Hard Sell

That credibility gap may be too wide for Proposition One backers to traverse

That raises another interesting question: all things being equal, should we feel better about helping Drayton McLane cut his losses than we did about padding Bud Adams' bottom line? At least the Oilers' owner had a fan base with which to leverage his demands. Conversely, McLane's plaint that the Astros would stop hemorrhaging cash if he had a new stadium is disingenuous, at best. Baseball is the least popular major-league sport in town, a distant third behind football and the Rockets among local fans, according to the Chronicle's recent poll.

But McLane anticipates that once he raises the cost of everything associated with attending a baseball game, he'll need only 5,000 more spectators per game to reverse his negative cash flow.

From a taxpayer's standpoint, however, one really needn't look back beyond this season to understand how speculative the stadium proposal really is. Months before Opening Day, McLane proclaimed that the Astros absolutely needed 30,000 paying spectators at every home game this season. A desperate season-ticket campaign called "Step Up to the Plate" that was engineered by many of the same corporate interests now driving the stadium proposal failed miserably. By September, in the thick of a pennant race, the Astros still couldn't attract much more than their season-long average of 25,000 per game.

The only thing that distinguishes Drayton McLane from Bud Adams is a more palatable personality, which, when you get right down to it, isn't a good enough reason to build the Astros a new stadium. Besides, McLane hardly had the city's sports fans in mind in 1994, when he refused to support a downtown stadium for the Oilers. Ostensibly, he was worried that the loss of the football team would hurt the Astrodome, which he operates. No such concerns burden the Astros' owner today. In fact, though the Dome has now lost its second-ranking tenant, McLane could care less about its viability.

Should Prop One pass, the county has agreed to buy out the remaining 27 years of McLane's management lease for $15 million, and will waive his $1 million annual rent while the new stadium is built. The county will also pick up some $1.5 million in Dome renovations that were McLane's responsibility.

Down one professional sports franchise, though, the city's business interests and elected officials are willing to forgive an awful lot of Drayton McLane. Take the question of who's responsible for paying back bond buyers should tax revenues generated by the stadium be insufficient to cover debt service.

Harris County Judge Robert Eckels believes he can sell the construction bonds without promising that the county's general fund revenues would be available in the event of default. You don't need to consult an investment banker to know that's an assumption Eckels has no business making. Just look back two years, when Adams was trying to sell his stadium proposal. No less an authority than Vinson & Elkins attorney Bob Randolph, who has performed extensive bond work for the city, said that county taxpayers would indeed have the "moral obligation" to guarantee the bondholders' investment in an Oilers stadium. (That admission -- front-page news -- had to be a painful one for Randolph: he was on the Oilers' payroll as outside legal counsel at the time.)

For the Astros and Drayton McLane, however, stadium backers are prepared to act now and answer questions later. Unfortunately for them, Lanier's stare-down with Adams imbued voters with a healthy skepticism. You can bet that before they make the leap of faith required to punch the "yes" hole on November 5, most of them will want an answer to the question: "What's in it for me?"

It's McClung's job to figure out the right response, something he failed to do recently on the proposed HISD bond issue. That's important because, just as he did as the chief consultant to the School House Committee, McClung has to light on something that will sink in with two philosophically opposed constituencies: conservative Anglo suburbanites and Hispanic and African-American inner-city dwellers.

Before the HISD referendum, the pro-bond committee determined that its best chance for winning rested with inner-city and minority voters, whose children make up the overwhelming majority of the district's students. Accordingly, McClung concentrated the committee's $200,000 campaign inside the Loop.

With a fraction of the funds available to McClung, opposition gadfly Barry Klein found an appreciative audience among older, wealthier voters. If that constituency couldn't be convinced that more money would improve the schools and quality of education within HISD, it's quite likely they won't agree -- or much care -- that construction of a new stadium will resurrect downtown.

Klein has also come out against the stadium proposal, albeit with a little less bombast than radio personality Dan Patrick. Klein and Patrick will find a lot of like-minded folks among those who helped defeat the $390 million school bond issue. And an even deeper anti-stadium fervor can be detected among HISD supporters -- particularly the "soccer moms" who, disheartened by the bond issue defeat and faced with the continued inattention to their children's schools, are incredulous that anyone would think a tax-subsidized ballpark is a worthy priority.

Indeed, there are no shortage of incentives to vote against Proposition One.
In Kingwood, residents angry over the city's attempt to annex their affluent enclave have vowed to oppose any issue important to Houston proper. Other homeowners in the outlying areas -- who aren't opposed to an occasional visit downtown and who'll likely have the disposable income to cover the anticipated hike in the price of everything from tickets to hot dogs -- are suspicious of the subsidization of pro sports.

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