City Proposes to Lease Prime Arts Venues; Local Man Likens It to Desperate Crack Deal
For those of you who might have been doing other things over the weekend, a trial balloon was launched in Saturday's Metro section of the Houston Chronicle.
Who gets the George R. Brown?
Specifically, the idea is being bandied about for the City of Houston to sell off its Convention and Entertainment Facilities department, which oversees the operations at prime, taxpayer-built venues such as the Wortham Center, Jones Hall, the George R. Brown Convention Center and Miller Outdoor Theatre. Backers of the plan say it will bring a much-needed $10 million rainfall into a city whose finances are as cash-dry as our withering lawns are drought-stricken.
Opponents of the plan say it is little more than a scheme by which the city will rid itself of 120 union jobs (with benefits, and more importantly, pensions) and replace them with low-paid, minimally benefited workers.
Under the terms of the secretly crafted plan, the existing governmental entertainment office would be merged with (and presumably subsumed by) the Houston Convention Center Hotel Corporation, a nonprofit created by the city to run the Hilton Americas hotel downtown. This new organization, to be called Houston First, would lease Jones Hall, the Wortham, Miller and the convention center for $2 million a year for five years, payable with a single upfront payment of $10 million.
An anonymous source told the Chron that Houston First could then rake in $3 million - $7 million per year in sponsorship money alone. (Then why isn't the city the guy who can swing those deals, wonders one skeptic.)
Houston First would be able to operate more nimbly than the city, the source continued to the Chronicle, and not have to clear sponsorship options through our elected officials, specifically, city council.
Houston First would also be able to take risks on hosting trade shows the city might not be willing to take on, the source said. They would be gambling with their own money rather than that of the taxpayers, the source explained. Ric Campo, chairman of the Hilton America's board, told the Chron that the merged organization would be able to spend more on marketing.
The "way, way funky" terms of the deal, if not the deal itself, trouble a Houston arts insider who did not want to be named. We'll call him Walt.