A struggle over Westheimer's street fest reveals a way to hold city celebrations hostage

From the windows of his paper-strewn second floor office, businessman John Flores can see where, traditionally, Westheimer's biannual street festival has begun. Through the glass, he could watch crowds coursing up and down the sidewalk, stopping at crafts booths, buying some food, buying a beer and adding a considerable amount of color to the area.

But from his windows Flores could also observe as the festival devolved into what, at times, appeared little better than a street brawl. It had gotten so bad that last April he heard rumors that the city, tired of having to police drunks and clean up the mess left behind when all the revelers had wandered away, was fed up with the whole affair and had about decided to shut it down.

If the Westheimer Street Festival was to be saved, Flores heard, then someone was going to have to come in, organize it and give it some structure. That someone, Flores now says, was him and a group of Westheimer business people he helped bring together. "We were sitting around a table right here," Flores says, "and I said, 'I'll put in $5,000 of my own money. How much will you put in?' And we raised $10,000 right there for security and other things. We set up a corporation, called it the Westheimer Street Festival Corporation, and believe it or not, we pulled it off."

Last October's affair, he proudly points out, was widely considered the most successful street festival in memory. Nobody was arrested, everything ran smoothly, the streets were cleaned up and left pristine in the aftermath, and city officials even gave the event their stamp of approval.

But at the same time, Flores says, there was a problem, one that he even has a name for: Sirron Kyles, a local music and festival promoter. Kyles, insists Flores, was brought in simply to help gather together bands for some of the festival's stages. But instead, says Flores and some other Westheimer merchants, Kyles ended up hijacking the entire celebration itself. So when Flores looks out his second-floor windows at the event this year, what he'll see are booths and activities that owe their allegiance to Sirron Kyles.

"It's pure extortion," Flores fumes. "No, it's street-tortion."
Kyles, for his part, concurs with Flores' memory of events -- up to a point. The festival was about to go under, he agrees, and a group of Westheimer merchants organized to save it. But, he adds, they had no idea what they were doing, which is why he was brought in. It was his professional expertise, city contacts and general savvy that made last October's Westheimer Street Festival go off as smoothly as it did, he says. And he committed to help out, he claims, on the understanding that if the festival went well, then he would be used to promote future festivals.

"That's why I agreed to accept 15 percent of the profits -- which I never got -- when I normally won't do anything for less than one-third plus expenses," says Kyles. "But they weren't honest with me. I think all John Flores really wanted to do was see how I operated and then take that and run things himself. I came up with the concept. I came up with the way to save this festival. And then he wanted to just boot me out. It wasn't going to work that way."

But whoever is to be believed -- and a conversation with Flores and then Kyles can seem like a replay of Rashomon, each giving similar facts but drawing completely distinct meanings from them -- the struggle between the two groups that want the Westheimer Street Festival to belong to them alone has turned up a glitch in a little considered city ordinance that could, if someone wanted to use it that way, disrupt almost every major festival held in the city.

The ordinance in question is the one that allows an individual or a group to close streets for an event. It was the lack of street closure that, among other things, had caused problems in the recent past for the Westheimer Street Festival. While events were taking place on the properties fronting Westheimer, and large crowds were milling about, traffic continued to move up and down the street, setting the scene for possible tragedy at worst and major annoyances at best.

The money that Flores raised from his business neighbors last October was in large part to help pay for street closing. According to Toni Robinson, special events coordinator for the city's department of Traffic Management and Maintenance, to get a street closing permit all someone has to do is complete an application showing that the streets closed off won't shut off an area completely; pay a fee for the city's cost in putting up and removing barricades or have an agreement with a private company to do the work; provide a certificate of at least $1 million worth of liability insurance naming the city as a co-insured party; agree to clean up the area afterward; and, finally, indicate that you have security in place to man the barricades and prevent cars or trucks from getting on the closed streets.

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