From the windows of his paper-strewn second floor office, businessman John Flores can see where, traditionally, Westheimer's biannual street festival has begun. Through the glass, he could watch crowds coursing up and down the sidewalk, stopping at crafts booths, buying some food, buying a beer and adding a considerable amount of color to the area.
But from his windows Flores could also observe as the festival devolved into what, at times, appeared little better than a street brawl. It had gotten so bad that last April he heard rumors that the city, tired of having to police drunks and clean up the mess left behind when all the revelers had wandered away, was fed up with the whole affair and had about decided to shut it down.
If the Westheimer Street Festival was to be saved, Flores heard, then someone was going to have to come in, organize it and give it some structure. That someone, Flores now says, was him and a group of Westheimer business people he helped bring together. "We were sitting around a table right here," Flores says, "and I said, 'I'll put in $5,000 of my own money. How much will you put in?' And we raised $10,000 right there for security and other things. We set up a corporation, called it the Westheimer Street Festival Corporation, and believe it or not, we pulled it off."
Last October's affair, he proudly points out, was widely considered the most successful street festival in memory. Nobody was arrested, everything ran smoothly, the streets were cleaned up and left pristine in the aftermath, and city officials even gave the event their stamp of approval.
But at the same time, Flores says, there was a problem, one that he even has a name for: Sirron Kyles, a local music and festival promoter. Kyles, insists Flores, was brought in simply to help gather together bands for some of the festival's stages. But instead, says Flores and some other Westheimer merchants, Kyles ended up hijacking the entire celebration itself. So when Flores looks out his second-floor windows at the event this year, what he'll see are booths and activities that owe their allegiance to Sirron Kyles.
"It's pure extortion," Flores fumes. "No, it's street-tortion."
Kyles, for his part, concurs with Flores' memory of events -- up to a point. The festival was about to go under, he agrees, and a group of Westheimer merchants organized to save it. But, he adds, they had no idea what they were doing, which is why he was brought in. It was his professional expertise, city contacts and general savvy that made last October's Westheimer Street Festival go off as smoothly as it did, he says. And he committed to help out, he claims, on the understanding that if the festival went well, then he would be used to promote future festivals.
"That's why I agreed to accept 15 percent of the profits -- which I never got -- when I normally won't do anything for less than one-third plus expenses," says Kyles. "But they weren't honest with me. I think all John Flores really wanted to do was see how I operated and then take that and run things himself. I came up with the concept. I came up with the way to save this festival. And then he wanted to just boot me out. It wasn't going to work that way."
But whoever is to be believed -- and a conversation with Flores and then Kyles can seem like a replay of Rashomon, each giving similar facts but drawing completely distinct meanings from them -- the struggle between the two groups that want the Westheimer Street Festival to belong to them alone has turned up a glitch in a little considered city ordinance that could, if someone wanted to use it that way, disrupt almost every major festival held in the city.
The ordinance in question is the one that allows an individual or a group to close streets for an event. It was the lack of street closure that, among other things, had caused problems in the recent past for the Westheimer Street Festival. While events were taking place on the properties fronting Westheimer, and large crowds were milling about, traffic continued to move up and down the street, setting the scene for possible tragedy at worst and major annoyances at best.
The money that Flores raised from his business neighbors last October was in large part to help pay for street closing. According to Toni Robinson, special events coordinator for the city's department of Traffic Management and Maintenance, to get a street closing permit all someone has to do is complete an application showing that the streets closed off won't shut off an area completely; pay a fee for the city's cost in putting up and removing barricades or have an agreement with a private company to do the work; provide a certificate of at least $1 million worth of liability insurance naming the city as a co-insured party; agree to clean up the area afterward; and, finally, indicate that you have security in place to man the barricades and prevent cars or trucks from getting on the closed streets.
