Stadia Watch

As County Judge Robert Eckels scrambles to come up with a plan for a new baseball stadium to keep Drayton McLane happy and the Astros at home, Mayor Bob Lanier's labors to provide Les Alexander with a new arena have taken a back seat in the media. But don't think the city's proposed ($200 million?) gift to the Rockets owner is on hold, or that a cheaper alternative -- renovating the Summit -- is being given serious consideration. Lanier reportedly is just waiting for the right strategic moment to float his proposal to the public. When he does, he may be tempted to cite a feasibility study by Coopers & Lybrand as evidence of the economic bounty a downtown arena would bring. Commissioned by Central Houston Inc., the study estimates that a new arena would generate more than $100 million in annual spending, which in turn would yield 1,740 jobs and $56.5 million in wages and salaries.

But buyer beware. A close reading of the study raises at least one serious question: would that be new money and new jobs? The answer appears to be no. Of the 141 events projected for the new arena each year, most -- the Rockets, the Hotshots, the Texas Terror, ice shows, the circus, tractor pulls, concerts -- are already produced in the Summit, Astrodome or other local venues. With the exception of the Rockets, average attendance at those events is figured at less than 11,000 -- meaning that the 17,100-seat Summit already handles most of the crowds just fine. Which, in turn, means that all that spending and all those jobs touted in the study would simply be shifted from one venue to another.

An incremental increase in spending would be provided by the Rockets, assuming the team keeps winning and can sell out the few thousand extra seats in a new arena. And Coopers & Lybrand's Malcolm Gable notes that spending on concessions, luxury boxes and other incidentals (including higher ticket prices, no doubt) historically goes up in new arenas -- though much of that would go into Alexander's pockets. But the study mentions nothing about increments, presenting the economic impact as though Houstonians would enjoy a cash windfall from a new arena.

But the cost of maintaining the Summit (or tearing it down and paying off leaseholder and Aeros owner Chuck Watson), along with the outlays for maintaining the new arena, paying its debt service, building a parking deck and other hidden expenses, would more than offset the incremental new spending and employee earnings a new arena would spur.

Coopers & Lybrand's John Kaatz, who had primary responsibility for the study, did not return phone calls from the Press. But Central Houston's Bob Eury acknowledges that the economic impact figures reflect what already exists. What the study really shows, Eury explains, is the value of the Rockets to the city (though only about half of the projected economic impact is generated by the team). "The thinking behind that is, yes, we already have an NBA franchise here," Eury says, "but behind the scenes there's that concern that you may lose Alexander and the Rockets. So basically what you're saying here is, 'This is what happens if you, in fact, lose them.' " In other words, if Les doesn't get his new arena, he's gone, and so the city needs to get cracking -- no matter what the numbers actually show.

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