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Despite what the campaign says, that new arena will cost plenty

Arena supporters point out that the tax is actually a user fee, which they insist means the average taxpayer won't ante up a dime for the arena. The prospect of arena-goers shouldering the majority of the facility's costs may indeed be more palatable to voters than charging everyone for a building that many will never use. But the Rockets are already priced out of many people's budgets: Add a parking fee (all of which goes to Alexander, except for the tax) and a ticket tax, and others will drop out of the pool as well. Nor will the prospect of paying Alexander to park at a circus or concert event (free at the Compaq Center), plus pay ticket taxes, sit well with the average consumer.

Those tangible costs, however they're labeled, may not be the only ones that result from the arena deal as written. In particular, the ability of the city to attract a National Hockey League team, at least one owned by anybody but Alexander, will be shot. This effectively squeezes out Houston Aeros owner Chuck Watson, who has tried to bring in an NHL franchise for several years. Now Watson is funding a campaign against the new arena. "It makes it economically unfeasible to bring in a franchise under those terms and conditions," says John Blaisdell, president and CEO of the firm that manages the Watson family's private investments.

The deal lets an NHL operator collect game-day revenues and allows the city to offer free rent to the team, but the key items that make running a major-league franchise viable are controlled exclusively by Alexander. He gets the arena naming rights. He gets the big sponsors and advertisers. He gets most of the cash from the luxury suites. "They've given him all the money," Blaisdell says.

The Aeros organization laid out the facts to city officials, but to no avail. "It didn't really matter what we had to say," Blaisdell laments. "They had already made up their minds what they were going to do."

Just why Mayor Brown decided to shut Watson out of the negotiations remains a mystery -- the mayor's office had not offered an explanation by press time. But Alexander has made no secret of his refusal to share a new palace with Watson or anyone else [see "Greed Head," by Bob Burtman, February 13, 1997]. Blaisdell says that with Alexander there was no room for compromise. "[He] had to have everything, or there was no deal."

Alexander's generous contributions to Brown's election campaigns may also have swayed the mayor. But for the city to knuckle to Alexander and spurn Watson, an aboveboard owner who has maintained a reputation for honesty and integrity while providing a winning product on the ice, makes no sense. "The farther we get into this, the worse this deal looks," says Bettencourt. "This is poor public policy. We can do better than this."

E-mail Bob Burtman at bob_burtman@houstonpress.com.

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