Hotel Hell

Sometimes, patience reaps rich rewards. Take the January 18 meeting to dissect the two proposals to build a 1,000-room hotel next to the George R. Brown Convention Center.

You might wonder what would compensate for having to watch a herd of lawyers lead City Council on a seven-hour forced march through a jungle of risky assumptions.

In the absence of a suitcase full of twenties, how about the sight of Bob Lanier rendered politically impotent?

It happened, and for a couple of hours, Lanier seemed to digest that awful truth like a bad oyster. And aside from the Jumanji-like image of a $150 million white elephant trouncing helpless taxpayers, life was good.

The day began with the mayor squashing the premise that he's never favored one project over the other. Lanier's previous facade of neutrality was uncharacteristic, but necessary. His friend, developer Wayne Duddlesten, is behind a mostly private-sector proposal; the competing plan is a heavily tax-subsidized project by Chicago-based JMB Development, which is represented by Joe B. Allen, a close Lanier advisor and corporate lobbyist. "The city is my best friend," the mayor had been saying, doubtlessly causing some small amount of panic among those councilmembers who routinely rely on the mayor's lead.

But on January 18, Lanier clearly signaled his support of the JMB project, which places ownership of the hotel in the city's hands. The mayor's first hint came in response to a bald-faced political maneuver by Allen.

To comprehend Joe B.'s lack of rectitude, it's necessary to revisit a public meeting last October, when the competing proposals were first unveiled. Backed by a JMB team that was unanimously white and male, Allen made obligatory assurances that the developer would meet the city's minimum affirmative action requirements. Compared to Duddlesten -- who has promised 30 percent of the construction work to minority-owned businesses, plus a $7 million equity stake to black, Hispanic and Asian investors -- JMB couldn't have been less impressive to the minority-majority Council.

For the latest meeting, however, Allen packed JMB's half of Council chambers with a brand-new lineup of African-Americans and Hispanics, all sporting lapel stickers identifying them as members of the "JMB Team." Team JMB's frontline, which peered up at Council from the first row of the audience section, looked like a checkerboard.

Joe B. further bludgeoned Council by introducing A.C. Phillips, a minority-hiring consultant, who said JMB planned to give the hotel's "ancillary services" to minorities. Imagine that: while Duddlesten promises a front-end payout to minority construction contractors and a share of future profits, JMB will toss some lucky soul the shoeshine concession.

Allen's pandering triggered the ire of Councilman Michael Yarbrough. He asked if Phillips -- who mentioned a bizarre offer to fund college scholarships for minority students -- was an original member of the JMB team. Allen had to admit that the consultant "came along later."

Lanier, nonetheless, was impressed. He tried to level the playing field for JMB by telling councilmembers not to put too much stock in either developer's minority-hiring plan. "It is, I think, the opinion of [City Attorney Gene Locke] that it might be unlawful," Lanier warned of either developer promising a hard-and-fast set-aside. This from Mr. Diversity, who a year ago prodded Council to mandate that more city contracts be awarded to minority vendors. But that's based on goals, not quotas.

Lanier did another neat bit of positioning on the nagging question of whether the city should own the hotel. Not long ago, the mayor seemed opposed to using public money to build a hot dog stand, let alone a 1,000-room hotel. That's apparently changed.

The mayor referred Council to the Airport Marriott, a city-owned hotel that he said has made $7 million in profit since it opened. "Just thought I'd share that," the mayor said. He should have stopped there. But Lanier was in a sharing mood, and he went on to make the questionable leap that because the Airport Marriott at Intercontinental was a moneymaker, a city-owned convention center hotel would be, too.

Lanier knows, of course, that the Airport Marriott can't help but be profitable. Its clientele is a captive audience of businessmen, for whom accommodations are a matter of convenience that only the Marriott provides. Most of the convention center hotel's guests will have first chosen to book their meetings at the Brown. But before that, they will have chosen not to take their convention to any number of cities with comparable convention facilities.

Lanier also knows that the ownership question is the only one that really registers with Council. Many members have already said they'd rather the city stayed away. Still, Lanier's stamp of approval has always given councilmembers leave to vote against their own convictions, and it appeared that was to be the case once again.

Then Wayne Duddlesten unleveled the field by introducing two executives from the Hilton Hotel Corporation, which has been negotiating with both developers in anticipation of Council's decision. But they stunned the Council chamber with news that Hilton had rejected JMB and would invest $10 million in Duddlesten's project.

The effect on Lanier and his administration was visceral. Jordy Tollett, head of the Civic Center Department and a vocal proponent of city ownership, watched the Hilton executives with hooded eyes, until, fed up, he fled the room to have a smoke. Another JMB backer, Finance and Administration director Richard Lewis, stared miserably at the floor. But Lanier's face told the story best. For the next two hours, while Hilton poured praise on Duddlesten's plan, you couldn't have pried the mayor's jaws apart with a tire iron.

In his rebuttal, Allen whined that Duddlesten had manipulated his financial projections. But even Allen has to know that the numbers have never mattered, nor have the obvious risks of city ownership. Because, as expected, Lanier would be the one to decide which friend would build the new hotel.

But last week, the mayor's command vessel took on water. To give his administration time to save the JMB project, Lanier delayed for at least a week the recommendation he was supposed to make the day after the January 18 meeting. It'll be a tough sell. Councilmembers have been silently pleading for someone to offer irrefutable logic for rejecting city ownership of the hotel. Duddlesten and Hilton may have done so. Lanier seemed to have some trouble swallowing that.


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