Waiting for Get Done

The renovation of Miller Outdoor Theatre continues to crawl along

When Ace Tin and Sheet Metal Works, Inc. got a contract in 1996 to replace the siding at Miller Outdoor Theatre, Kathy Highsmith was thrilled. The job would give the small family business, founded by her grandfather in 1928, its biggest boost since Highsmith's dad had retired five years earlier and turned it over to his two daughters. "We thought it was a wonderful opportunity for us," Highsmith says.

Part of the major renovation of Miller that was to include a new roof, sound system and extensive landscaping, the siding work was to take about five months and be completed at the tail end of 1996 -- a perfect Christmas gift for her company, Highsmith thought. The siding, which because of exacting specifications could only be supplied by a company in Pennsylvania, arrived in August, and Ace Tin immediately started construction. Highsmith rented equipment and hired ten new employees to ensure the schedule would be met, and the first wall was finished in a few weeks. "We really geared up for it," she says.

Concerns about the siding, which had been scratched in transit, prompted a meeting in September with the supplier, Ace Tin and various people involved in the project, including several city and theater representatives. At the meeting, the supplier offered to fix any problems after the siding was installed -- even to repaint every panel, if necessary. According to Highsmith, that solution satisfied everyone present.

Unfortunately, everyone did not include Jerry Dinkins, who heads the Public Works Department's Special Projects Division and in that capacity manages the Miller renovations for the city. In November, after Ace Tin had finished three of four walls, Dinkins decided that the siding had to come down and be completely replaced. He froze all payments on the project, leaving Ace Tin unable to make payroll and stuck with thousands of dollars in unpaid bills from suppliers. Highsmith says she tried to discuss it with Dinkins, but was rebuffed. "He wouldn't talk," she says. "He wouldn't negotiate."

Dinkins, who didn't attend the meeting at which the siding agreement was reached, sticks by his decision and says he doesn't recall any conversations with anyone but the general contractor, Mesa Southwest Construction Co. "I don't know anything about Ace Tin," says Dinkins.

Highsmith snorts at Dinkins's alleged memory loss. "That is so untrue," she says. "He knows who I am. He spoke with me personally. He wrote me a letter."

As proof, Highsmith faxed the Press a copy of a letter Dinkins sent her in December 1996. "I regret the financial burden this situation has caused your company," wrote Dinkins. "However, at this time our position stands that the metal panels will not be accepted by the city of Houston."

Dinkins shrugs off the evidence. "If there's a letter, there's a letter," he says. "I don't recall it."

The siding issue remained unresolved for months. Eventually, the supplier agreed to replace the siding, which meant that all Ace Tin's work had to be torn down. By this point, Ace was out of the picture -- financial problems related to the siding deal had left the company with a skeletal staff and angry creditors -- and another company got the contract. More than a year after the scheduled completion date, the siding is still not completely installed -- and scratches are plainly visible on the new material.

The Parks and Recreation Department announced on February 2 that the first part of Miller Outdoor Theatre's 1998 season would have to be postponed because the renovations hadn't been completed. Blame it on bad weather, says parks deputy director Susan Christian. "We had an exorbitant amount of rainfall," Christian explains.

El Nino may in fact have contributed to the delays, but people with an intimate knowledge of the situation point to poor management of the theater renovations and numerous bungles during construction as far more significant. "For them to say the problem was inclement weather is like saying that Matt Bullard is responsible for what happens to the Houston Rockets," says a source who has worked on various parts of the project. "It's bullshit."

Indeed, the aborted first part of the season is but the latest in a series of delays that go back more than three years, well before El Nino began its reign. In September 1994, Parks Department Director Bill Smith announced that $1.5 million in parks funds would be dedicated to various improvements at the theater. The following April, he outlined the specifics -- a new roof, new bathrooms, drainage improvements, a souped-up sound system -- and set a time line. Work was to commence in November, after completion of the 1995 season, and be finished by the theater's 1996 opening in March.

By August, however, the lack of movement on the project caused Miller Outdoor Theatre advisory board chairman Genevieve Rousseve to write a letter to Smith. "To date, there is no indication that any bidding has begun," Rousseve wrote. "Our board is very concerned that another window of available construction time will be lost."

At some point, the city realized that the cost of the scheduled renovations would exceed $1.5 million, and the wish list was scaled back. Construction of the remaining items didn't begin in November. More than half a year later than planned, the crews finally got under way.

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