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A new government body composed of political insiders and window-dressing appointees is given the job of spending $180 million from taxpayers on a $250-million baseball stadium with a gimmicky retractable roof.

There won't be any bidding process: The architects and the companies constructing the facility were handpicked by the tenant and local politicians. That tenant is a whiny, woe-is-me multimillionaire who has ratcheted up his demands whenever the mood hits him. The government body's chairman is a thin-skinned Aggie who makes even his allies wince with his combative attitude.

Just about every major politico and influential big-business type has endorsed the project, leaving opponents marginalized to the status of those easily ignored speakers who spout their three minutes' worth at City Council meetings.

And one more thing: The project is hurtling ahead at a balls-to-the-wall pace, without final construction plans, without a proper budget, without a set financial plan for selling bonds.

Hey, what could possibly go wrong?
Maybe nothing. Maybe the 13 members of the Harris CountyHouston Sports Authority can indeed successfully shepherd the construction of what could be $650 million or so in new sports facilities.

Then again, if a recent week in the life of the board is any indication, the taxpayers could be in for a wild ride.

Wednesday, October 30 -- Groundbreakings for huge entertainment complexes don't get much more unfestive than the rites this day marking the alleged beginning of construction of the Ballpark at Union Station.

For one thing, there seem to be more bad omens than there are ordinary people taking part. In terms of the regular public, it's safe to say the powers-that-be didn't entertain high expectations: The area surrounding the dais has been strategically blocked off to create just enough space among the deserted downtown blocks to make it seem packed with the few hundred people present, almost all of whom look like they've been ordered to be here.

The weather, even with November only two days away, is muggy and oppressive enough that attendees doff jackets and retreat for the tents whenever the sun pokes through the clouds --not a good sign for boosters who claim the stadium roof could be open for 65 percent of the games.

Although golden shovels and hardhats are gleaming on a table, the ceremony is going forward with almost none of the basic requirements most reasonable people would want in place before building a strip shopping center, much less a $250-million ballpark with an experimental retractable roof: There are no construction plans ready; there is nothing approaching a lease agreement between the local government and the proposed main tenant, the Houston Astros; there is no way to sell bonds cheaply to finance the project, because the state attorney general could yet rule that a second referendum is necessary; and, as members of the crowd nervously crane their necks looking around, there is no Drayton McLane.

McLane, the food-distribution czar who purchased the Astros five years ago with an admitted near-total ignorance of major-league baseball, had issued yet another in a seemingly endless string of public threats, letting it be known that he might not show up for the groundbreaking unless a lease agreement were signed.

As a negotiating tactic, it has all the transparency of a parent threatening to leave the toy store without his kid unless the dawdling youngster comes along immediately, but the move is typical of McLane throughout the two years that led up to this point.

The Temple businessman with the "meet you at the top" public persona told everyone who'd listen that he was losing millions on the Astros -- $20 million a year was the usual figure, accepted as gospel even though the owner wouldn't open his books. McLane had bullied local politicians and movers and shakers into becoming his marketing department, threatening to sell the team to someone who would move it to Virginia unless Houstonians bought 30,000 tickets a game, far more than the team has ever drawn.

That minimum requirement was soon increased to a demand that 35,000 tickets be purchased for each game at the Astrodome, which McLane had touted as a wonderful facility when he blocked Oilers owner Bud Adams's efforts to move his football team from the Dome, where he paid rent to McLane.

And then the problem became not only how many fannies were in the seats, but where those seats were. The Dome was (now) antiquated, McLane said; he needed a new downtown baseball stadium similar to the successful playpens recently opened in Baltimore, Denver and Cleveland.

Throughout the longshot referendum campaign to get voter approval, throughout the ensuing battles to get the Legislature to sign on to the deal, McLane continued to issue threats that the team would have to leave unless things went his way and ground was broken on the new facility by November 1, 1997.  

And now that such a groundbreaking was set, McLane was threatening to boycott the ceremony.

Other members of the Astros family are on hand -- manager Larry Dierker, looking gangsterish in slicked hair and a shiny suit; broadcaster Milo Hamilton, looking fresh from the retirement home in his best Sansabelt slacks and brown plaid sports jacket. Superstar Jeff Bagwell paces about, seemingly sullen and impatient at having his honeymoon interrupted.

