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On Their Backs

Houston's suburbs have always been somewhat strange, since the city tends to annex anything that gets too big and prosperous. But as growth continues farther outward, the suburbs around here are becoming more like their counterparts elsewhere -- especially when it comes to whoring themselves out to relocating corporations.

Take Sugar Land, which has proudly announced that a regional office of Thermo Electron will be relocating to its burg. The move will "create 250 new jobs in Sugar Land," according to the city, add more than $20 million in capital investment and provide an additional $2.5 million in taxable sales in the city.

In return, the city has given the maker of analytical and scientific instruments some small breaks. Like a seven-year, 90 percent tax abatement and a $1.3 million grant from the Sugar Land Development Corp.

Sounds like a bargain. Except, according to one employee, about 200 of the 250 new jobs will be moving from the company's building on the Sam Houston Tollway to Sugar Land, and they don't plan to become residents of the city. "Unless Sugar Land thinks we will spend several million on lunch at Sugar Land eateries, I'm at a loss to understand their logic," says the employee, who prefers anonymity.

The employee also notes Thermo will be leasing space at an existing facility, so the idea of $20 million in new capital investment is also puzzling.

City officials wouldn't return calls, so their logic must remain murky. Publicity materials announcing the move, which also includes relocating a facility from Round Rock, simply celebrated the magnificence of the coup.

One thing that didn't get mentioned in all the hoopla: Thermo Electron deals with nuclear materials. Part of what they build uses stuff like gamma rays and other sci-fi gizmos, and they have to figure out how to store it. In Round Rock, that included a storage facility with walls five feet thick.

So celebrate proudly, Sugar Landers. Not only are you giving money away, you're now home to the type of potential emergencies most suburbs can only dream of.

The Original Wigger

They buried longtime political gadfly and Forward Times journalist Ed Wendt last week, and the recurring theme among the prominent black politicians who spoke at his service was their surprise at finding out that Wendt was white.

"For the longest time, I didn't know if Ed was black or white," said state Representative Sylvester Turner. "After I saw him, I still didn't know."

"Ed -- you're the only white person that I've got to remind you're white," state Representative Harold Dutton remembered telling Wendt. When he assigned Wendt to a white precinct in one election bid, he recalled, Dutton drew only a handful of votes there and asked Wendt why. "Dutton," he replied, "them white folks up there are crazy!"

Wendt died at 55 from cancer, and -- as some speakers at the memorial service recognized -- Houston's political world will be, sadly, a little more sane with his passing.

Beer Me

Say what you want about the rigid moral code of the Texas legislature -- those intrepid crusaders against sodomites and risqué cheerleaders -- you have to admit they love their beer.

Not only did the lege knock back a plan to increase taxes on beer, it passed a law allowing festivals and concerts to begin selling suds at 10 a.m. on Sundays, as opposed to the current noon start.

No more do you have to buy some type of food if you want to get a solid beginning on your Sunday drinking. Once that clock hits ten in the morning, the hair of the dog is all yours.

Beer at 10 a.m. on a Sunday? Does the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission really think that's a great idea?

"We don't take a stance one way or the other on bills," says the TABC's Carolyn Beck.

But come on -- 10 a.m.?

"Well, it's legal on other mornings to start drinking at 7 a.m.," she says. "So one might consider this [10 a.m.] to be a late start."

One might, assuming one was a frat guy still up from the night before.

The lege -- thanks to either a spirit of fun or, according to the Associated Press, millions spent by the beer and wine industry on lobbyists and campaign donations -- also kept up its tradition of helping the sports fan get drunk.

Last session it allowed sporting venues (read: NFL stadiums) to be exempted from the noon Sunday start. This year, it was the thirsty NASCAR fan who got helped.

Under current law, Texas Motor Speedway has to decide whether it wants to sell beer or allow fans to bring in coolers -- it can't do both. For NASCAR, that's like making a Catholic choose between bread or wine at Mass.

A new law, signed by the governor, exempts the speedway from the rule. Even if coolers are allowed, TMS can still sell beer.

Who says our elected representatives don't have their priorities straight?

Half the Savings!

The folks at the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau have launched a big push to promote the irresistible attractions of Houston during the summer. For the first time ever, they've put together a coupon book to distribute to visitors and people seeking info on the city.

GHCVB printed 500,000 coupon books. One problem, though: They decided to do it on the cheap. Unlike almost all other such books -- which print the coupons so the back of each coupon is for the same offer as the front -- the bureau's booklet has two coupons on the front of each page and another two on the back of that page.

If you hand in the coupon for Space Center Houston, you're also handing over the one on the back for the Buffalo Soldiers Museum. Want to use the one for Six Flags? Say good-bye to the one for Da Camera Society. This isn't a coupon book, it's an unending Sophie's Choice.

Bureau spokeswoman Lindsey Brown says she realizes the setup is a little odd, but there were too many businesses clamoring to be involved, and they "had a limited number of pages available."

"It doesn't say you have to present the coupon," she notes. "If you go to a place and say, 'Oh, I don't want to give up the coupon because of what's on the other side,' you can just give them the promotion code on the coupon, and that will be good enough."

Well, except the bureau doesn't provide that helpful little tip anywhere in the booklet. "It is a little tricky," Brown admits.

That's all right. If there's one thing that doesn't need the help of coupons, it's convincing people to come to Houston in the summer.

Art Isn't Easy

Few things say "culture" more than government-sponsored art, and Houstonians should prepare themselves for seeing more and more of it.

A 2001 ordinance, just now beginning to be implemented, calls for 1.75 percent of the construction budget for some city buildings to be devoted to public art. One of the first projects under the ordinance is a new fire station in the Denver Harbor neighborhood.

The city wants to spend $43,650 on a ceramic-tile mural by Suzanne Sellers, but the expenditure has been held up by councilman Adrian Garcia, whose district includes Denver Harbor.

"When we saw '$43,000 for art' [on the agenda], we just had some questions," says Giovanni Goribay, Garcia's chief of staff.

It turns out other bids had come in at $90,000, so the city got something of a bargain. (Disclosure: Eleven years ago Sellers painted the mural on the building the Houston Press now occupies.) Still, as the new ordinance is implemented, councilmembers are hoping for more information on neighborhood input and what happens to any of the 1.75 percent that isn't spent. (With a politico's appreciation of things artistic, Goribay notes of any excess cash, "The councilman would like it to stay in his district, at least.")

Once the kinks are worked out, expect more and more buildings to feature government-sponsored art. We can't wait for the murals of a grim-faced, flag-wielding Mayor Bill White leading a marching cadre of car-towing fanatics.


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