences and other business needs. Photo courtesy of the city of Houston

Over the past several years, there's been a continuous conversation about the iconic Astrodome and what should be done with it. Dubbed the "Eighth Wonder of the World," Houstonians certainly don't want to see the Astrodome go, as it is a landmark deeply embedded into the hearts and minds of our beloved city.

Ideas have been thrown around, yet none of them seem to stick. The $105 million county-approved plan to renovate and build a multi-story parking garage that was approved under Judge Ed Emmett's court in 2018 has been placed on hold until further notice.

For the betterment of business

Houston is famously known as the world capital of the international energy industry, petroleum exploration, space exploration, medical communities and vast port systems across the Gulf. Our city hosts the annual Offshore Technology Conference, one of the largest oil and gas trade shows in the world, which features the industry's latest technology, products, networking opportunities, and more.

On average, more than 59,000 people attend OTC annually, with more than 15,000 attendees visiting from outside the U.S. In addition, Houston is also headquarters to more than 500 oil and gas exploration and production companies and has 10 refineries producing over 2.6 million barrels of crude oil daily.

Houston is a prime location to become a candidate for a new commodity exchange center housed inside the Astrodome. The current New York Mercantile Exchange, a commodity futures exchange owned and operated by CME Group of Chicago, is located in Manhattan, New York City. There are additional offices located in Boston, Washington, Atlanta, San Francisco, Dubai, London, and Tokyo. Surprisingly, Houston is not on that list. The NYMEX division handles billions of dollars' worth of futures and options contracts for energy products such as oil and natural gas.

Renovating and repurposing

Scalability is important to consider when discussing the repurposing of the Astrodome. Oil and gas is the only industry that could support the Astrodome's expenses and generate a profit. Other options such as turning it into a parking garage or a hike and bike trail would not be sufficient. Moving something as significant as the oil and gas futures exchange to Houston would provide NRG with the necessary monthly residual income to sustain the beloved Astrodome.

Another viable option would be to host the annual Offshore Technology Conference at the Astrodome. Oil and gas companies would set-up year-round exhibits on the floor of the Astrodome for convenience, providing an opportunity to showcase their equipment and product to potential clients.

To further capitalize on this concept, the Astrodome would offer corporate suite rentals for oil and gas companies to lease in order to provide a meeting space for people flying in and out of town. While the equipment and product would be on the floor for people to look at, NRG could bring in additional rental income from the suites.

To maintain the iconic nature of the building, signage would hang on the outside of the Astrodome, featuring the top oil and gas company's logos and placing a pump jack on top of it to emulate an oil rig.

The beauty of all of this is the simplicity of it. The hard part is done. Houston has become the oil and gas capital of the world over the last 100 years. The easy part is ahead; filling the Astrodome with oil and gas companies that want to do business.

Your move, Houston.

The first step toward making an endeavor like this possible is simply suggesting that it is. There's no need to fix what's already working in New York. We can use the same business model, bring it down to our great city, put the Astrodome back to good use, and truly become the petrochemical exchange capital of the world.

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Frank Blackwood is the senior director of Lee & Associates - Houston.

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Houston Methodist tech hub focuses on telemedicine training amid COVID-19 outbreak

virtual care

Houston Methodist's recently opened its new Center for Innovation's Technology Hub in January, and the new wing has already been challenged by a global pandemic — one that's validating a real need for telemedicine.

The 3,500-square-foot tech testing ground was renovated from an 18-room patient wing and showcases new digital health technologies like virtual reality, ambient listening, wearables, voice control, and more. The hub was focused on giving tours to medical professionals and executives to get them excited about health tech, but in the middle of March, Josh Sol, administrative director of Innovation and Ambulatory Clinical Systems at Houston Methodist, says they saw a greater need for the space.

"We turned the technology hub into a training center where physicians could come on site and learn telemedicine," Sol says. "We had some foresight from our leadership who thought that telemedicine was going to be heavily utilized in order to protect our patients who might go into isolation based on the outbreak."

The hub has trained over 500 physicians — both onsite and digitally. Sol says that at the start of March, there were 66 providers offering virtual care, and by March 25, there were over 900 providers operating virtually. On March 12, Houston Methodist had 167 virtual visits, Sol says, and on March 25, they had 2,421. This new 2,000-plus number is now the daily average.

"Telemedicine is here to stay now with the rapid adoption that just happened," Sol says. "The landscape will change tremendously."

Another way new technology has affected doctors' day-to-day work has been through tele-rounding — especially when it comes to interacting with patients with COVID-19.

"We are putting iPads in those rooms with Vidyo as the video application, and our physicians can tele-visit into that room," Sol says.

It's all hands on deck for the tech hub so that physicians who need support have someone to turn to. Sol says the hub used to have a two-person support team and now there are eight people in that role.

Sol says the iPads are a key technology for tele-rounding and patient care — and they are working with Apple directly to secure inventory. But other tech tools, like an artificial intelligence-backed phone system, an online symptom checker, and chatbots are key to engaging with patients.

"We're looking at how we can get our patients in the right place at the right time," Sol says. "It's very confusing right now. We're hoping we can streamline that for our patients."

The hub was designed so that in case of emergency, the display hospital rooms could be transitioned to patient care rooms. Sol says that would be a call made by Roberta Schwartz, executive vice president and chief innovation officer of Houston Methodist Hospital.

Documentary featuring Houston Nobel Prize winner to air on PBS

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Not all heroes wear capes. In fact, our current coronavirus heroes are donning face masks as they save lives. One local health care hero has a different disease as his enemy, and you'll soon be able to stream his story.

Dr. James "Jim" Allison won the 2018 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work in battling cancer by treating the immune system — rather than the tumor. Allison, who is the chair of Immunology and executive director of the Immunotherapy Platform at MD Anderson Cancer Center, has quietly and often, singularly, waged war with cancer utilizing this unique approach.

The soft-spoken trailblazer is the subject of an award-winning documentary, Jim Allison: Breakthrough, which will air on PBS and its streaming channels on Monday, April 27 at 9 pm (check local listings for channel information). Lauded as "the most cheering film of the year" by the Washington Post, the film follows Allison's personal journey to defeat cancer, inspired and driven by the disease killed his mother.

Breakthrough is narrated by Woody Harrelson and features music by Willie Nelson, adding a distinct hint of Texana. (The film was a star at 2019's South by Southwest film festival.) The documentary charts Alice, Texas native as he enrolls at the University of Texas, Austin and ultimately, cultivates an interest in T cells and the immune system — and begins to frequent Austin's legendary music scene. Fascinated by the immune system's power to protect the body from disease, Allison's research soon focuses on how it can be used to treat cancer.

Viewers will find Allison charming, humble, and entertaining: the venerable doctor is also an accomplished blues harmonica player. Director Bill Haney weaves Allison's personal story with the medical case of Sharon Belvin, a patient diagnosed with melanoma in 2004 who soon enrolled in Allison's clinical trials. Belvin has since been entirely cancer-free, according to press materials.

"We are facing a global health challenge that knows no boundaries or race or religion, and we are all relying on gifted and passionate scientists and healthcare workers to contain and ultimately beat this thing," said Haney, in a statement. "Jim Allison and the unrelenting scientists like him are my heroes – and I'll bet they become yours!"

Jim Allison: Breakthrough premieres on Independent Lens at 9 pm Monday, April 27, on PBS, PBS.org, and the PBS Video App.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.