By Jeff Balke
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If Cameron Frye's arms were legs, he'd walk a hundred miles a day. Windmilling, they work like giant exclamation points in sync with Frye's voice, which he modulates according to the ever-changing topic at hand: the 43 times he's seen Phantom of the Opera, his federal indictment for insurance fraud, his newly unveiled plan to revitalize downtown by building a basketball arena and a first-of-its-kind multipurpose stadium with a retractable roof. The more excited he grows, the more frequently he exhibits a slight facial tic, which makes it seem as if he's constantly winking.
It's the stadium idea that has landed Frye in the local spotlight. Inclined to splashy gestures, he staged a June 21 press conference at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel to present his grand vision for downtown's dormant east side. Crafted by the prestigious Toronto architectural firm RAN International, the plan includes 12 new hotels arrayed around a central park, an "entertainment precinct" complete with a virtual reality theme park, a large underground parking zone and a huge "gateway" complex of office towers and retail space spanning Highway 59.
The plan's centerpiece is the stadium Frye says would resolve the city's ongoing sports-facility dilemma. To overcome the perception that multipurpose stadiums can't fulfill their functions as well as those dedicated to a single sport, RAN came up with a radical design -- baseball and football fields would slide in and out of the building on giant tracks, and the interior could be reconfigured any number of ways to create optimal conditions for football, baseball, concerts or other uses. The total price is pegged at $395 million.
Frye has promised to return in July with a financing package for the stadium; that package would mark the first phase in the overall plan. Citing the RAN-designed Sky Dome in Toronto as an example, he says the stadium will serve as a magnet for subsequent development. "Build it, and they will all come," he says expansively, arms reaching skyward.
The response from official circles has been lukewarm at best. Mayor Bob Lanier initially dismissed the multipurpose idea as unworkable, and County Judge Robert Eckels remains committed to locating a new baseball stadium near the Astrodome. Both guardedly say they're open to other ideas and would entertain discussions with Frye at a later date, but they're pressing forward with their own agenda. "I think we'll have a solid plan," says Eckels, who will present the basics by the end of this month.
Frye, who paid RAN $100,000 to design the redevelopment plan and says he's spent another $50,000 to cover expenses, believes the public should decide not only whether to build a new stadium or two, but where the facilities should go. Like many who have voiced their opinions on the matter, he says only one location really makes sense: downtown. And he's willing to keep spending money to trumpet that message until someone takes notice. "It's the very best thing for Houston," he says. "I think it's so obvious."
Okay. But who the hell is Cameron Frye?
The offices of Worldwide Insurance Coordinators and Consultants Ltd. have been on the 42nd floor of the Farb Building, the last skyscraper outpost heading west on San Felipe, for ten years. Founder, chairman and CEO Cameron Frye moved there shortly after he started the business, which was originally called North American Health Insurance Coordinators Inc. His modest apartment in the Mirage complex is visible from his office window, just a couple of blocks away.
Frye and his employees work in style. A sauna, tanning bed and shower are available in a back corner if anyone feels a need to unwind. Reflecting the boss' tastes, the interior is all plush black leather and wood with dashes of red here and there. Phantom of the Opera memorabilia crowds tabletops, and framed photos of Frye with Ronald Reagan, George Bush and Dan Quayle sit prominently in his office alongside his certificate of life membership in the Republican Presidential Task Force, though he says his sympathies lie more with the Democratic Party. In the conference room, "PUT IT DOWNTOWN" scrolls repeatedly across the screen of an electronic message board.
Though he's the sole stockholder of an obviously successful enterprise, Frye has been generous with the profits. He's flown his employees en masse to London, Hawaii and Toronto for company vacations. A theater buff, he'll occasionally treat his entire staff to a play -- in New York or Los Angeles -- that especially grabs him. "If he sees something that is entertaining and interesting, he wants to share it with people," says Mike DeGeurin, his attorney since 1987.
On the jaunt to London, Frye obtained tickets to Phantom of the Opera and was captivated by the production. So captivated, in fact, that he has since seen Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical 43 times. "That may be a little wacko," he allows. "But I do things that I like. I like seeing Phantom of the Opera."
Frye even formed a company, North American Ticket Outlet, solely to buy tickets to the Los Angeles production of Phantom starring Michael Crawford. Frustrated by an inability to purchase weekend orchestra seats, he couldn't understand why ticket brokers had them available -- at four times the list price.