In a showdown seemingly right out of a Tom Wolfe novel, in Commissioners Court on Friday, September 29, Little Woodrow's owner Danny Evans received a practical catechism in big-city politics -- the hard way.
Evans, a mild-mannered man who worked for six years as a teacher at an Episcopal prep school in Austin before embarking on a career as a publican, owns two beer-and-wine operations in Houston, Little Woodrow's Neighborhood Ice House [2301 West Alabama, (713)529-0449] and Little Woodrow's [4235 Bellaire Boulevard, (713)661-5282]. Both establishments are sports bars frequented by, for the most part, white suburban guys and their scrubbed and sensible girlfriends or wives.
When Evans was approached in 1999 by two veteran Houston real estate speculators, Ken Cunningham and Billy Marlin, he was delighted. The pair were looking for a reputable operator to open a joint on a property they had recently purchased across from Enron Field on Texas Avenue. A sports bar across the street from the 42,000-seat ballpark seemed a natural. There was a church nearby, but Evans felt the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission law that states a bar cannot be within 300 feet of a main church door could be satisfied.
City of Houston and TABC officials measured the distance from Annunciation's front door to the proposed entrance of Little Woodrow's at a little more than 300 feet. The TABC granted a permit. But just days before construction was to begin on the $500,000 building, the church and school protested that they had not been properly informed of the proposed beer-and-wine operation, as TABC rules require. Evans, according to his testimony, voluntarily gave up the permit and began the process anew, in order to accommodate the concerns of his potential neighbors.
That, as it turns out, was a major tactical error for Evans and his partners.
Annunciation, to begin with, is not your mainstream Catholic church. At the hearing in front of Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, Monsignor Frank Rossi, chancellor of the diocese, explained that Annunciation was the only Catholic church in the diocese that still performs the Tridentine Mass, or the traditional Latin mass. An Episcopalian minister who was conversant with the Houston religious community observes, "Those [Catholic conservatives] who are uncomfortable in the suburban churches often find a shell church where they can congregate -- like hermit crabs."
Annunciation was once, in the 19th century, the main downtown Catholic church in Houston. Completed in 1873, it is one of the oldest buildings of any type left standing in Houston. Over time, as economic activity shifted west in the downtown region, Annunciation became a church in the midst of skid row.
When Evans planted his Little Woodrow's sign on the lot at 1710 Texas, including the tag line "Mucho cerveza, baby" and describing the sports bar as an "ice house," Monsignor James Golasinski, pastor of Annunciation, went into action.
Golasinski's church is protected by Texas law from having an establishment serving alcoholic beverages with 300 feet of the main door. However, Incarnate Word Academy, a Catholic-based college prep school located on the same square block as the church, is a private school, according to Harris County Attorney Michael P. Fleming. And as a private school, it enjoys no protection under Texas law from TABC-licensed establishments. In contrast, public schools by law have a 1,000-foot buffer zone. In order to protect Incarnate Word, the church had to protest the granted license. In language quaintly redolent of 19th-century America, the TABC has a standard protest form that allows an otherwise legal alcohol-related business to be denied a license if "the peace or morals of the people are adversely affected" or "the sense of decency of the people is adversely affected." Out of dozen possible reasons enumerated in the TABC form, Eckels cited those two phrases in denying the permit to Evans on September 29.
The church had some help in getting the permit denied. Annunciation retained the powerhouse law firm of Vinson & Elkins and, in particular, partner Joe B. Allen, who was described by a veteran political insider as "the most powerful lobbyist in Houston and Harris County." Even Fleming joined in. When asked how frequently he participates in protests of alcoholic beverage licenses, Fleming observed that "This is the first that was brought to us."
By the time Evans and his attorney took their seats in Commissioners Court on that September morning, the case pretty much had been decided, according to political observers. What went on in court was a dog-and-pony show: a 100-plus delegation of students from the academy, an orderly and well-spoken group of young women of nearly every conceivable ethnicity; a series of clerics, nuns and devout laypeople; TABC representatives and Houston civil servants; citizens exercising their right to voice an opinion, which caused the hearing to drag on past 7 p.m.; a crowd of electronic media.
One political insider is of the opinion that County Commissioner Steve Radack saw an opportunity to discomfit Eckels, to "make him squirm." "Radack gets a great perverse pleasure out of getting Eckels on the hot spot," the source says. This political feud began some years ago when Radack, then a constable, ran up against Eckels's father, Bob Eckels, who died in 1990. Both Radack and Fleming are Catholic. What's more, Fleming also "owes his position to Radack," says the insider. "Radack was a strong promoter of Fleming. He won the election [to Harris County Attorney] by 1 percent." In supporting the protest, Radack found a highly visible issue on which Eckels could be made to look bad whichever way the judge ruled. The powerful groups interested in downtown redevelopment, such as Central Houston Inc. and the Downtown Houston Association, cannot be pleased with a ruling in favor of the protest. A ruling against the protest would have alienated much of the churchgoing population of the county.
Reached after the hearing, Sister Lauren Beck, president of the Incarnate Word Academy, spoke candidly, observing that "We are not anti-business. Mr. Evans has a business, but frankly, so do we. Our business is education. It is a business. It has to have people coming in. For that, we have to provide the safest environment possible."
The lingering question to this entire saga concerns development around Enron Field. When the legislature enacted a 1,000-foot alcohol-free zone around public schools, with no protection for private schools, it is "our understanding of it, the intention was not to exclude any child," Beck observes. "We hope the law can realize that we are a public school in those terms, or, if not, then the legislature should change the law."
Fleming also observes, with regard to the public/private dichotomy in the law, "I don't know why they would want to do that. I'm still curious as to why there is that distinction. Perhaps the legislature should look at that."
If the Texas legislature does look at this issue and finds that private schools should enjoy the same protection, a 1,000-foot radius around Incarnate Word Academy would require about 60 square blocks of downtown to be declared off limits to alcohol-related businesses. And that is just in one part of Houston.
By the way, Evans's beer-and-wine license may not be dead after all. He can still appeal to the TABC in Austin, where one presumes politics will not interfere with his desire to offer a good time.