Paper: Whittier Daily News, The (CA)
Title: City's image makeover continues
Date: January 25, 2004
Section: Sports

As downtown work crews hustled to pave streets and clean up parks and
sidewalks in recent days, this city is taking one last deep breath
and holding it as it prepares to welcome visitors and media from
around the country for next Sunday's Super Bowl XXXVIII.For a city
that hasn't held the nation's eye like this since it hosted the
Republican National Convention more than a decade ago, it's a chance
to change its image of an aesthetically and culturally vacant place
that's best known for its traffic, smog, oppressive summer humidity
and the Enron scandal.

Or, if it fails, it will demonstrate why the NFL has waited 30 years
to return its championship game here.

"The Super Bowl is viewed by the city fathers as a great
opportunity to present a different picture of Houston than was
portrayed during Enron,' said Oliver Luck, a former quarterback for
the Houston Oilers and the CEO of the Harris County- Houston Sports
Authority. "Unlike other cities, we haven't had this game in a
long time. There's a strong sense that it gives Houston a major
platform we haven't had in a long time.'

It's a game that's being staged here in large part as a formal thank
you to Houston Texans owner Bob McNair, who paid a record $700
million franchise fee to wrest an expansion franchise away from Los
Angeles in 1999, and to the city for building $450 million Reliant
Stadium mostly with public funds.

Super Bowls, with their influx of corporate dollars, can generate as
much as $300 million for a community but Houston is looking to do
more than win back money it has laid out. It's hoping to join the big
leagues of American cities.

After decades of sprawl that left downtown Houston empty after 5
p.m., more people are moving back into the city in old buildings that
are being converted to lofts. A light- rail line has been put in.
There are burgeoning theater and museum districts and a new
convention center. And a state-of-the-art baseball stadium and
basketball arena have helped give downtown some life after dark.

In recent months, there has been effort to make cosmetic changes.
Empty buildings have been knocked down or boarded up, volunteer crews
collect trash on weekends, and thousands of trees have been planted.

Yet there is some question as to how fundamentally Houston can
change. Despite billions in infrastructure investment, much of it
fueled by the energy boom of the late 90s, is it simply mutton
dressed as lamb?

Houston is not the kind of entertainment draw as the site of the
last two Super Bowls, New Orleans and San Diego, nor does it have the
weather of next year's game site, Jacksonville, Fla. Also, the
matchup between two defensive-minded teams, New England and Carolina,
could diminish the number of expected visitors, which is about
100,000.

"People who live in Houston apparently love it,' said Kathy
Schloessman, the president of the L.A. Sports and Entertainment
Commission. "I visited once and I would never go back there
except under duress. They were certainly in line with a new owner, a
new team and a new stadium, but the guest experience is another
story. You're going to have a lot of people staying 30 to 40 minutes
outside the city. It could be a big nightmare.'

If there's pessimism elsewhere about how this Super Bowl will come
off, there is a palpable sense of optimism here. And, at least in the
sports world, it's easy to see why.

Houston is undergoing a sports renaissance. Along with the Super
Bowl, the baseball All-Star Game will be here in July. In addition to
the Mid-Summer Classic, there is also talk of hosting a Fall Classic
after the Astros lured future Hall of Fame pitcher Roger Clemens out
of retirement earlier this month to team with another former Yankees
star, Andy Pettitte.

Meanwhile, the Rockets have one of the world's most recognizable
players, Yao Ming, and one of the NBA's best coaches, Jeff Van Gundy.
And, this being Texas, where football is king, the expansion Texans
have sold out every game in their two-year NFL history.

Most significant, though, are the three new buildings the teams play
in. In an era when providing tax dollars to build pro facilities is
viewed increasingly as corporate welfare, Houston did it three times
in three years at an upfront cost of about $1.2 billion. Each time
was with voter approval.

How?

