Back at the Trough

The politics behind the new arena

The residents of Houston have finally come to their senses and precluded the Rockets from moving to Poughkeepsie (and it won't cost us a dime!). The 98 percent who can't afford the king's ransom Les Alexander will be asking for tickets look forward to jostling for some of those cheap seats the team has promised. Somehow we suspect they'll be as hard to obtain as those phantom budget units at the Rice Lofts.

The big winners, as usual, are on the private side of the rather unbalanced "public-private partnership." And as with Enron Field and the Reliant football-dome-megaplex, insiders are already lined up for their piece of the action of the $175-million basketball arena. There's a lot of legal work to be done, and the law firm Baker & Botts can expect plenty of green fallout due to the arena efforts of attorneys Mike Goldberg and Peter Oxman. Though the Houston Chronicle declared Rockets chief operating officer George Postolos one of the two primary dealmakers (along with Sports Authority numbers cruncher Ric Campo), it was Goldberg and Oxman who did the bulk of the work on behalf of the team. "Postolos was just the guy who ran around and told us the sky was falling the whole time," says a source close to the negotiations.

We haven't yet seen the list of vendors who will share the lucrative concession pie, but it's likely that Darryl "Chicken Man" King, the Urban League chairman and City Hall insider, will get a slice -- Before the ill-fated first election, he and NAACP president Howard Jefferson flew to Les's Florida home and cut a deal for minority participation in the arena in exchange for vote support. King also has a piece of the Enron Field concessions and subs for city contractor Aramark at the George R. Brown Convention Center and other facilities.

The arena's architectural and engineering contracts, worth more than $20 million, were the subject of a heated battle that at one point threatened to derail the negotiations between the Rockets and the City. According to sources close to the front lines, Sports Authority chairman Billy Burge was pushing Minneapolis-based Ellerbe Becket as the primary designer, while the Rockets wanted HOK out of St. Louis, which designed Enron Field and the football stadium. (An all-Houston team also made a bid but was never seriously in the running.)

Equally intense was the lobbying for local firms to join the stadium-building giants as team members. Leroy Hermes of Hermes Reed and Jack Linville of PGAL joined the Ellerbe-Becket bid and used their considerable influence to leverage support. "They were running all the political traps," says the source.

HOK signed on with Morris Architects and the firm of John Chase, an African American architect supported by Authority member Howard Middleton. Both Morris and Chase were involved in the Intercontinental Airport expansion fiasco last year, when Mayor Lee Brown lost a toe-to-toe with Continental Airlines over which firms would manage which aspects of the project. Morris and Chase were bumped off the premier roles suggested for them by the City, though both ultimately remained in the airport deal.

A couple of favored engineering contractors didn't have to sweat the fight for the Rockets arena: Nathylene Kennedy and Walter Moore were part of all three teams. Though there's no suggestion that either firm is unqualified, says another source, plenty of firms could handle the job, and it's no accident that the two well-connected companies were assured of participation. "[The factions] knew who they had to include if they were going to have a chance."

A selection committee of four Rockets reps and four Sports Authority members heard presentations and voted 6-2 for HOK. A last-ditch effort to reverse the decision included half-hearted phone calls from Brown. It fell short, and the deal stuck. Terms have not been finalized.

The last of the fattest no-bid contracts is still up for grabs and has become the subject of some major-league backstabbing. Vying for the job of "owner's representative" -- construction watchdog for the City -- are former Public Works Department director Jimmie Schindewolf and Fred Martinez, whose Atser engineering company has landed several juicy city contracts under the Brown administration. The two are currently splitting $480,000 as the county's rep on the football stadium, and Schindewolf took home $600,000 for the same gig at Enron Field.

Sources say that Martinez wrote a memo to Brown complaining that the stadium wasn't meeting its minority participation goals; he also took a swipe at Schindewolf, which pissed off the former Public Works czar. Those same sources say Authority member Al Luna and mayoral aide Carol Alvarado have been pushing hard for Martinez, though Alvarado denies it. "I just don't do that, because I think it's inappropriate," she says.

Schindewolf's new career as stadium overseer has gone relatively smoothly; an architect who was at Enron Field almost every day during construction says Schindewolf rarely showed his face on-site. His henchman, convicted contract shuffler Jerry Dinkins, did the day-to-day work. But a Sports Authority source says the city got its money's worth -- especially when it came to calling up his old cronies at Public Works and expediting road work and security.

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