Finally, the real superstar of the day arrives: Slapping backs and shaking hands like a front-running candidate, McLane surges into the waiting crowd of local politicos and Enron employees, soaking up the forced gaiety.

"That groundbreaking was a classic example of how (stadium supporters) have been operating," says one public relations expert who has been involved in the process. "It was all supposed to be about 'We've gotten here, we now have some real momentum going on this thing,' and instead it becomes a mystery novel about whether fucking McLane will show up. The message that people were supposed to get was 'We're moving forward'; instead, it was all about will he or won't he show up?"

McLane eventually puts on a good show, proclaiming the day thrilling not only for the Astros and Houston "but the state of Texas and America" as well.

And, of course, the golden shovels dig into the dirt where home plate will eventually be -- Bagwell leaves without posing, unlike his teammates -- and the crowd of insiders likely goes back to work thinking the Ballpark at Union Station will be ready for Opening Day 2000.

But the day's events probably didn't do much to ease concerns of other Houstonians over the Sports Authority's supposed closed-door meetings, its no-bid contracts and ultra-fast-track construction schedule, its hirings of cronies and all the other issues constantly trumpeted by KPRC/950-AM, the city's most popular talk radio station (operated by Dan Patrick, a dedicated project opponent). If they stopped to think about it at all, they likely asked themselves: Is this any way to build a stadium?

Tuesday, November 4 -- The Authority's Construction Committee is scheduled to meet. In public.

Nothing gets Authority chairman Jack Rains madder than the suggestion that he and his board have been conducting secret meetings. Raise the subject, or -- as some baffled audiences have learned -- wait for him to raise it himself, and you'll get a tirade about yellow journalism and civic responsibility and the First Amendment. (In interviews, the tirade is laced with as much profanity as the inventive Rains can enthusiastically muster; he tones it down slightly for groups such as the Greater Heights Chamber of Commerce.)

Rains remains livid over a series of stories and editorials by the Chronicle about the Authority's first few weeks, when board members held meetings that weren't posted or otherwise made public.

Rains contends that the meetings were designed for information gathering, as opposed to deliberating, and thus were not subject to the Open Meetings Act. He pointedly notes that Bob Collie, the Authority's general counsel, said no postings were necessary. After an outcry from the press and more publicity-attuned politicians, the meetings are now posted.

But that doesn't mean Rains or his fellow board members did anything wrong, rest assured. "There has never been a secret meeting that I am aware of, and I am aware of everything I can be, so I can assure you there has never been a secret meeting," he says.

If enough board members to constitute a quorum happened to be at the Dome at one time, as critics claimed, those members just happened to be individually visiting various experts and officials, not meeting together, says Rains. And anyway, they weren't deliberating, he repeats.

Off the record, stadium supporters castigate Rains for the "secret meetings" flare-up and for the board's hiring of his law firm, Looper, Reed, Mark & McGraw, to do some stadium-related work.

It's unlikely Looper, Reed will get rich off the deal (Daniel Mark, a name partner in the firm, no doubt bills other clients more than the $215 per hour the Authority is paying), but Rains hardly helped matters with his explanation that hiring the firm was better than using a downtown lawyer who would have to drive out to Rains's Greenway Plaza office.

In private, stadium supporters echo what stadium critic and County Commissioner Steve Radack says publicly: "Mistakes have been made --anything that even remotely approaches meetings being closed to the press, or hiring (your own firm) just shouldn't happen," Radack says.

"Am I concerned that their credibility with the general public might be affected? When you had a vote that barely carried, it's very important that the Authority be run in such a way as to gain public support, if it is to be successful in the long run. I think the jury's still out," he says.  

Although meetings are now posted and open to all, they hardly gladden the heart of any good-government type, if the Election Day convening of the Construction Committee is any indication.

The public and the media have to tramp out to the semi-secluded headquarters of committee chair Billy Burge's development company, tucked away down a shaded dead-end street off of Allen Parkway. There they walk past the pair of "Whitewater's Most Wanted" posters listing various Vince Foster conspiracy theories and up the steps to a tiny conference room.

Office staff there, clearly taken aback that as many as ten or so outsiders have shown up, scramble for chairs that quickly overwhelm the small space.

Twenty minutes late, Burge scuttles in, also seeming surprised that anyone would be interested in the goings-on of his little group and its spending of $180 million in tax money.

In a way, he has a point -- the ensuing meeting is about as information-free as a Mentos commercial.