"The short answer is good politics,' said Rice political
science professor Dr. Robert Stein. As Houston's demographics changed
from overwhelmingly white to a plurality with significant black and
Hispanic populations, it became necessary to build coalitions to get
any deals done.

"It wasn't difficult to sell when it's sold the proper way,'
Stein said. "If you want to pass referendums you need to have
everybody on board. You can't have organized opposition. These things
are easy to defeat and hard to pass.'

Another consideration, Stein said, is the Houston ethos of a place
where people come to do business, where there are no city or state
taxes, no zoning laws and often no obstruction to those with good
ideas and initiative.

"Nobody comes to Houston to retire or to vacation,' Stein said.
"Houston's a place where you go to make a lot of money and then
leave. You can see how traffic gets better and worse as a function of
the economy. If people don't have a job, they leave.'

The catalyst for the new buildings came in 1997, when the Oilers
with flagging attendance and stuck in an unfavorable position as the
secondary tenant in the Astrodome left for Tennessee.

"It wasn't as much of a shock as the Browns leaving Cleveland,
but all of a sudden people looked in the mirror,' Luck said.
"Here they were in Texas, where football has this mythology and
now they've lost an NFL team.'

Then Astros owner Drayton McLane, unhappy with the Astrodome, made
rumblings about moving to Virginia if he didn't get a new stadium.
Rockets owner Les Alexander followed with noises about inadequate
suites and facilities.

Soon new stadiums were viewed less as a handout than as an
investment. Voters approved measures that call for the venues to be
financed mainly through Harris County hotel and rental car taxes the
argument being that it shifts the burden from citizens to visitors.

There are also ticket and parking taxes, rent from the teams who
play there, fees from naming rights and, in the case of the football
stadium and basketball arena, a secondary tenant.

"I kind of felt like, gee, once we get a baseball stadium
that's it,'said Billy Burge, a property developer who is chairman of
the HCHSA. "Most cities, if people get one, they say we need
street repairs, why are we giving money to these rich owners. Timing
was everything and we happened to have perfect timing.'

One concern is whether there are enough corporate dollars to keep
the seats filled. Tickets to see the Rockets are the third-most
expensive in the NBA, according to Team Marketing Report's fan cost
index, while the Astros were seventh in Major League Baseball and the
Texans 15th last year.

"There's not much buyer's remorse,' Luck said. "When you
ask the corporate community to buy suites, the Rockets have suffered
from being the third team to go on- line with a new facility. But if
you're asking are there enough discretionary dollars to go around, we
think the answer is yes.'

The Texans, despite two losing seasons, have been such a hit that
they were rated the seventh most valuable franchise in sports last
year by Forbes.

"It's the best investment I've had,' McNair said. "A lot
better than the stock market. This is a wealthy community.'

The Texans have season-ticket holders in 42 different states and six
different countries. Trish Nimr, a New York transplant who opened a
Mid-Town bar last year with her husband, says one of her clients
commutes home to Michigan on weekend, and there are 8-10 Porsches in
her 25-unit loft building.

"A lot of couples have cars they take to work and then a third
car for the weekend,' Nimr said. "There's a lot of money here.'

Perhaps it's the city's boom-bust history, but there is also plenty
of skepticism of what will happen when the Super Bowl is over.

Visitors will no longer be discouraged by hotel clerks or cabbies
from taking Interstate 45 from the city's main airport to downtown so
as not to look at the gaudy billboards, seedy shops and mawkish signs
that line the feeder roads along the highway.

Nor will political officials lean on downtown landowners to knock
down eyesores sooner rather than later.

"It's wonderful that they're doing all this work,' Nimr said.
"But what about two weeks from now?'

It's critical that it doesn't stop, say some leaders. If Houston is
to thrive and become anything more than a place to make a quick buck,
it must change. To successfully diversify away from the volatile oil,
gas and energy markets and into tourism, it must consider quality of
life arts, entertainment, culture and aesthetics.

