Waiting for Get Done

When Ace Tin and Sheet Metal Works, Inc. got a contract in 1996 to replace the siding at Miller Outdoor Theatre, Kathy Highsmith was thrilled. The job would give the small family business, founded by her grandfather in 1928, its biggest boost since Highsmith's dad had retired five years earlier and turned it over to his two daughters. "We thought it was a wonderful opportunity for us," Highsmith says.

Part of the major renovation of Miller that was to include a new roof, sound system and extensive landscaping, the siding work was to take about five months and be completed at the tail end of 1996 -- a perfect Christmas gift for her company, Highsmith thought. The siding, which because of exacting specifications could only be supplied by a company in Pennsylvania, arrived in August, and Ace Tin immediately started construction. Highsmith rented equipment and hired ten new employees to ensure the schedule would be met, and the first wall was finished in a few weeks. "We really geared up for it," she says.

Concerns about the siding, which had been scratched in transit, prompted a meeting in September with the supplier, Ace Tin and various people involved in the project, including several city and theater representatives. At the meeting, the supplier offered to fix any problems after the siding was installed -- even to repaint every panel, if necessary. According to Highsmith, that solution satisfied everyone present.

Unfortunately, everyone did not include Jerry Dinkins, who heads the Public Works Department's Special Projects Division and in that capacity manages the Miller renovations for the city. In November, after Ace Tin had finished three of four walls, Dinkins decided that the siding had to come down and be completely replaced. He froze all payments on the project, leaving Ace Tin unable to make payroll and stuck with thousands of dollars in unpaid bills from suppliers. Highsmith says she tried to discuss it with Dinkins, but was rebuffed. "He wouldn't talk," she says. "He wouldn't negotiate."

Dinkins, who didn't attend the meeting at which the siding agreement was reached, sticks by his decision and says he doesn't recall any conversations with anyone but the general contractor, Mesa Southwest Construction Co. "I don't know anything about Ace Tin," says Dinkins.

Highsmith snorts at Dinkins's alleged memory loss. "That is so untrue," she says. "He knows who I am. He spoke with me personally. He wrote me a letter."

As proof, Highsmith faxed the Press a copy of a letter Dinkins sent her in December 1996. "I regret the financial burden this situation has caused your company," wrote Dinkins. "However, at this time our position stands that the metal panels will not be accepted by the city of Houston."

Dinkins shrugs off the evidence. "If there's a letter, there's a letter," he says. "I don't recall it."

The siding issue remained unresolved for months. Eventually, the supplier agreed to replace the siding, which meant that all Ace Tin's work had to be torn down. By this point, Ace was out of the picture -- financial problems related to the siding deal had left the company with a skeletal staff and angry creditors -- and another company got the contract. More than a year after the scheduled completion date, the siding is still not completely installed -- and scratches are plainly visible on the new material.

The Parks and Recreation Department announced on February 2 that the first part of Miller Outdoor Theatre's 1998 season would have to be postponed because the renovations hadn't been completed. Blame it on bad weather, says parks deputy director Susan Christian. "We had an exorbitant amount of rainfall," Christian explains.

El Nino may in fact have contributed to the delays, but people with an intimate knowledge of the situation point to poor management of the theater renovations and numerous bungles during construction as far more significant. "For them to say the problem was inclement weather is like saying that Matt Bullard is responsible for what happens to the Houston Rockets," says a source who has worked on various parts of the project. "It's bullshit."

Indeed, the aborted first part of the season is but the latest in a series of delays that go back more than three years, well before El Nino began its reign. In September 1994, Parks Department Director Bill Smith announced that $1.5 million in parks funds would be dedicated to various improvements at the theater. The following April, he outlined the specifics -- a new roof, new bathrooms, drainage improvements, a souped-up sound system -- and set a time line. Work was to commence in November, after completion of the 1995 season, and be finished by the theater's 1996 opening in March.

By August, however, the lack of movement on the project caused Miller Outdoor Theatre advisory board chairman Genevieve Rousseve to write a letter to Smith. "To date, there is no indication that any bidding has begun," Rousseve wrote. "Our board is very concerned that another window of available construction time will be lost."  

At some point, the city realized that the cost of the scheduled renovations would exceed $1.5 million, and the wish list was scaled back. Construction of the remaining items didn't begin in November. More than half a year later than planned, the crews finally got under way.

The parks department has a rosy explanation, of course, just as there's a rosy explanation for anything parks-related that might be perceived as untoward. Since the scope of the work had to change because of the cost, says deputy director Beto Bautista, the process slowed down while the department tried to figure out which renovations would be done by the city and which by the Friends of Hermann Park, the nonprofit group that had devised a master plan for the entire park that included major landscaping changes at Miller. "It was really a question of how we would package the work," Bautista says.

Why that took months to determine, especially since the $1.5 million would cover less than originally planned for November and had nothing to do with landscaping, remains a mystery.

