Little Big Crony

It's an unusually warm day for what passes for autumn in Houston, and Billy Burge is playing hurt. The chairman of the Metropolitan Transit Authority has just returned from yet another trip out of town -- Boston, this time -- and is back to work at his day job as president of Ayrshire Corporation, the development firm started 48 years ago by his father.

Burge is a man of almost monotonous good spirits, but the rigors of the road are testing him. He looks tired. His boyish face, round and pink as a piece of candy, is now deeply and malevolently creased. Climbing the stairs to Ayrshire's second-floor conference room, a cup of coffee in one hand, a stack of messages in the other, he explains how his "goofy back went out" as he stooped to pick up a suitcase. "First time it's ever happened," he notes.

It's a bit of an occasion to hear Burge's voice for the first time. It's what you might expect from a 53-year-old man named Billy: a twangy, cartoonish chirp that neither soothes nor irritates, though it's prone to abrupt shifts in speed, revving into high gear when he's angry. At 5 feet 5 inches, Burge is cushy and compact and, when he's on his game, as inviting as a bowl of sweets -- which is to say, you either can't resist him or you avoid him when you can. An unabashed glad-hander, Burge, as one friend put it, "is someone you want to find a way to say yes to."

Others -- none of whom will say so for the record -- suggest that the happy schmoozer is only half the Billy Burge persona. The other half is a spoiled and undisciplined man whose convictions are shaped, not by passion, but by time and place and opportunity. Below Burge's inviting surface, they say, lies a self-serving competitiveness that, over the years, has cost him relationships with longtime friends and family members.

Burge slips uneasily into a padded chair in his company's conference room. To his right, a wall of windows looks out over Allen Parkway a block away. Midmorning traffic whizzes to and from downtown, which is so close to Ayrshire's headquarters that it appears as if the looming skyline is about to swallow the company's modest two-story building.

Until recently, it seemed Burge was only mildly interested in the daily migration that takes place outside his window. But in August, at the annual meeting of Central Houston Inc., a group dedicated to promoting the central city, Burge made news by announcing his support for Oilers owner Bud Adams' controversial proposal to build a domed stadium downtown. A few days later, in a rambling Sunday op-ed piece in the Houston Chronicle, Burge suddenly assumed the job of number one cheerleader for a major revitalization of downtown. He waxed nostalgic about downtown's glory days and prophesied their return with the construction of "capital-scale projects," including a casino and a new hotel near the George R. Brown Convention Center. He goofily encouraged every Houstonian to pick a project and "be part of the team working to make Houston and downtown thrive and grow."

On the one hand, Burge's interest in downtown marks a departure from his past; Ayrshire's impact on Houston has largely been a suburban phenomenon. It started with a post-World War II development near Bellaire of 800 acres -- at the time a venture of unheard-of scope in Houston -- and continued with mixed-use projects and master-planned communities farther out as the city grew. These days, Ayrshire is involved in major commercial projects in New Orleans, New York, Atlanta and Los Angeles. But because a massive redevelopment plan for the Fourth Ward with American General has been scrubbed, downtown Houston has yet to be subjected to the Ayrshire touch.

Yet on the other hand, it's hardly a surprise that Billy Burge should be waking up to downtown. Lots of people have since Burge's close friend and fellow developer, Bob Lanier, was elected mayor in 1991. Lanier's election owes a lot to his pal Billy, since it was Burge who finally convinced a reluctant Lanier to run. "Elyse [Lanier's wife] called the house one day and said, 'We're running out of time. If anyone can talk him into it, it's you,'" Burge recalls. Burge organized a breakfast for a group of Lanier's friends, including developers Harry Reed, Wayne Duddlesten and Jimmy Hill, in which they decided Lanier was their man.

"We told him there was nobody else out there ... no leadership and no politician except Kathy Whitmire and her liberal agenda. So [Lanier] said, 'I'll run an internal poll, see where things stand. See if you can raise $200,000,'" says Burge. "So I went to see three or four people and came back and said, 'I got your $200,000. It's all yours. No obligation.'"

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Brian Wallstin