"On (I-)45, you don't have mountains to look at, you have
billboards,' said Ric Campo, chairman of development company Camden
Trust, who also has an office in Newport Beach. "When freeways
were built, nobody ever thought about how they'd look long term.
People are finally starting to say let's look at spending money on
architecture, on planting. We've got a bayou system here that's
underutilized. It's late in the game, but you've got to start
somewhere.'

With the national attention of the Super Bowl, the people of Houston
will get a better idea of just where they stand in the rest of the
country's eyes. Beauty, they may soon learn, is in the eye of the
beholder.

Billy Witz can be reached at (818) 713-3607. Keyword:HOUSTON

dropCity's image makeover continues

continued line:Continued from B1 Texans owner Bob McNair, who paid
a record $700 million franchise fee to wrest an expansion franchise
away from Los Angeles in 1999, and to the city for building $450
million Reliant Stadium mostly with public funds.

Super Bowls, with their influx of corporate dollars, can generate as
much as $300 million for a community but Houston is looking to do
more than win back money it has laid out. It's hoping to join the big
leagues of American cities.

After decades of sprawl that left downtown Houston empty after 5
p.m., more people are moving back into the city in old buildings that
are being converted to lofts. A light-rail line has been put in.
There are burgeoning theater and museum districts and a new
convention center. And a state-of-the-art baseball stadium and
basketball arena have helped give downtown some life after dark.

In recent months, there has been effort to make cosmetic changes.
Empty buildings have been knocked down or boarded up, volunteer crews
collect trash on weekends, and thousands of trees have been planted.

Yet there is some question as to how fundamentally Houston can
change. Despite billions in infrastructure investment, much of it
fueled by the energy boom of the late 90s, is it simply mutton
dressed as lamb?

Houston is not the kind of entertainment draw as the site of the
last two Super Bowls, New Orleans and San Diego, nor does it have the
weather of next year's game site, Jacksonville, Fla. Also, the
matchup between two defensive-minded teams, New England and Carolina,
could diminish the number of expected visitors, which is about
100,000.

"People who live in Houston apparently love it,' said Kathy
Schloessman, the president of the L.A. Sports and Entertainment
Commission. "I visited once and I would never go back there
except under duress. They were certainly in line with a new owner, a
new team and a new stadium, but the guest experience is another
story. You're going to have a lot of people staying 30 to 40 minutes
outside the city. It could be a big nightmare.'

If there's pessimism elsewhere about how this Super Bowl will come
off, there is a palpable sense of optimism here. And, at least in the
sports world, it's easy to see why.

Houston is undergoing a sports renaissance. Along with the Super
Bowl, the baseball All-Star Game will be here in July. In addition to
the Mid-Summer Classic, there is also talk of hosting a Fall Classic
after the Astros lured future Hall of Fame pitcher Roger Clemens out
of retirement earlier this month to team with another former Yankees
star, Andy Pettitte.

Meanwhile, the Rockets have one of the world's most recognizable
players, Yao Ming, and one of the NBA's best coaches, Jeff Van Gundy.
And, this being Texas, where football is king, the expansion Texans
have sold out every game in their two-year NFL history.

Most significant, though, are the three new buildings the teams play
in. In an era when providing tax dollars to build pro facilities is
viewed increasingly as corporate welfare, Houston did it three times
in three years at an upfront cost of about $1.2 billion. Each time
was with voter approval.

How?

"The short answer is good politics,' said Rice political
science professor Dr. Robert Stein. As Houston's demographics changed
from overwhelmingly white to a plurality with significant black and
Hispanic populations, it became necessary to build coalitions to get
any deals done.

"It wasn't difficult to sell when it's sold the proper way,'
Stein said. "If you want to pass referendums you need to have
everybody on board. You can't have organized opposition. These things
are easy to defeat and hard to pass.'

Another consideration, Stein said, is the Houston ethos of a place
where people come to do business, where there are no city or state
taxes, no zoning laws and often no obstruction to those with good
ideas and initiative.

