Date: April 13, 2005

A piece of sports history will be added to the archives February 2006 when the Silverdome in Pontiac, Mich., closes its doors for the last time.

One of the first air-supported dome roof football stadiums in the country, the Silverdome was considered an engineering feat when the 80,325-seat stadium was built in 1975 as the home of the Detroit Lions. But in 2002, the Lions moved to Detroit and a new stadium called Ford Field.

Eric Walker, executive director of the Silverdome, said his three-person board of directors recently set February 2006 as the closing date in hopes of spurring the Pontiac City Council to make a decision on hiring a developer to transform the 123-acre site owned by the city.

“This process started three years ago and no decision has been made yet on whom to sell the property to,” he said. “The board made a recommendation over a year ago. Why would it take three years to sell a piece of property like this?”

Two local developers are being recommended and two different projects have been suggested – one would be a high-tech industrial park that could take advantage of the prime location of the stadium at the intersection of two major highways – M 59 and I-75. The other proposal is to use the stadium as an automotive showcase, similar to the merchandizing mart in Chicago, for auto suppliers and others in the car industry. If the building is demolished, the estimated cost is $10 million.

The massive domed building, which hosted Pope John Paul II with 93,173 in attendance for a 1987 mass, costs millions to operate each year. Walker estimated the budget has been about $1 million in the red each year since the Lions moved in 2002. “It costs $2 million just for the utilities to support the roof system,” he said. “Once you start out with that kind of money, it is hard to offset it.”

The building still hosts dirt shows, trade shows and the occasional concert, and has even tried some very unconventional events, such as creating a rollerblading rink and using the parking lot as a drive-in movie theater. The community appreciates the effort and readers of Real Detroit magazine voted the venue 'best drive-in movie theater' last year.

Pontiac City Councilman John Bueno, part of the committee negotiating the future use of the Silverdome property, considers the land one of the most valuable pieces of property in Michigan. The stadium cost $55.7 million to build and incorporates more than 52,000 cubic yards of concrete and 1,700 tons of structural steel. The roof covers 10 acres and is made of Telfon-coated Fiberglas. Stars from Elvis to Madonna to Michael Jackson and the Rolling Stones have played at the venue.

Walker's goal right now is to keep the venue booked through 2005. Currently high school graduations and a Daimler Chrysler spring training event are among bookings scheduled for the next three months. “The real selling point is the building itself,” he said. “If you've got a promoter, entertainers or an event that needs space, this is the first one you look at.” Walker said he plans to schedule as many events as possible but admits it will be a challenge. “It can be difficult because most promoters develop shows thinking long-term,” he said.

The industry isn't counting the venue out yet, however. “The future of the Silverdome isn't clear,” said Eric Cole, vice president of Booking for Clear Channel Entertainment Motor Sports. “We'll stay at the Silverdome as long as it's open. We've been at the Silverdome for more than 30 years and we've done great there. We've done really big business there this year.”

CCE puts on at least three dirt shows a year at the Silverdome. Other options for the events would be Ford Field or one of the venues of Palace Sports & Entertainment, which CCE has a relationship with.

When the doors are closed in February, Walker hopes to realize his personal dream of becoming a full-time minister. “It has been my heart's desire and I'll have time to pursue it then,” he said.

Interviewed for this story: Eric Walker, (248) 505-6164; Eric Cole, (630) 566-6280