There's no way to tell, of course, if the talk would have been more frank if all those nasty, prying outsiders hadn't been present, but one doubts that Burge would have settled for board member Ric Campo's briefing on the Authority's negotiations with architect HOK Sports Facilities Group: "Things are moving along fine," says Campo, who heads Camden Property Trust, a large real estate development firm. "The lawyers are in there discussing legal issues."

He adds, even more informatively: "It's generally going well; the HOK people are very good to deal with, and we are moving in the right direction."

And that is it.
After about 15 minutes of similarly vague updates, the discussion degenerates into desperate efforts to pad the meeting to a respectable length for the sake of the visitors. That quickly results in an orgy of self-congratulation, as various members note that the people they met on the street all seemed very excited about the stadium, culminating in board member Carol Garner's chirpy assertion that the few carping critics out there just don't understand the crucial difference between being one of the "I Can's" rather than the "You Can'ts."

Campo and Burge are enthusiastic about how the stadium would rejuvenate downtown. "There is not only the excitement among the public about it coming, but people are making significant capital investments (in downtown projects) based on all this," Campo says.

"We need a critical mass downtown, and this will help," adds Burge. "You have got to get people to stay after five o'clock, and the issue is not whether we have a pretty downtown or not. It's about getting people out of their cars at the end of the day and turning on the lights on the weekends.... Now we've had a real live groundbreaking, and we need to get a hole in the ground and some steel."

The insipid "meeting" was emblematic of how the Authority, to no small degree, is a show intended for the public rather than a serious stadium-building project.

Many of the crucial decisions were made well before the Authority was created -- the decision to negotiate no-bid contracts with the architect and contractor, the April 2000 deadline, the amount of money to be spent and how much of it would come from taxes.

Collie largely wrote the bill that passed the Legislature; Rains says the mayor and county judge strongly urged him to retain Collie as general counsel for the Authority. (Collie's firm, Mayor, Day, Caldwell & Keeton, will earn close to a million dollars through 1998 for Authority-related work, according to the board's projected budget.)

Rains makes no bones about the fact that the Authority is working with parameters set by others, but he insists the board is making a difference.

"We've been able to change the direction of the project," he says. "Before, it was the Astros and the contractor making all the decisions. The Sports Authority is starting to make the decisions now, and that puts us in a position to negotiate with the Astros."

Wednesday, November 6 -- The Sports Authority needs help in improving its public image. That message is coming through from a string of public relations specialists who, admittedly, are very interested in being hired to provide that help.

"Your intentions are good, your efforts are well-intentioned ... but the public's perception of how you go about your business could be improved," one publicist tells the board's Community Relations and Fan Outreach Committee, meeting in one of seemingly hundreds of identically generic rooms in the George R. Brown Convention Center.  

"It's as important for you to build public support for the stadium as it is to build the stadium itself," says another. "You need to be more aggressive about getting the message out."

For a board empowered to make decisions on projects worth close to three-quarters of a billion dollars, the Sports Authority is extremely touchy and defensive about its public image. It's exemplified by Rains, who seems to take personally the slightest criticism, and discusses it endlessly. (At the groundbreaking, he told the inherently supportive crowd -- and the lone protester silently holding up a "No No-Bid Contracts" sign -- "I know some are not enthusiastic about this project, and there are some we'll never please, but the vast majority of you, we'll earn your respect.")

Later this day, at the full board meeting, Rains will order that staff present an invoice of time spent responding to a request made by a trio of state legislators for an attorney general's opinion on the legality of the November 1996 referendum -- with the intent of sending the bill to the obstreperous lawmakers. If the gesture is nothing more than a sardonic joke, Rains indicates he plans to go through with it.

Board member Jim Jard gently, but publicly, chides Rains and urges him to drop the idea. Privately, the chairman's move leaves some board members and government officials scratching their heads.

"When Jack Rains was named, I thought it was the best possible choice ... now I'm not so sure," one says. "I don't understand gratuitous slaps at people."

The public perception of the board is, of course, crucial far beyond the building of the baseball stadium. Next in line is spending at least $200 million to attract an NFL team and keep the politically influential Livestock Show and Rodeo happy; after that is a new arena for the NBA Rockets and a potential NHL franchise, a project that will require another referendum.

"If they lose their credibility, they're fucked," is the blunt assessment of one of the PR experts who appeared before the committee. "They won't be able to do the job they've been appointed to do. And the way they have been conducting themselves, people are beginning to question their motives."

