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Houston -- Ready for the Super Bowl?

The city hopes to recast its image as it prepares to welcome football fans, but major renovations are far from done.

August 10, 2003|Dana Calvo | Special to The Times

HOUSTON — An estimated 130,000 visitors will flock here for the Feb. 1 Super Bowl, which is just the kind of shindig Houston needs to get past its embarrassing corporate energy scandals and get on with the lucrative business of being a gracious hostess.

But Southern hospitality has run smack into the grim realities of municipal mayhem.

The modern 24-floor Hilton Americas Hotel -- officially designated Super Bowl Headquarters -- remains under construction. Sections of the city's downtown look like they've been burrowed by the gophers in "Caddyshack," with more than half the streets torn up for repairs. And a 250-foot fountain at the new pedestrian plaza won't be completed until New Year's Day, leaving workers less than four weeks to finish the light-rail system that passes over the fountain's base.

"We've taken a few hits in the past few years," said Chuck Watson, chairman of the Super Bowl Host Committee and former chief executive and chairman of energy giant Dynegy Inc. There was the national scrutiny of Houston's environmental record during the presidential election, and then the energy industry collapse in 2001. "My hope was that we could put Houston's best foot forward."

In fact, Super Bowl XXXVIII is supposed to mark the beginning of its recovery from bad economic times.

The pressure on event planners to throw a fabulous party for out-of-towners is a departure for a city that long prided itself on marching to its own drum. It used to be that price per barrel, not parties for out-of-towners, was all that mattered here.

In 1981, the energy sector employed 86% of the city's residents. But over the last two decades the city has diversified. Today, the energy sector employs only 48%, a large enough population of workers to be affected when monster companies such as Dynegy, Enron Corp. and El Paso Corp. run into serious trouble, as they have in the last two years, but not such a complete monopoly that the city can ignore investing in other sectors.

As Houston has diversified, it has become more like the rest of America. Reflecting a national trend, unemployment rates here soared from 3.7% in February 2001 to 6.7% this summer.

"We used to say, 'If it's good for Boston, it's bad for Houston,' " said Stephen Klineberg, a Rice University sociology professor who has overseen 22 annual Houston area surveys that gather information on residents' attitudes about everything from traffic to crime to the economy. "Houston is no longer countercyclical. Now, it's locked into the global and national economies, and since 2000, unemployment is growing, deficits are increasing."

Critics Don't See Profits

Whether playing host to the Super Bowl is a sound strategy for staying alive in that global and national economy remains to be seen, and Houston has plenty of critics who have dedicated themselves to fighting projects that were pitched as image makers.

"This is the Potemkin Village approach for Houston, with a facade of houses with flowers out front," said David Hutzelman founder of a political action committee that opposed the light-rail project.

Victor A. Matheson, professor of economics at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., says it's worse than that. He thinks cities all across the United States have become so enamored with the profits promised by the National Football League that they spend an inordinate amount of resources in an effort to attract the organization and satisfy their commitment to it. He analyzed revenue brought into cities during Super Bowls from 1970 to 2000 and concluded that the event typically draws $45 million -- not the $275 million to $300 million the NFL claims.

"The NFL dangles this carrot of 'build a new stadium and we'll give you the Super Bowl,' " Matheson said. "Based on the NFL numbers, it seems like the trade-off of getting the Super Bowl is a free stadium, but most economists would say that's wildly exaggerated."

His research findings, however, have fallen on deaf ears, as city officials insist Super Bowl XXXVIII is a well-timed opportunity to begin remaking the city's national reputation while taking concrete steps to improving local services.

And from a more nostalgic, if not necessarily rational, viewpoint, they say February's Super Bowl is retribution for a city that lost its beloved Oilers in 1996 to Nashville. (The team was renamed the Tennessee Titans).

For three years, the largest city in Texas -- a state where football is more of a religion than a spectator sport -- had no pro football. It wasn't until a local businessman offered $700 million for the expansion team that the NFL agreed to bestow upon the city the Houston Texans, the League's 32nd franchise. That deal trumped two other offers originating out of Southern California, one by Hollywood mogul Michael Ovitz and another by Ed Roski and billionaire Eli Broad.

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