"Nobody comes to Houston to retire or to vacation,' Stein said.
"Houston's a place where you go to make a lot of money and then
leave. You can see how traffic gets better and worse as a function of
the economy. If people don't have a job, they leave.'

The catalyst for the new buildings came in 1997, when the Oilers
with flagging attendance and stuck in an unfavorable position as the
secondary tenant in the Astrodome left for Tennessee.

"It wasn't as much of a shock as the Browns leaving Cleveland,
but all of a sudden people looked in the mirror,' Luck said.
"Here they were in Texas, where football has this mythology and
now they've lost an NFL team.'

Then Astros owner Drayton McLane, unhappy with the Astrodome, made
rumblings about moving to Virginia if he didn't get a new stadium.
Rockets owner Les Alexander followed with noises about inadequate
suites and facilities.

Soon new stadiums were viewed less as a handout than as an
investment. Voters approved measures that call for the venues to be
financed mainly through Harris County hotel and rental car taxes the
argument being that it shifts the burden from citizens to visitors.

There are also ticket and parking taxes, rent from the teams who
play there, fees from naming rights and, in the case of the football
stadium and basketball arena, a secondary tenant.

"I kind of felt like, gee, once we get a baseball stadium
that's it,'said Billy Burge, a property developer who is chairman of
the HCHSA. "Most cities, if people get one, they say we need
street repairs, why are we giving money to these rich owners. Timing
was everything and we happened to have perfect timing.'

One concern is whether there are enough corporate dollars to keep
the seats filled. Tickets to see the Rockets are the third- most
expensive in the NBA, according to Team Marketing Report's fan cost
index, while the Astros were seventh in Major League Baseball and the
Texans 15th last year.

"There's not much buyer's remorse,' Luck said. "When you
ask the corporate community to buy suites, the Rockets have suffered
from being the third team to go on-line with a new facility. But if
you're asking are there enough discretionary dollars to go around, we
think the answer is yes.'

The Texans, despite two losing seasons, have been such a hit that
they were rated the seventh most valuable franchise in sports last
year by Forbes.

"It's the best investment I've had,' McNair said. "A lot
better than the stock market. This is a wealthy community.'

The Texans have season-ticket holders in 42 different states and six
different countries. Trish Nimr, a New York transplant who opened a
Mid-Town bar last year with her husband, says one of her clients
commutes home to Michigan on weekend, and there are 8-10 Porsches in
her 25-unit loft building.

"A lot of couples have cars they take to work and then a third
car for the weekend,' Nimr said. "There's a lot of money here.'

Perhaps it's the city's boom- bust history, but there is also plenty
of skepticism of what will happen when the Super Bowl is over.

Visitors will no longer be discouraged by hotel clerks or cabbies
from taking Interstate 45 from the city's main airport to downtown so
as not to look at the gaudy billboards, seedy shops and mawkish signs
that line the feeder roads along the highway.

Nor will political officials lean on downtown landowners to knock
down eyesores sooner rather than later.

"It's wonderful that they're doing all this work,' Nimr said.
"But what about two weeks from now?'

It's critical that it doesn't stop, say some leaders. If Houston is
to thrive and become anything more than a place to make a quick buck,
it must change. To successfully diversify away from the volatile oil,
gas and energy markets and into tourism, it must consider quality of
life arts, entertainment, culture and aesthetics.

"On (I-)45, you don't have mountains to look at, you have
billboards,' said Ric Campo, chairman of development company Camden
Trust, who also has an office in Newport Beach. "When freeways
were built, nobody ever thought about how they'd look long term.
People are finally starting to say let's look at spending money on
architecture, on planting. We've got a bayou system here that's
underutilized. It's late in the game, but you've got to start
somewhere.'

With the national attention of the Super Bowl, the people of Houston
will get a better idea of just where they stand in the rest of the
country's eyes. Beauty, they may soon learn, is in the eye of the
beholder.

Billy Witz can be reached at (818) 713-3607.