Rains reddens at the thought that the board faces a credibility problem. "There's always a lag in public perception, but our image has been crafted primarily by the local daily newspaper, and a content analysis of what they have written would show that it is overwhelmingly negative and, in my opinion -- an opinion that is shared by my fellow board members -- grossly unfair," he thunders.

"They have provided fodder for that same group of critics that has always been against the project. And now that the voters, the Legislature and the attorney general have all spoken on it, the last thing they have to complain about is the real or imagined shortcomings of the board," he says.

In an unpublished letter he sent to the Chronicle (it's posted on the Sports Authority's official web site), Rains calls the paper's editorial about the hiring of his law partners "egregiously unfair, inaccurate and convoluted." In an interview, he calls it "the Chronicle's crappy little editorial."

You might be hard-pressed to find an objective observer who would actually label the Chronicle's coverage and editorial commentary overly critical. A November 12 editorial says of the alleged closed-door meetings: "(T)hat failing perhaps rose more out of haste than a desire for secrecy.... Few things worthwhile are ever accomplished without difficulty ... (and now) a new, good-looking, useful and fun downtown stadium can be erected with all due speed."

After the Community Outreach committee finishes with the public relations candidates, the Finance Committee hears at lunch how uncertainty over the attorney general's pending opinion is hurting the Authority's efforts to sell bonds. As it turns out, the problem will soon take care of itself, when the AG upholds the Sports Authority's arguments a few days later.

Then it's time for the full board to meet. For all the teamwork rhetoric put forth in public, there are only a few key players among its 13 members. And they don't all get along.

According to various theories, Burge can't stand Michael Stevens, Mayor Bob Lanier's man on the board and the Authority's lead negotiator with Drayton McLane. (Burge handles negotiations with Brown & Root, the no-bid construction contractor.) Stevens doesn't like Authority general counsel Bob Collie, and Collie doesn't like anyone connected with the law firm of Vinson & Elkins, lawyers for both Smith Barney, the project's underwriters, and the private group put together by Enron chairman Ken Lay to purchase property for the stadium. It's made for some tense moments, according to observers and participants, but publicly no one says much beyond sweetness and light.  

And publicly, no one has much interesting to say about McLane, either. Board members and city and county officials all take the fifth when it comes to on-the-record insight into negotiating with the Astros owner.

Off the record, though, a fairly consistent consensus emerges: McLane is utterly exasperating to deal with. "Let's just say it is not out of character at all for him to retrade something (already negotiated)," says one insider.

As far as the public knows, city and county officials who negotiated with McLane before the Sports Authority was created in September blindly took for granted the owner's claims that he was losing the oft-stated $20 million a year.

Such claimed losses are all but impossible to verify; McLane gets plenty of revenue from operating the so-called Astrodomain, and paper losses are easy to come by in major-league baseball. Most notably, as far as McLane critics are concerned, Financial World magazine reported in June that the Astros had an $11.5 million operating profit in a year McLane was claiming to be bleeding money.

With the claim of huge losses, and with fan support not yet demonstrated via increased attendance or a referendum victory, government negotiators worked out a deal last year that has the Sports Authority operating under the policy that a finished stadium must be ready by Opening Day 2000. That policy is driving every decision, even though there was little to the stadium plans but pretty pictures when the Authority came on board in September, 30 months before the planned Opening Day.

The Authority had to negotiate a lease with the Astros, a contract and design with the architect, a maximum-guaranteed-price contract with the builders of the stadium and of the roof, and sell bonds to finance the entire enterprise.

Rains has often compared it to changing the tires on a car while going 50 miles an hour.

Besides personality conflicts, other conflicts have cropped up, as McLane has tried to run the show, and city and county officials have been slow to cede authority to the board.

"We have a tenant (the Astros) who still thinks they're the owner, an architect who hasn't accepted us as the owner yet, a construction company that thinks it can cut deals with the tenant and a tenant that thinks it can cut deals with the mayor and the county judge," one board member says.

At the meeting of the full board in the Brown Convention Center, Rains is able to announce that at least some of the problems have been solved: McLane has signed a memorandum of agreement on the lease requiring him to pay $7.1 million a year in rent and maintenance costs -- about twice his original offer.

