Forecast: Raining Stadiums

Poor Bud Adams. What a terrible sense of timing. If he'd only kept quiet until after Bob Lanier's re-election was safely assured, instead of bad-mouthing the mayor and storming off to Nashville in a huff. Then he, too, might be in line for a brand-new stadium somewhere in Houston, with all the luxury boxes his Oilers could fill.

But Adams, who's never been known for his grasp of social graces, bulled ahead and has all but loaded up the vans in pursuit of that $292 million cash-and-stadium deal Nashville put together to lure his NFL franchise.

Contrast Adams' unflagging public petulance with the more measured maneuvering of his two fellow professional sports team owners, Drayton McLane and Les Alexander. They know where to go to get what they want -- behind closed doors, with Bob Lanier.

Lanier has been moving expeditiously since McLane announced late last year that without a record number of bodies turning out for the Astros this year -- and a promise for a modern baseball-only stadium to replace the Astrodome -- he might be forced to sell out to Virginian Bill Collins, who wants to bring back major-league baseball to the Washington, D.C. area.

Not to be left behind, Rockets boss Alexander has let it be known that he finds that the 20-year-old Summit is hardly a fit venue for his two-time champions. An arena on the order of the stylish new cathedrals dotting the NBA landscape would do much better -- or the Rockets might take off for some more welcoming locale.

Faced with the prospect of having two more of the city's most beloved assets exiting on his watch, Lanier joined County Judge Robert Eckels in November to announce formation of a joint sports planning committee composed of local business and civic heavyweights. Its stated mission was to create a master plan addressing the current and future needs of Houston's sports teams.

By analyzing existing facilities, trends and public opinion, the committee was supposed to be able to move out in front of the curve for a change instead of just reacting to the demands of owners. Chaired by Goldman Sachs dealmaker Peter Coneway, the committee has been going about its business, forming subcommittees and setting agendas.

But in the end, the sports committee may have been just another ornament on Lanier's public-relations Christmas tree. Before the committee even scheduled a room for its first meeting, the mayor had been privately pulling out all the stops to prevent further franchise hemorrhaging.

All that work out of the public eye seems to be paying off. In the past several weeks, the mayor has disclosed very sketchy plans for a new basketball arena downtown and revealed a comprehensive strategy for replacing the Oilers and building a new football stadium. And he's been meeting regularly with McLane, perhaps the prelude to yet another stunning disclosure.

Sports committee members have learned of these developments the same way as everyone else -- though reports carefully leaked to the Chronicle and other media and faithfully regurgitated, without too many pesky questions.

The downtown arena proposal appeared just before the holidays like a rabbit out of a hat, and just as warm and fuzzy. The new basketball palace, according to reports that seem to have materialized out of the ether, would cost a nice, round, reasonable $100 million.

Alas, a glance at the cost of arenas that have opened recently casts serious doubt on the figure. Chicago's United Center opened in 1994 at a cost of $175 million. The price for Denver's Pepsi Center was $150 million. And Buffalo's Crossroads Arena, slated to open in a month or two, is supposed to come in at a relatively cheap $127 million.

The costs for new arenas continue to escalate. Montreal's state-of-the-art Centre Molson carries a $230 million price tag. The latest figure for the CoreStates arena in Philadelphia -- such facilities are often plagued by cost overruns and other hitches that swell the final bill -- is about $216 million. Houston, of course, could choose to go all out for Les by ordering the works, as Portland did for the Trail Blazers with its glitzy $262 million Rose Garden.

Maybe whoever came up with the $100 million figure was reading yesterday's newspaper -- the only arenas that cost in the neighborhood of $100 million date back to 1992. America West Arena in Phoenix tipped the balance sheet at $96 million, as did the home of the Utah Jazz.

Of course, all those figures are a bit foggy, and don't necessarily include associated expenses. For instance, Boston's newly opened Fleet Center carried a price tag of $160 million, which doesn't include the $100 million the city paid for a multilevel parking deck to serve the customers. Parking will certainly be an issue if the arena rises on the east side of downtown near the George R. Brown Convention Center. It's unlikely many Rockets fans will be happy parking their cars on the desolate side streets nearby.

But the source of the $100 million figure remains elusive. Alexander and the Rockets, who are holding all the aces right now, would not comment, and one of the mayor's usually-in-the-dark publicists said Lanier also was disinclined to discuss specifics. "I don't think it's our place to say" where the figure came from, she said.

Three weeks after the arena proposal surfaced, Lanier and Eckels offered another equally vague bit of tidings: some unidentified wealthy Houstonians might be willing to come up with a couple of hundred million dollars for a different NFL team, which could play in a new Dome built next to the existing one at no public cost -- except, maybe, for a retractable roof.

Meanwhile, the Astros and their allies at the Greater Houston Partnership have launched their campaign to double last year's season-ticket sales. Those peppy radio, TV and billboard ads urge fans to "Step Up to the Plate" for the home team, but they avoid mentioning that the franchise is likely to be moved out of town if they don't. Nor do they note another likely condition to keep the Astros from fleeing, most recently voiced by National League president Leonard Coleman -- a brand-new, baseball-only stadium similar to the ones Baltimore and Cleveland have provided their teams.

The numbers for the football stadium had more flesh on their bones: $125 million for the bowl, which the Chronicle reported would be built "largely with private funds," and another $50 million to $85 million for the retractable roof, which would be the public's burden to bear. Slapping the new RetractoDome on the Astrodome grounds would save $100 million because of the "existing infrastructure."

Such specifics surely had a source, though Lanier hadn't responded to a request to divulge it at press time. In line with the bills for other new football stadiums around the country, the projected costs mirror reality more than the bizarro-world arena figure, though just what $100 million worth of infrastructure the new stadium would use is open to question. Perhaps the parking lot, the one not addressed in the downtown arena plan, though $100 million still seems a bit steep for a flat mass of asphalt.

A logical source for the data would be the Lanier-Eckels sports committee. After all, it's stocked with experts whose mission is to research those very details, then recommend a course of action. But before the committee has even gotten out of the gate, Lanier seems to be standing at the finish line.

Committee chair Peter Coneway acknowledges his group's function appears to have been usurped, but he says he understands Lanier has to move fast. "I'm not upset about it," Coneway says. "I think that the mayor realizes there's an opportunity here to take the initiative. It could be that we would have to put our stamp of approval on something after the fact. I don't know that, because it hasn't happened yet."

Still, Coneway has been working hard to accomplish the committee's goals, and he realizes that if Lanier is working out backroom deals, that work might be for naught. But he plans to forge ahead. "We're still gonna try to look overall at what's best," he says. "Our conclusions may or may not be consistent with what is negotiated in the interim, but sometimes that's just the way it works."

"Things come up," Coneway adds. "Life's not perfect.


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