Kickoff --or Punt?

Dylan Murray, a consultant for Saba Bluewater Cafe, was looking forward to downtown's Super Bowl Kickoff Party. Organized in part by the Super Bowl Host Committee and the Downtown Management District, the April 12 celebration promised to lure people to Main Street with four high school marching bands, live music and fireworks. Main Street was closed between Texas and Congress, and venerable Texas performers Bob Schneider and the Reverend Horton Heat were going to play on a stage outside Saba. Some nearby restaurants had concession booths lining the street.

The event originally was planned for February 1 but was canceled that morning after the Columbia space shuttle disaster. Planners and restaurateurs now had their fingers crossed for April 12, hoping that the event wasn't cursed.

While it may not have been cursed, it wasn't exactly crowded.

The Houston Chronicle reported that 2,000 people showed up. Super Bowl Host Committee spokesperson Rex John says the number reached 5,000 by the end of the night. Sponsors claim they promoted the event with print, radio and television advertising valued at nearly $600,000. Using even the most glowing attendance estimate, that works out to almost $30 a person in promotional considerations. And some downtown regulars point out that the crowd wasn't much larger than that drawn into the central city on any other Saturday evening.

For Saba, there was a hitch: Customers who had reservations couldn't fight their way through the stage apparatus and equipment to get inside. The restaurant had to send its patrons elsewhere. While Saba had two private parties that night and didn't lose any money, Murray says, the event didn't help his restaurant -- or any others.

"The idea is to get people comfortable coming downtown," says Murray, formerly the Saba chef. "If they set this up in a way to where it does at best nothing for us, then what are we doing?"

Murray accuses the planners of inflating attendance numbers and haphazardly throwing together an event that got started too late for children and, except for the music, offered no real fun for adults. The Super Bowl committee's press release cited one of the biggest highlights of the event: the singing of the national anthem.

"There's just a decided lack of inertia in this thing," he complains. "Who's in charge?…Who's really pulling the strings on it?"

Downtown district spokeswoman Jodie Sinclair says the district, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the Super Bowl committee and the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau pulled the strings. "Downtown had an unprecedented amount of publicity, as far as we're concerned," she says.

Brent Kocher, vice president of marketing for the Super Bowl committee, says the planners worked well together, even through the difficulties of canceling and rescheduling the event.

"Sounds like, based on this guy's checklist, he's got a vendetta or something," Kocher says of Murray. "He's systematically gone through and torn apart everything that we tried to do."

City Councilmember Annise Parker has a complaint of her own. She wants to know why the city bagged Market Square parking meters to prevent the public from using those spaces on Friday, a day before the event. Friday is the busiest time for downtown restaurants, she says.

Wes Johnson, a spokesperson for the city's public works department, says there was no overtime in the budget for a city employee to bag the meters on Saturday.

Parker doesn't buy it.

"It's a heck of a lot more expensive to drive down restaurant business and the taxes they contribute to the city's bottom line by preventing people from getting where they want to go," she says. "Financially, it's just not a good decision."

Other restaurant and nightclub owners who were interviewed say they were generally pleased with the event, even if it didn't boost their business that night. One cafe operator explains that the suffering downtown businesses, after complaining about the chronic street construction by the city, did not want to seem ungrateful to agencies for what turned out to be a somewhat so-so event. They say the long-term publicity is worth the effort.

But Murray is convinced that the event did more harm than good.

"A lot of people still don't know that it ever went on," he says.

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