The Insider

Allen says four news hands have been hired to edit sections for the News. They are Sue Davis, a veteran of KTRH radio, Channel 8 and Channel 51; Marene Gustin, a 51 features producer; Scott E. Berrett, a 51 business reporter; and former Post sportswriter Jim Molony.

We can't vouch for Allen's journalistic credentials, but we do know his resume includes a stay in a federal prison in Florida last year for defrauding the Butler & Binion law firm by bribing an employee to sign an inflated truck transport contract.

Allen claims a 13-lawyer partnership is providing the financial backing for the new paper. He declined to reveal names, but he did say lawyer Don Forester, who fronted the previous effort, is no longer associated with the venture.

Allen is promising a mix of audio, video and print in the new medium. That may be helped along by a working arrangement with Channel 51. Allen says he and the news station's owner, Doug Johnson, are working out the details. (Johnson did not return a call from The Insider.)

Allen's isn't the only on-line publication slated to debut in Houston in 1997: Microsoft is launching a chain of entertainment-oriented electronic papers here and in other cities around the country using a "sidewalk" theme.

Chris Hearne, who was publisher of the Press under previous ownership and most recently the publisher of Mexico Business magazine, has signed on with Microsoft to direct creation of Sidewalk Houston. Hearne, who's currently enrolled in the Microsoft re-education camp at the software giant's compound outside Seattle, says Sidewalk Houston will have a staff of up to 20 employees and will hit the electronic streets in the second half of next year.

Unlike the Houston Daily News and its mysterious backers, there's no doubt that Bill Gates is capable of funding the venture indefinitely. Hearne describes the Microsoft start-up as "a massive nationwide campaign," something akin to watching a NASA mission unfold.

Presumably not the final Challenger flight.

Hope They Stock It with Five-Pound Bass
With all the plans to revive downtown, it's understandable that at least one group seems to have slipped into the game under radar. The Cotswold Foundation, a group spearheaded by retired Shell CEO John Bookout, developer-tort reformer Richard Weekley and construction company owner Leo Linbeck Jr., among others, has grand plans for the north end of downtown.

The name "Cotswold" is taken from a bucolic, pastoral area of old England noted for charming urban villages and artist havens. According to a prospectus, the local Cotswoldians want to restore vitality to an area "that notwithstanding some worthy individual projects, has been in economic and social decline for many years."

They are targeting the blocks between Commerce Street south to Capitol, and Louisiana east to U.S. Highway 59, and are proposing "water gardens" on Market Square and Congress, a downtown security force and tree-lined pedestrian walkways.

Gretchen Weis, a spokeswoman for the foundation, had little to say about the details of the project, which will apparently be funded by $12 million in philanthropic donations, plus another $18 million in privately issued bonds presented "as a gift" to the city.

"We are in developmental stages at this point. We hope to make a public announcement in mid-January, but at this point it's really kind of premature to talk about it."

The Cotswold plan has not been approved by either the city or the county, but one governmental type who's seen the proposal is dubious:

"What they wanted to do was shut down Congress, basically, and put wide sidewalks, a lot of trees and a river down the middle of it. I'm not joking."

Our skeptic says it's unclear whether the river would "run straight, or zigzag."

When Cotswold does go public, it's going to have some explaining to do to those who are already involved in redeveloping downtown.

"There's no way that can happen," exclaimed Karen Carr, the economic development director of Market Square, who had never heard of the Cotswold Foundation. "There's no room to build any water gardens."

Uncharacteristically Silent
Among the attendees at lawyer Jim Moriarty's Christmas party last week were an interviewer and camera crew for Dateline NBC, who trailed Sylvester Turner around the gathering collecting video for an upcoming feature on the former mayoral candidate's successful libel lawsuit against Channel 13 and reporter Wayne Dolcefino.

The NBC folks interviewed Turner and his attorney, Ron Franklin, but when they came calling on Dolcefino for a chat, the normally voluble reporter clammed up. Likewise, Channel 13 refused to provide NBC with samples of Wayne's other investigative reports.

Channel 13 attorney Chip Babcock indicates he advised Dolcefino -- whose testimony for the trial of Turner's lawsuit was quite the spectacle -- not to speak with Dateline because the reporter and Channel 13 are appealing the jury verdict against them.

Babcock, who did sit for an interview, admits doubts as to how NBC will treat Dolcefino.

"As a news organization we could hardly object or criticize somebody for covering something," says Babcock on behalf of his clients. "[But] if they've got a take on it and hammer us, I guess we'll be mad."

Just like many of the subjects of Dolcefino's stories, no doubt.

'Tis the season to give, so don't forget The Insider at 624-1483 (voice), 624-1496 (fax) or

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