Lay of the Land

Houston headed toward hard times: sports flops, floods and transit duds. If only city fathers could find a proven leader, an energy executive with a KEN-do attitude.

Football is king in Texas, of course, and even though the Houston Texans weren't set to begin play until the 2002 NFL season, Lay was not about to let matters slide. As team officials huddled in preliminary discussions about who to take with their first ever draft pick, Lay quickly put his foot down. "Two words: Chris Simms," he said. "And give him Kelvin Cato money, and tie him up for a long time. We don't want to lose a clutch performer like that."


All over town, Houstonians quickly began to feel the effects of Lay's reign as the year went on. Sure, they remained blissfully unaware of their guardian angel, but they enjoyed the benefits just the same.

For instance, where before it had been somewhat, slightly, just a wee bit inconvenient to park at the new strip malls on West Alabama near Kirby, Lay ensured that there were dozens of never-used parking spaces by tearing down the historic Ale House pub.

Even before his official appointment, he guaranteed that the leadership of the Houston school district, which had |generated the best press outside of Enron's during the tenure of Rod Paige, would continue by making sure a loyal Paige appointee was announced as his replacement. As with Enron, glowing press reports surely indicated that nothing wrong was going on, he knew, so the promotion of Kaye Stripling was a no-brainer.

But it didn't end there. Shortly after taking control of Houston, Lay was amazed when he went to the city's public works department and looked at plans to improve some downtown streets.

"These planners just aren't thinking big enough," he grumbled to two of his most trusted lieutenants. "We need a downtown like New York, or Boston. We're trying to attract an Olympics, for crying out loud. Head on over to public works and change these plans pronto."

He stormed out of the room, already late for an appointment where he'd be pushing Compaq executives to "merge with anyone you can find."

The two lieutenants looked at each other.

"What's New York and Boston got that we don't?" one asked.

"Ummm…Lots of annoying downtown traffic?" the other said.

"Surely the boss doesn't want us to increase downtown traffic," said the first.

"Yeah, that's what you always say: 'Surely the boss doesn't want to throw $3 billion into some power plant in India,' you said a few years ago. 'Surely he doesn't want to get involved with trading Internet bandwidth,' you said. And both times he reamed us out for not following his orders."

"All right, all right already. I'm heading over to public works. You go take care of the expanded bleachers for the UH-UT game."

The lieutenant soon stormed into the department's planning offices.

"Isn't there any way that we could make all this even more annoying for commuters?" he asked. The bureaucrats, unaccustomed to such visionary thinking, simply shrugged.

"Well," one tentatively offered, "we could make sure that a lot of streets are torn up at once, instead of doing one at a time."

"That's good as far as it goes," Lay's man said. "Anyone else?"

Emboldened by their newfound freedom, others piped up.

"We could tear up some streets that we tore up just a few months ago," one said.

"We could make sure that no one ever sees anyone actually working on the sites as they crawl on by in their cars," said another.

"Yes, yes, but that's still not enough," the Man from Enron said impatiently. "You're not thinking big enough. What else can we do?"

They all looked at the floor, shuffling their feet.

"Metro, dammit," he spit out. "We can tie up Main Street for years with some cockamamie Metro project, forcing traffic onto all the other streets we're closing."

Jaws dropped. Here was vision.

"But what kind of project, sir? A road widening?" one asked.

"Think bigger," he replied.

"A center lane for buses only?" another said.

"Bigger, men, bigger. Try thinking the Enron Way," he replied.

Silence.

With a sigh that indicated he was realizing just how big a job he had taken on, Lay's man spelled it out for them.

"Light rail," he said. "A light rail line that won't add any new mass-transit users, but just attract people who used to take the bus."

"Come on, sir," one planner said. "Houston's voted down light rail every chance they get, and building that useless line would cost $300 million, at least."

"You're fired," the Enron man said.

The Metro light rail line did indeed transform Main Street in 2001. Where once had been bustling mom-and-pop restaurants and sandwich shops, discount clothes outlets and convenience stores, soon became a no-man's-land of failed businesses, starved into submission by interminable construction.

Again, there was some complaining about the "little guy" getting hurt, but Lay, big man that he was, didn't lash back. He knew that the complainers simply didn't understand how good all this was for the other little guys, the ones who buy up devalued downtown real estate by the block for future use.

And traffic for downtown commuters was like it had never been before.

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