Equally mysterious is the convoluted saga of the roof, which Smith had initially noted in April 1995 would be replaced. That was a month before the warranty on the old thermoplastic roof, which had been leaking, expired. According to a roofing consultant's report several months later, "Any and all problems with the thermoplastic roof system until that time should have been corrected by the materials manufacturer."

Apparently no one knew about the warranty until it was too late. The new roof, which was supposed to take a year to build, instead went up in dribs and drabs, the completion date fading further and further into the future. Leaks were a constant problem, flooding offices and creating pools of water in the seating areas. Last year, during the Shakespeare Festival, water poured through a hole that should have been covered and doused the cast and set of The Winter's Tale in the middle of a performance, forcing its cancellation.

The roof replacement was supposed to have been coordinated with construction of the new bathrooms. But the higher-than-anticipated cost meant that the bathrooms had to be delayed until more cash became available. The roofers went ahead, though, and after they finished the job, almost half the new lid had to be torn off again to accommodate the bathrooms. Asked why the two projects weren't coordinated, Dinkins hedges. "I'm not sure," he says. "I didn't think that much of the new roof was taken off."

For someone who is supposed to be in charge, Dinkins seems unsure about a lot of the details. He first denied, for example, that the first batch of renovations was part of mayor Bob Lanier's Parks to Standard program, a fact that was common knowledge among almost everyone contacted for this story. Later, Dinkins admitted he'd been mistaken. And he says that he was unaware of the siding problems for several months after the contractor, the supplier and others had met several times to discuss the matter.

Just who was supposed to oversee the project remains in doubt. A number of chiefs supposedly managed the construction, including several city employees in addition to Dinkins, private consultants and the contractors, but asked to identify who or why something went wrong, fingers point frantically in various directions.

Whoever was responsible for the project, the lack of movement on the renovations almost resulted in disaster. Last June, the city held a groundbreaking ceremony featuring the mayor, Public Works Department Director Jimmie Schindewolf and other top brass. Half an hour after they left, a severe windstorm kicked up. Because the siding issue was still in limbo and the job remained half-finished, the wind caught some unsecured panels and pulled off several sections, punching holes in the roof and scattering sheet metal everywhere. "If it had fallen while they were there," says one attendee, "Somebody would have gotten badly hurt."

Even with all the snafus, Dinkins and other officials stated early last year that the theater would be substantially complete by October 25, just after the season was over. As the year progressed, though, and the endless delays mounted, the deadline seemed impossible to meet. Still, the city scheduled a private fundraising gala starring the Pointer Sisters on that date, insisting that the theater would be ready on time. "It was more than unrealistic," says a source familiar with the project. "They had their heads up their ass."  

Parks department deputy director Susan Christian says that the date was chosen because it was the first available weekend after the 1997 season, and because the city wanted to celebrate Miller's 75th anniversary before the calendar year ended. She neglected to mention another important reason that date was chosen, and why it remained so hard and fast despite the evidence that the theater wouldn't be anywhere near ready -- October 25 happens to be Bob and Elyse Lanier's wedding anniversary. "It was a gift for the mayor and his wife," says a gala participant.

Partly because a number of temporary measures had to be taken to stage the gala in the midst of construction, expenses for the grand party went through the ceiling. The Pointer Sisters' $60,000 fee plus numerous pricey requirements didn't help either. In fact, though Christian claims to have raised $50,000 for the theater during the gala, others laugh at the number. "The city lost its shirt," says a source with access to the numbers.

Christian first admitted that in calculating the proceeds, she failed to subtract the costs, which totaled about $100,000. Perhaps because throwing a private mayoral anniversary party at taxpayer expense wouldn't sit well, she later changed her story, saying that the city actually raised $150,000 from private donors and therefore netted the $50,000. Despite a request to document her claim, however, Christian did not do so by press time.

After the gala, another five months remained before this year's opening. Rather than speed up construction, the various crews have plodded along at half-speed, much to the dismay of observers. And though rain did slow the renovations, basic measures to deal with bad weather, such as the use of heavy-duty construction mats for muddy grounds, weren't taken until late January. At this point, even the revised opening date in late May is in question. "I don't know why [the mats weren't used earlier]," says one worker. "They should have been there in November."

The city even delayed the announcement that the theater still wouldn't be ready by the opening of the current season on April 3 until two months before. Though all but one of the shows have been rescheduled (Cinco de Mayo has been moved to September 14), many of the groups had invested a lot of time preparing for their events and were thrown for a loop by the postponement. "It was devastating, I'll tell you that," says Carolyn Franklin, executive director of HITS Unicorn Theatre, which will have to stage its production next November. "We were already in rehearsal. I had a superb cast, and now two of my principal characters will be going off to college. I think it's a shame."

Kathy Highsmith of Ace Tin thinks it's a shame as well. Since the city left her holding the bag on the siding, the company has been on the verge of ruin and may have to file for bankruptcy soon. "We ended up losing about $150,000," says Highsmith. "Fifteen people lost their jobs. Believe me, I have very bitter, hard feelings.

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