City Council Fireworks over Proposed Arts Venue Lease Deal

Unlike the movies, sparks don't always fly at city council meetings. It's not all Mr Smith Goes to Washington all the time. In fact, most of the time, proceedings there beat C-Span 2 in the insomnia-curing department.

Yesterday was one of the dramatic exceptions to that rule.

It happened when city Development Director Andy Icken (of Heights Wal-Mart e-mail leak infamy) and Houston Convention Center Hotel Corporation Board Chairman Ric Campo briefed the committee on the proposed consolidation of the city's Convention & Entertainment Facilities Department with Campo's HCCHC.

You can read all about the ramifications of that deal here, here and in the mayor's office's own words, also here.

Basically, the merger would create a nonprofit organization called the Houston First Corporation. Pending council approval on May 18, Houston First would lease out the George R. Brown Convention Center, the Wortham Theater, Jones Hall, Jones Plaza, Miller Outdoor Theatre, Sesquicentennial Park, Root Memorial Square and several other smaller park and performing arts facilities from the city for a one-time cash payment of $8.6 million, followed by yearly payments of $1.4 million over the next five years.

Amid the drone of acronym-laden, jargon-heavy talk that followed (amid the alphabet soup, we got to hear the word "visioning" quite a bit), and a few questions from mostly contented council members, there suddenly erupted a volcano in the form of Councilman James Rodriguez, whose District I encompasses downtown, the site of most of the venues and the home of many arts donors and patrons.

"I have several serious concerns about the proposed Hotel Corporation/CEFD organizational changes, including failure to communicate this information to me as the downtown district Council Member," he began, in a cold fury.

"For several years, I have worked tirelessly to improve facilities in District I, including those in our downtown. I find it ironic that in the past, I have been asked to build consensus and garner support for matters pertaining to these facilities and didn't even get a phone call to brief me on this matter."

While several other members thanked Icken and Campo for briefing them as early as last Thursday, the two men evidently forgot to bring the guy whose district this would be affecting most into the loop. Interesting -- it was either incompetent or nefarious.

Without waiting for answers, Rodriguez asked Campo and Icken which stakeholders were part of the discussions, and how they felt about the proposed deal. He wanted to know what the short- and long-term impacts would be to the Theater District, convention business, and local arts programs. He wanted to know how all these facilities would be improved, and who would be held accountable should they fall apart, or should customer service erode. He called for more in-depth public discussion and pointed out again that these are taxpayer assets. And he closed by demanding to know who was on Campo's board, and wanted to know if it was both diverse and had at least some members with experience of running multimillion dollar facilities.   "I appreciate several officials and staffers expressing their apologies for not briefing me on this issue," he said. "However, all of these questions and others have to be answered before I consider supporting these changes. I look forward to receiving a thorough briefing."

And then Rodriguez got up, walked away from his chair and shoved open the door that led out of the chamber. Or tried to -- the first one he tried to bash open was locked. On his second attempt, his dramatic exit was more successful.

After a lengthy conversation with Hair Balls today, Rodriguez went on to enumerate more concerns over the proposal. Do these people have a plan to administer parking for all these venues, especially on nights on which multiple events are scheduled?

"All it takes is that one person who has a negative experience -- they can't park their car, they can't get out in a timely fashion," he says (to which we would also add "or gets towed or a parking ticket").

"They never want to come back and patronize these arts facilities or book a room downtown," Rodriguez continues.

The city is claiming that no CEFD employees will lose their jobs, that they will simply roll over into the proposed Houston First. Rodriguez isn't so sure about that, and fears what would happen if some of the old hands quit.

"I know our Convention and Entertainment Facilities people bend over backwards to make customer service number one," he says. "And you look at the conventioneers that come to Houston -- those folks have relationships with city staffers. They understand the different needs and logistics of all the conventions, and they know how to keep bringing these people back."

"You can't rush this decision," Rodriguez says. "This is a major policy decision and I'm not comfortable, even though I know a lot of the workings of what goes on over there. And I still haven't even been briefed."

Rodriguez also urges local arts patrons and organizations with interests at these venues to contact their councilperson and/or Mayor Parker, and attend the public session of city council next Tuesday. In fact, that would be the only chance you, as a private citizen, would have to air your views, as a vote is set on the proposal the very next day.

"I'm sure the arts groups and the patrons of the arts and the big law firms and the engineering and energy companies that contribute to these organizations and facilities would like to weigh in and talk about the pros and cons of this decision," Rodriguez tells Hair Balls.

We'll have more on this as the story develops...

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