Brawl on the Boardwalk

With litigation-loving millionaires as landlord and tenant of the Landry's empire in Kemah, the mother of all eviction wars is under way

The shiny, sparkling, so-family-friendly-it-hurts Kemah Boardwalk is, in many ways, a perfect symbol of Houston and its environs at the booming turn of the century.

Take a collection of comfortably ramshackle seafood restaurants, stuck just far enough off the beaten path to give patrons the cachet of going where the tourist-hating natives eat. Add $75 million in the form of a high-octane advertising campaign and a string of chain restaurants whose ramshackleness has been carefully researched and art-designed -- hell, throw in a Ferris wheel, a miniature train and a 52-room hotel while you're at it -- and you've got a scrubbed-up, Disneyesque money machine that offers a vague approximation of the original setting. Just as you can walk down a "Paris street" in a Disney park without the hassle of dealing with actual French people, at the Kemah Boardwalk you can take the kiddies to a seaside experience knowing the food and atmosphere will be safe and -- if the marketing-department studies are to be believed -- fun.

It's not much different from what happened at NASA, where tours were low-key and free until they were replaced by the expensive "entertainment destination" of Space Center Houston, or with Enron Field, which has a Ye Olde Railroad Days motif that harks back to an alleged train-related past that most Houstonians know nothing about.

Matt Wiggins stands in front of a vacant lot that should be home to a steak house paying 10 percent of its proceeds to him.
Deron Neblett
Matt Wiggins stands in front of a vacant lot that should be home to a steak house paying 10 percent of its proceeds to him.

But like those faux brethren, the Kemah Boardwalk has been a cash-cow success, raking in money from tourists and locals alike.

On most weekends, visitors flock to the 40-acre location, backing up traffic on State Highway 146 and clogging the few roads on the site as cars circulate in a vain attempt to find a parking space.

More than three million people are expected to visit the Boardwalk this year, eager to play the games, ride the rides, eat at the restaurants or just sip a beer and watch the constant stream of recreational boaters parading along Clear Lake Channel, one of the more misnamed bodies of water in the state.

As they happily spend their money, most folks probably think they're at a pleasant bayside spot. What they don't know is that they're really at ground zero in a war of attrition between two millionaires who love to litigate and have the money to do so -- two local boys made good who began their work lives doing menial restaurant jobs and now seem to take great pleasure in battling each other.

In one corner is Matt Wiggins, a grandson of Jimmie Walker's, whose eponymous restaurant was for decades the main reason to head to Kemah. He's well-plugged-in to the local community, although he also spends a lot of time in Mississippi. Wiggins owns a big chunk of land in the Boardwalk area.

In the other corner is Tilman Fertitta, descendant of some of Galveston's most famous restaurant-and-nightclub families, who now is king of the Landry's Seafood chain, the nation's second-largest. He's a big buddy of President Clinton's, thanks to some enthusiastic fund-raising. Landry's leases a big chunk of land at the Boardwalk from Wiggins.

The two are at each other's throats. Wiggins says Landry's is obligated to build yet another restaurant on the land he leases, a restaurant that will pay significant rent to Wiggins, and that the chain is weaseling out of doing so. The Landry's people say Wiggins has never met an agreement that he hasn't broken somehow, and that the City of Kemah won't let them build a new restaurant until more parking is available.

And the people of Kemah are learning the wisdom of the old African proverb that says when two elephants fight, it's the grass underneath that fares the worst.

Matt Wiggins, most everyone says -- even the folks at Landry's -- is one affable guy. Most everyone also says -- especially the folks at Landry's -- that he can be a real pain to do business with.

"Matt is a lawyer by training, so he understands the system and he understands loopholes," says one lawyer who fought Wiggins in court on a matter not related to Landry's. "To me, if the loopholes are there, they're there, and it's your fault for putting them there, but Matt really pushes the envelope sometimes.He's a likable guy, but sometimes he just goes too far."

There is some documentation of that. In a lawsuit pending in Galveston, a district judge sanctioned Wiggins for filing false evidence. But people who know Wiggins view him more as a character than a malevolent type: "That's just Matt being Matt" is a common phrase when word hits of yet another legal dispute.

Wiggins, of course, has a different view. He says he's a victim of a string of broken promises from Landry's, and he's chapped every time he looks at the vacant plot of land that should be the site of the Chop House, a steak restaurant the chain promised to build, a restaurant that would be paying 10 percent of its proceeds to him.

Right now he gets $1 million a year in rent from Landry's. With the Chop House, he'd be getting up to $500,000 a year more, he says. Over 30 years that's $15 million.

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