Actually, getting a street closing permit is simpler than the requirements make it appear. Almost everything that involves spending money -- the insurance, the security, the cleanup -- can be promised. Filling out the application and fronting the money for the barricade erection and removal (about $450 in the case of the Westheimer Street Festival) is all that's needed to get a preliminary permit. Everything else has to be provided within 72 hours of the actual event, or else the preliminary permit is revoked, but up until that time, whoever's name is on the permit is the person in charge of the streets.
Flores assumed that since his Westheimer Street Festival Corporation had paid for the street closings last year, he would also get the street closings for this month's event. But what he wasn't aware of was that Traffic Management and Maintenance plays no favorites. Whoever comes in and fills out an application first and meets the requirements gets the street closing permit. So when Flores went down to the city early this year with all his plans in hand -- sponsorship from Budweiser, a scheduled volleyball championship to be broadcast on ESPN, two music stages with acts lined up by the Houston Music Council -- he found out that he was too late. Sirron Kyles had been there in December and gotten the permits to close the streets along Westheimer from the 100 block to the 1300 block.
Though having the street closing permit didn't mean that Kyles had any control over the private property on which booths and event stages could be erected, it did give him leverage in negotiating with property owners. And it also gave him an advantage in getting permits for booths that would sell beer. To get a beer permit, it's almost required that streets be closed, in part to prevent drunks from wandering in front of cars. And while technically anyone can get a beer permit as long as someone has closed the streets, knowing that the street closing has been taken care of can give the person who has that permit a head start in taking control of the beer as well. And where street festivals are concerned, as John Flores points out, "He who has the beer has the money."
And this year on Westheimer he who has the beer appears to be Sirron Kyles, who points to Flores' surprise at what's happened as just one more example of his lack of knowledge of how festivals are operated. But the conflict over who controls the streets has also attracted the attention of state Representative Debra Danburg, whose district director, Maureen O'Reilly, says that the trouble between Flores and Kyles could point the way toward bigger problems.
"What I discovered," says O'Reilly, "and what I've told to everyone in the city government who would listen to me, is that if you or I decided we wanted to get the license to, say, the Houston Festival, all we'd have to do is be the first one to call and say I want to request a license for street closure in this area on that weekend. And we've got it. Then what would happen? What it could lead to is some sort of corruption where somebody goes out and does this and then offers to sell the permit back to the city for $10,000 or something."
Though she admits that she tilts in favor of Flores in his disagreement with Kyles -- "I guess my feeling is that if you have a neighborhood concern it's probably better," she says -- O'Reilly says that her real concern is about what the fight between the two may suggest to someone else. For his part, City Councilman Al Calloway, whose district encompasses the Westheimer Street Festival area, says he's never seen a festival fight of the sort that's brewed between Flores and Kyles. And while he admits that the street closing process may need to be examined, he says that it's unlikely to be addressed until the April 89 event is over, in part to avoid the appearance of taking sides.
Meanwhile, Kyles and Flores are continuing to promote their own version of the Westheimer Street Festival, each acting in their press releases and advertisements as though the other's events don't exist. Flores has Budweiser as a sponsor, the ESPN event and two music stages; Kyles has Miller as a sponsor, four music stages and (as of this writing) nine of the ten beer booths. Both claim to have community support; both claim to have the majority of the crafts and food booths. And both insist that all the backstage backbiting will be invisible to the people attending the event, who will, Kyles says, just see "the best festival Westheimer has ever had." (Though Flores has promised to do some things that are "perfectly legal" to infuriate Kyles. For example, he suggests, wouldn't it be interesting if a billboard he's rented that's near a Miller beer musical stage were somehow rigged to broadcast Budweiser commercials?)
And when the October street fest rolls around -- well, Flores says, he's learned something this time. He leans forward and conspiratorially announces that he's already locked up the street closing for both October and next April, and won't Sirron Kyles be surprised when he discovers that? Kyles, told this over the phone, can only laugh. "He's too late again," he claims. "I've already got my application in place. I tell you, this isn't the end of this, I promise.
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