Stadia Boys

A new panel is suiting up to customize the city's sports future in private

The Houston/Harris County Sports Facility Public Advisory Committee has a mission even bigger than its cumbersome title would suggest. Even as Mayor Bob Lanier was waving his fist in Washington last week about the injustices of the modern sports marketplace, the committee was undertaking a comprehensive look at how Houston can stay on the roster of major-league cities.

To remain a world-class city, goes the prevailing theory, Houston needs to score a new football team (the Oilers pretty much having been given up on as goners) and retain the Astros and Rockets. Not only that, but folks such as County Judge Robert Eckels and City Councilman John Kelley want the city to land such prestigious one-time sporting events as the Super Bowl and the Olympic Games. "Our intent in formulating this committee is to insure a competitive position for Houston/ Harris County in attracting the numerous worldwide sporting events to our area," echoes Lanier, who, along with Eckels, was responsible for appointing the new panel.

Committee members emphasize their slate is blank, that any and all possibilities will be on the table. But shy of a sea change in the current pro sports climate, it's hard to imagine how Houston can secure its sports future without building a new stadium -- or three.

NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue says the Astrodome has outlived its football usefulness and has suggested the city should erect a state-of-the-art gridiron venue ASAP. Drayton McLane, despite his sweetheart lease deal from the county, has also expressed discontent with the Dome, no doubt envious of the much-praised new ballparks and huge crowds in Baltimore and Cleveland. And if Les Alexander wants a new home for the Rockets when his lease with The Summit expires in 2003, as he has hinted he will, who would dare say no?

Even if yet another renovation of the Astrodome might satisfy one of the city's facility needs, the potential outlay of bucks to "insure a competitive position" could be staggering. Figure $250 million for a football or baseball stadium and possibly $150 million for a hoops arena. Add another $100 million for Astrodome improvements, on top of the $140 million still left to pay from previous redecorating jobs.

And if Houston really wants to shoot for the moon, the Olympics may only be a few hundred million dollars' worth of natatorium, track, soccer stadium and other infrastructure away: Salt Lake City landed the 1998 winter games after spending more than $279 million on spec to enhance its competitive position.

Advisory committee chairman Peter Coneway says the group will study the issues exhaustively before issuing any recommendations. And while he admits that pro franchise owners seem to be calling all the shots these days, Coneway insists stadium building is but one option on the committee's agenda. "To be competitive doesn't necessarily mean we need to do what everybody else has done," he says.

On the other hand, the committee bears a striking resemblance to a stadium builder's Dream Team. Coneway, a managing partner at Goldman Sachs, is a consummate dealmaker who has underwritten many a big-money bond issue, one of the more popular stadium financing options. Retired Texas Commerce banker Ben Love, the committee's vice chairman, brings his web of political connections as well as financial expertise. Attorneys Rufus Cormier of Baker and Botts and Vince Buckley of Liddell, Sapp, Zivley, Hill and LaBoon can sort through the legal tangles.

That's not all. Jerry Ellis of accounting giant Deloitte and Touche provides numbers expertise and can oversee any first-step feasibility studies that would be needed. B&G Engineering's Raul Romero can contribute preliminary design work. Car dealer Tommy Vaughn represents the powerful interests of the Livestock Show and Rodeo. There are black, Hispanic and Asian members to add political capital, there's regional balance, and there's even a PR guy to sell the package, Barry Silverman.

If the nature of the group's mission might seem to give its members a leg up on the millions to be reaped from any stadium deals, not to worry, says Coneway. All work is being done pro bono, with no expectation of future considerations. "Everybody on this committee is doing it because they care about this community, because they would like to make a contribution to see that we do what's right for this community," he says.

Still, most of the group's members have a potential interest in the outcome, some more directly than others. Buckley's law firm handled the purchase of the Astros for Drayton McLane and continues to represent him "on some things," according to Buckley. Firm partner Jeff Love, Ben's son, is a friend of McLane's and is spearheading the Astros' season-ticket drive.

Buckley doesn't view these connections as conflicts of interest because he isn't personally involved in the firm's work for McLane or the Astros. And, he says, others on the committee have done work for the Astros, Oilers and Rockets or are friends with the owners.

Or players. The latest addition to the committee is Randy Hendricks, a "superagent" with some of baseball's most notable stars in his stable. Among them are four current Astros, including high-priced pitchers Doug Drabek and Greg Swindell.

Coneway also dismisses the notion that the committee's relationships pose potential conflicts. With any group of this stature, "there are always things one can point to in terms of conflicts," he says. "That doesn't concern me a great deal."

Besides, he notes, the committee's role is purely advisory. The group will make recommendations, but nothing significant will happen without public approval. "Ultimately, it's going to get down to what the people want," he says.

Coneway says the committee will gauge popular sentiment throughout the process. Among other means, he says, the Chronicle has agreed to conduct opinion polls, which the committee will stir into the input mix. And while "creative funding techniques" may preclude the need to spend tax money on stadium projects, if such a need arises, the public will have the final say at the ballot box. "There's a high likelihood that we would need a referendum," he says.

Public involvement is really the key to the whole thing, Coneway concludes. "My attitude is that the more open we can be, the more public interest and support that we can have, the better," he says, "and the more likely the success of our group."

Only one hitch: though the stakes may eventually total half a billion or more, the committee's meetings are closed to the public. And only Coneway and Ben Love can speak for the group. "The rest of us are not supposed to have any comments," says Vince Buckley.

Coneway says it's not that the committee has anything to hide, it's just that opening the meetings could prove a logistical nightmare and disrupt the group's efforts. And the presence of the press might inhibit the ability of the committee to do its job. "We would probably invite Bud Adams to come before this committee, or invite Drayton McLane, or Les Alexander," he says. "That might be helpful to us. Would they feel awkward if they knew everything they said was going to be reported? I don't know."

Still, Coneway adds, he's willing to consider alternatives. "Anything we can do to further our communication with the press, the public, I'm for that, as long as it doesn't get in the way of the work that we've got to do."

Coneway suggested the Press take up the open-meetings issue with Eckels and Lanier. Eckels says he hadn't really thought about it and would entertain a more open arrangement. But he repeated the point that the committee is strictly advisory and that the public will be involved if and when Commissioners Court and/or Council act on the group's recommendations. "There will be ample opportunities for the public to participate," he says.

Asked why the meetings aren't open, Lanier issued this reply through spokeswoman Sarah Turner: "I've asked Peter Coneway to get together with the committee to receive information and testimony from the public and to develop an appropriate means of communication in return."

We were somewhat puzzled by that non-answer, but Lanier was on his way to Washington to tell Congress how much of a burden pro sports has become to the average taxpayer and was unavailable for clarification. "That's the mayor's statement," Turner snapped when asked for a translation. "You should just print it.

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