Says one county official who has been critical of the board: "Dealwise, they've done a really good job under the circumstances," he says. "As far as we can tell, McLane is on the line for significantly more money than he would've been under his original offer."

That is due partly to the fact that by the time Authority members began negotiating, the voters had spoken and endorsed spending $180 million in tax money on a new stadium, making it less likely that major league baseball would allow the Astros to move their franchise.

At least two sources say that Authority negotiators grew tired of McLane's cries of poverty and said no deal would be signed without an outside auditor coming in to review the books, a move made moot when an agreement was reached. (The Astros referred questions to their chief negotiator, Skip Balcomb, who did not return phone messages.)

Rains won't comment on the threat to examine McLane's books, but says that in the end it is irrelevant whether McLane is losing as much as he claims.

"The question is, does Houston want major-league baseball?" he says. "If the answer is yes, than the question is, what is the price that Houston has to pay to retain or attract a team.... With the NFL, we are finding that to attract a team costs a lot more than it does to retain a team.... Whether (McLane) loses or makes money now is irrelevant -- the question is, what does it take to keep that guy here?

"It's like asking, 'What's wrong with the Dome?' Absolutely nothing, is what I and a lot of other people think," he continues. "But there are two views that are determinative -- Major League Baseball and the NFL. And both are monopolies. If they say they won't use the facility, well, it's tough to negotiate with a monopoly."  

McLane, of course, doesn't have much to complain about with the deal. He gets just about every dollar that will be spent at the facility: all concessions, naming rights, advertising and parking.

By the end of the day, Rains is happily posing with the lease agreement and touting it as a major step on the path to building a stadium. Each side has agreed to pay for any changes they request in the construction plans.

Seeing as those construction plans don't exist yet, the deal seems somewhat amorphous, to say the least. Nevertheless, Authority members are confident that Brown & Root will come in with construction plans -- containing all the frills implied in supporters' constantly repeated promise of a "state-of-the-art" facility -- for a price within the $250-million budget.

Some of the remaining negotiations with the contractor involve who will pay if changes are required by the construction drawings, not the Authority or the Astros. If the architectural drawings, for instance, show an air conditioner located in a spot that isn't feasible in terms of construction, who pays for the change?

"I've never seen anyone negotiate a maximum-price contract on design drawings, because you don't know what the construction drawings are going to look like," one skeptical board member says.

The lease agreement is just one of a handful of accomplishments that should have had Authority figures beaming over their week: Between that, the groundbreaking and the string of AG's opinions that have blown away the opposition, times might not get much better than this.

There is no sign of a celebration, however; a bunker mentality still rules. Some board members won't talk publicly with a reporter; others won't talk at all. In an initial meeting, it is Rains, not a Press reporter, who pops a cassette player on the desk and tapes the interview. And who complains at a subsequent meeting, for some reason, about an obscure paragraph buried at the bottom of a nearly three-week-old Chronicle article, which noted that Authority members had -- gasp! -- received a police motorcycle escort when taking a bus to the stadium site.

The obsession with (ever-so-slightly) critical press is laughable, of course, but it's hardly the best strategy to pursue if you're trying to convince a still-skeptical public to take a chance on a high-risk way of building a supposedly downtown-rejuvenating collection of sports facilities.

There are diehard critics who are convinced the Sports Authority is scheming to do nothing more than get a baseball stadium halfway built and then ask voters whether they want to leave a hole in the ground or ante up to finish the job (a strategy that worked with the Astrodome, to be sure).

That scenario seems unlikely, though, with the powerful Livestock Show and Rodeo waiting in line behind McLane for a turn at the public trough.

Still, if it's assumed that a key part of the Authority's job is to build public confidence for future tax-financed stadiums, its start has hardly been auspicious.

"Stylistically, I'd like them to be a little more sensitive to issues like open meetings and conflict of interest," says Jim Greenwood, who made a reputation on the City Council for pushing for open government. "But substantively, they're doing some okay stuff."

Not surprisingly, Rains tries to slough off even such mild criticism.
"Have we made mistakes? You don't live 60 years like I have without fucking up some. But I'll take that board and what it has accomplished and put it up against any 12 people out there.... Whenever someone complains that something doesn't look right, I have to say that I'm a helluva lot more interested in results than in whether my backhand looks beautiful.

"The question is not whether our cape work looks beautiful, it's whether we kill the bull," he says. "This is pass/fail, and the only question is whether the bull leaves the ring or not."


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