The Insider

More for Les and the Rest. Brown finally figures out that spending equals power

If urban sports facilities are the modern equivalent of the Egyptian pyramids, an early taxpayer-supported construction extravaganza, then Houston will soon be on an even playing field with Giza. In short order we'll have a baseball stadium, a basketball arena and a football stadium, all built with a massive outlay of public debt. So flush will the town be with temples to worship the home run, the dunk and the forward pass that we can even afford to tear down Compaq Center for spare change and put the Astrodome in semiretirement as a rodeo venue and perhaps future greenhouse.

Professional sports team owners and their often greedy millionaire players rank right up there with junk-bond pirates on the public virtue meter, but the city is giving its all to provide their enterprises with custom-designed homes at highly favorable terms. Just goes to show that Houstonians really are some of the most hospitable -- if not always the most discriminating -- folks you'll ever meet.

At the same time, Metro and the city push ahead with two other massive public projects. There are plenty of doubters as to their economic, if not aesthetic, viability -- the $350 million Main Street starter train and the $170 million downtown convention center hotel. Add to that $387 million for the Port of Houston bonds and $120 million in county civil courthouse bonds that go before the voters in November, and you have an unprecedented orgy of highly visible public spending. And while these politicians will be safely gone by the time the check arrives, will the good times stick around long enough to retire the debt from the current binge?

Will sports arena construction give Brown a new Giza?
Scott Gilbert
Will sports arena construction give Brown a new Giza?

One downtown player figures the debt balloon is getting pumped past the safety limit and says, "The ability to finance the baseball stadium and the arena and the football stadium, well, in the best of times that is stretching it."

In most of his first term it has been difficult to figure out what Mayor Lee P. Brown really cares about, other than an occasional overseas jaunt and an addiction to long-winded rhetoric about neighborhood-oriented government. Now Brown has whipped out the credit cards and finally begun to exhibit a trait that sooner or later seems to consume most Houston mayors: the edifice complex. A key symptom is when you want a deal so bad that you wind up making a bad deal. After charging into the faltering downtown arena talks, Brown proved less than an ironfisted negotiator. Rockets owner Les Alexander got the downtown arena location he wanted, near land he controls for parking. He got control of the arena bookings and revenue, and just possibly the shirt off Mayor Brown's back.

Brown had to be rescued from himself by the Houston Sports Authority board. It appended an 11th-hour ticket tax to the plan to at least preserve a fig leaf of financial responsibility, even if it does come at the expense of the fans rather than the owner. Most humiliating is the spectacle of the Jack Rains-chaired HSA schooling Brown on fiscal prudence, something akin to getting ticketed for DWI by the town drunk.

By contrast, under similar pressure former mayor Bob Lanier nixed Oiler owner Bud Adams's bid for a downtown stadium and effectively ran Adams -- and the NFL -- out of town. Lanier had won election with the promise to kill another big-ticket public project, the monorail, which he did in short order. One suspects that had Brown been mayor back then, today we'd be taking the nearly empty overhead tram to the Galleria.

Lanier's appearance before a state legislative committee considering a high-speed train between Dallas and Houston in the early '90s provides a pithy anecdote about the value of all those advisory committees and studies bolstering the current projects and their future financial viability.

"There were all these consultants there with all their studies proving how the train would work and make money and be great for economic development," recalls a witness, who quotes Lanier's acerbic response: "I'll tell you this about the consultants. If somebody decided to build a pyramid, you could find a group of consultants who would give you a report saying, 'We'll have enough pharaohs die in America to fill 'em up.' "

Lanier's refusal to play ball with Bud or take the train was the exception to the rule. In Houston, free enterprise may be the rhetoric, but public construction is the reality that shapes the city, from the Ship Channel to the Astrodome to the Johnson Space Center to the latest stadium blitz. And Lanier often indulged his peculiar spending passions and fed his cronies through road building, infrastructure replacement and land development.

In Brown's case, the spending splurge is consolidating his term-limited political power to the point where no serious candidate is likely to venture onto the ballot against him, either this fall or two years hence, if he sticks around. The special-interest groups swarming around City Hall have no reason to waste money funding challengers to the status quo when there are so many tasty deals to pursue instead.

In fact, Brown's Daddy Warbucks campaign just makes him more immune to criticism. Any councilmembers who call for a tighter hand on the city pocketbook simply kill their own chances of getting support from the beneficiaries of that spending. Those are the political action committees representing the big law firms, the bond houses and the major engineering, architecture and construction companies.

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