Arena Wars

"Environmental Darth Vader" pushed as campaign consultant

The Rockets took a lot of the guff out of Robertson's assault by quickly agreeing to Eckels's objections. And Eckels received praise from a City Hall source for significantly improving the arena deal. He forced the Rockets to drop a non-compete clause that would have kept the Houston Rodeo from replacing the Astrohall with a new facility.

"He made a good call and did the sports authority a favor," says the City Hall source, who would like to see more changes in the agreement. One would eliminate restrictions on the 20 dates that the city is allowed to use the proposed arena. Currently the city can stage only five moneymaking events out of those 20. "Those dates ought to be able to be used any damn way the city wants."

This source would also like to see the relocation clause in the agreement amended to specifically mention the Houston Comets as well as the Rockets. The pact now prevents only the Rockets from moving.

Eckels caught heat -- and praise -- for extracting Rockets concessions.
Phillippe Diederich
Eckels caught heat -- and praise -- for extracting Rockets concessions.

Eckels has no apologies for rocking the arena boat with his concerns.

"There are some who want an arena at any cost and just want a deal," says the judge. "And when you're dealing with a professional sports team, you've got to be willing to say no. And if you have to leave, you have to leave."

While Eckels's political standing may have taken a hit with arena backers, he'll likely strengthen support with his Republican constituency by drawing concessions from the Rockets that Mayor Brown didn't.

Eckels says he'll probably support the amended arena agreement, though he won't commit to campaigning for it. Another key figure, Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt, is still number-crunching the agreement but indicates he too would like to see changes. One involves a clause allowing the Rockets to receive reimbursement for any ticket-tax charge levied against fans in the future.

The new agreement eliminates a proposed ticket tax that provided a rallying point for opponents in the last referendum. Since there will be no such tax, Bettencourt wonders why the clause is in the agreement at all.

Bettencourt is also amused by the repeated assertions by the Rockets, mostly through the Houston Chronicle, that his approval as well as that of Eckels, Watson and NFL team owner Bob McNair is absolutely essential before the deal goes to the voters.

"No one has ever marched into my office or gotten me on the phone and said, "You're absolutely critical to passing this deal,' " says Bettencourt. "The only time I see that is in second- and third-hand media reports, specifically in the Chronicle without any sourcing. In reality, it's clearly a [Rockets] negotiation tactic."

A final arena note: For all of you concerned about the fate of Compaq Center if the arena is built, there could be a divine twist in the aging building's fate.

An area nondenominational congregation, Grace Community Church, is negotiating with the city to lease the former Summit for weekend services. Previously Grace Community had been touted as a possible buyer if the city decides to sell. Under the lease arrangement, the ice rink would be preserved for use by the Aeros.

Where once rock 'n' rollers like David Bowie and Bob Dylan strutted their stuff, holy rollers may hold forth in the future.

Just call it an icy, dicey Christian kind of deal.

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