"Clearing House" Sweepstakes

Urban League deal-maker scores in Aramark stadium contract

Named in the same spirit is Grand Slam Joint Ventures, a black consortium represented by investment banker Gerald Smith, and including Houston Defender publisher Sonny Messiah Giles, whose paper strongly supported the stadium. Also in the mix is influential minister Kirbyjon Caldwell and barbecue restaurateur Harlon Brooks. These heavy hitters got about 7 percent of the minority portion with a $359,320 investment.

The Hispanic contingent is represented by Hispanic Sports Group L.P., featuring former city councilwoman Gracie Saenz and including eastside restaurant owner Irma Galvan, who publicly campaigned for the stadium. Others on board are Sergio Davila, the brother of former state representative Diana Davila; and Nancy Berkman, the wife of City Hall lobbyist Larry Berkman. The group put up $600,000 and received about 11.7 percent of the minority contract.

Merida's owner Rafael Acosta leads Houston Partnership L.L.C., a group that includes six Asian-American partners, which received about 18.4 percent of the contract, worth $934,231. Texas Asian Sports Investments L.P. is represented by Melanie Wong, daughter-in-law of former city councilwoman Martha Wong. Others on the team include Harry Gee Jr., Ghulam Bombaywala and Tri La. They have about 14.2 percent minority share and a $718,639 investment.

Peavy, the former councilman and judge, is in with the pack at Enron Field.
Peavy, the former councilman and judge, is in with the pack at Enron Field.

The Aramark documents indicate the African-American investors make up roughly 15 percent of the total investment pie, three times that of Hispanic groups, who received approximately 5 percent. The remainder went to Anglo women and Asian-American investors.

Richard Torres, president of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, gives credit to black leaders for seizing an opportunity. "Traditionally, the African-American community has been very good about being aggressive in taking advantage of those opportunities, and I think the results speak for themselves as far as the minority participation in this particular contract."

The disparity between black and brown investors disappoints Sonny Flores, president of PEC Corp., an engineering and construction firm. He worked with Brown & Root to make sure that 30 percent of the work building the $248 million ballpark was equally apportioned among minorities. Flores teamed with African-American architect Ruben Brown in that effort, which he says resulted in an equitable split. But early on he heard concerns that the food service contract assignments were under the direction of a black law firm, Wickliff & Hall.

"I did get a lot of calls from Hispanic businesspeople saying, 'Hey, this thing is skewed the wrong way,' " recalls Flores. " 'You need to go ask about parity.' "

Flores talked with Aramark and Astros officials and was assured that the investment would be equally divided among minorities. He now says their promises were not fulfilled.

"Obviously the numbers speak for themselves," concludes Flores. "They didn't come out with parity in there."

Wickliff & Hall partner Alton Hall says that despite meetings and advertisements, there were only 28 investment applicants -- 17 of them black groups and only two Hispanic. He says he cannot explain the imbalance. Aramark picked from a final pool of 12, which included seven black groups.

"I dealt with the process, but I didn't select," says Hall. "My goal was just to maintain the best process that we could."

Hall says there was no preferential treatment for Urban League official King. Asked whether Aramark provided financial backing for King, Hall declined comment, calling the matter "a confidential business relationship."

Hall also declined to comment on whether minority partners could sell their shares back to Aramark or other non-minorities. "The parties are supposed to discuss it before there are any assignments or transfers," he says. That possibility recalls the boondoggle in the '70s when City Council allocated a share of cable franchises to minorities, only to see them cash in by selling their interests to national firms.

With similar minority pledges for the football stadium and a future downtown arena, Flores says, the next food concession contract for minorities should not repeat the Aramark pattern.

"It better not," warns the engineer, "because [otherwise] there are going to be a lot of angry Hispanics in this town."

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