The University of Houston announced in November that a desperately needed renovation of the long-neglected Hofheinz Pavilion would begin after the 2016-2017 basketball season. The renovations would cost 60 million dollars, with 20 million of those dollars coming from an anonymous donor. The school also announced at the time that the building would no longer be known as Hofheinz Pavilion.
There’s just one problem: Hofheinz Pavilion only came into being through a gift of $1.5 million from Roy Hofheinz — a third of the cost to build the arena. Hofheinz, a former Harris County judge as well as a former mayor of Houston, was, at that time, the owner of the Houston Astros and was the genius who birthed the Astrodome.
Hofheinz gifted the money to UH as part of a trust. And as part of his gift, it was mandated that the “new athletic field house of The University of Houston [be] designated and named ‘Hofheinz Pavilion’ (or as Hofheinz and The University of Houston may otherwise agree)…. "The trust does not have a termination date, and there is nothing that states that the school may unilaterally change the name of the facility. (The quoted language comes from the Gift Instrument created by Hofheinz, and is Exhibit A to UH’s Petition to Terminate Hofheinz Charitable Trust.)
The “Pavilion was dead in the water when they called Roy Hofheinz and begged him to finish it,” John Raley, (of the Houston law firm Raley & Boswick) attorneys for the Hofheinz family, told the Press last week. “And he provided that. The sole condition — and he was getting up in years — for once something that he helped build would finally bear his name.”
The Hofheinz family was not contacted in advance of the renovation announcement, and it was not consulted regarding the facility’s name change. School officials just barreled ahead with its plans, and just as it did for many, many years with the building, UH neglected the Hofheinz family.
In mid-April, the school filed a petition in Harris County Probate Court, seeking to terminate the trust. Terminating the trust would allow the school to sell the naming rights for the renovated facility, and termination would allow the school to get past that whole part of the Hofheinz gift about consent being required to change the building’s name.
The Hofheinz family responded to the UH court petition last week, seeking to have the court deny UH’s request. The family’s filing speaks of honor and trust, about how the university didn’t mind taking the family’s money but how it now seeks to break its part of the agreement.
“The University agreed, took his money, named the building, spent the money and now, years later, having spent the money, decided it didn’t want to honor the agreement anymore,” Raley said. “And we are saying that is wrong.”
UH's basic reasoning for the name change is that the money Roy Hofheinz gifted to UH has been spent; thus, UH should no longer be held to the terms of the agreement. The problem is that that’s not what the Hofheinz Gift Instrument says. The agreement doesn’t end when the money is gone. And part of that agreement is that the Hofheinz name be on the basketball arena.
“I think the signal that the University of Houston is sending is serious on many fronts,” Raley said. “I think it’s serious to other potential donors to the University of Houston. What’s to prevent the University of Houston, for example, from taking this new donor’s money for the naming of the building and then along the road, having spent the money, deciding that they didn’t want to honor it anymore and going to another donor?”
Raley says that he has been contacted by a large number of UH alumni since the Hofheinz family went to court, and he states that he’s received near universal support.
“The name ‘Hofheinz Pavilion’ is meaningful to them,” he says. “It’s Houston history. They graduated there. They watched basketball games there; they watched concerts there. It’s important to them, and they don’t want it changed either.”
I’m not an expert on probate law, but the language of the Hofheinz gift instrument seems clear: Here’s the money, build the arena, name it after me. There’s no end date, and there’s a statement about Hofheinz and the university having to agree on the name. It appears that UH moved forward without first bothering to reach an agreement with the Hofheinz family, or before bothering to attempt to terminate the trust. It may be successful in court with regards to termination. And if UH does get that termination, then it can sell the naming rights for much-needed money. But it really didn’t have to come to this.
The Press contacted the University of Houston last week for comment. On advice of the school’s general counsel, UH officials refused to comment, and instead referred the Press to the statement below, which was issued to the media on the day the Hofheinz family filed its response in court:
The University of Houston appreciates and celebrates the generosity of all its donors and complies with the donors’ intent and restrictions set forth in gift agreements. The [Hofhienz family petition] filed today by several foundations claiming to be successors to the donor was in response to the University’s filing of a standard petition to dissolve the trust as we have fulfilled its terms. The University is grateful for the Hofheinz family’s contributions on behalf of the University, however, in this matter disagrees with its position regarding the duration of the naming rights as well as many of the facts that have been alleged. The University has been in discussions with the Hofheinz family and, though it disagrees with the family’s position, has sought an amicable resolution.
Renovation of Hofheinz Pavilion is long overdue. Its treatment by the university since the heyday of Phi Slama Jama is shameful, and the facility should never have been allowed to deteriorate to the condition it's now in. There's no doubt the intentions of the UH administration in this instance are good. But its follow-through on those intentions is severely lacking. And there's absolutely no justification for the treatment of the Hofheinz family.