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Harris County-Houston Sports Authority

The Sports Authority at 20

A few stadia, a little mission creep. Where has the time gone?

As the Harris County Houston Sports Authority celebrated its 20th anniversary Monday night with a reception for current and former directors and board members, it moves into its third decade as a considerably different agency than the one that came into being in 1997.

While the city-county agency continues collecting and distributing the hotel-motel and rental car taxes that funded the billion-dollar construction cost of Minute Maid Park, NRG Stadium and Toyota Center, its more visible function these days is as a sports marketing arm that hopes to bring another NCAA Final Four, an MLB All-Star Game, the Pan American Games and other events to the city.

J. Kent Friedman, the board’s current chairman for more than a decade, jokes while that his predecessors – former Texas Secretary of State Jack Rains and Houston developer Billy Burge – presided over an eventful construction boom from the late 1990s into the early 2000s, his role is considerably less glamorous.

“We’re like the folks with the broom walking behind the elephant,” Friedman said.

It’s a pithy quip for a time frame that involves less flying dirt but still confronts Friedman and executive director Janis Burke with significant decisions and negotiations as the authority hopes to squeeze more years out of three buildings that are, in terms of their initial lease agreements, middle-aged.

Basically, at this point the mission of this committee that was originally formed to get NRG Stadium (née Reliant Sstadium), Toyota Center, and Minute Maid (née Enron) Park built encompasses three things: Handling the bond finances for said stadia, negotiating lease extensions for the occupants of same, and trying to bring big sporting events to Houston. They’ve done a pretty good job with the latter, and I suppose if they didn’t exist some other organization would have to be formed to do that work. I hope they do at least as good a job with item #2, because I don’t want to think about what might happen in the event one of those venues is deemed uninhabitable by its tenant. So good luck with that.

(The story mentions in passing the litigation with HCHSA’s bond insurer, saying they are “three years removed” from it. The last story I saw was that an appeals court had reinstated the lawsuit, which had been previously dismissed. Doesn’t sound like a resolution to me, but I’m too lazy to google around and see if there are further updates.)

And now we have a lawsuit over HERO repeal ballot language

Oh, for crying out loud.

RedEquality

Last month the Texas Supreme Court suspended the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, more commonly known as HERO, and ordered City Council to either repeal the non-discrimination measure or put it up for a public vote.

On Wednesday council voted 12-5 for the latter, and in November Houston voters will be asked this question at the polls:

“Shall the City of Houston repeal the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, Ord. No. 2014-530 which prohibits discrimination in city employment and city services, city contracts, public accommodations, private employment, and housing based on an individual’s sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, marital status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information gender identity or pregnancy?”

That question, according to the coalition of pastors and conservative activists that have been fighting HERO tooth-and-nail since it went before council last spring (even though religious groups are exempt from having to follow the law), is deliberately confusing and not the same as a public vote on HERO. On Friday, Andy Taylor, one of the attorneys who first sued the city over HERO alongside Steve “Men Who Lose Their Testicles Can’t Read Maps” Hotze (who later dropped out of the suit), filed yet another legal challenge against the city in hopes of changing the wording of the ballot measure.

In a motion filed with the state supreme court Friday, Taylor points to the city charter language related to ballot referendums: “…such ordinance or resolution shall not take effect unless a majority of the qualified voters voting thereon at such election shall vote in favor thereof.”

That’s the legal basis for Taylor’s petition to change the ballot language – that voters should vote “yes” or “no” on HERO, not “yes” or “no” on whether to keep it.

[…]

Ultimately, it appears the anti-HERO coalition fears the ballot language could harm their chances of success at the polls. “This is a legal recipe for an electoral disaster,” Taylor writes. “Voters will be confused, because someone who is against the proposition cannot vote against, and vice-versa.”

It’s unclear why Taylor and his coalition still feel they haven’t won the HERO-ballot battle and keep heading to the courts. The public now has the opportunity to cast a vote on other people’s rights, which is what Taylor and other opponents have wanted all along. Is the current ballot language (do you or do you not think HERO should stand?) really so confusing as to spoil the anti-LGBT contingent’s chances at the polls?

Mayor Parker’s statement is here. I’m convinced that the only language that would be acceptable to Taylor and his band of idiots is “Do you or do you not want to protect your children from a bunch of filthy perverts?” But hey, maybe they’ll get the Supreme Court to save their sorry asses again.

In the meantime, while we wait for that foolishness to be adjudicated, there’s this:

Boosters of big sporting events in Houston are nervous about the fight over the equal rights ordinance.

Opponents of the ordinance have succeeded in putting the issue on the November ballot. Now, some HERO supporters are calling upon the NFL to move the 2017 Super Bowl out of Houston if the ordinance is repealed. The online petition was launched by a blogger and it has dozens of signatures.

“Well, I think if Houston is ever perceived as an intolerant, bigoted place, it will greatly diminish our opportunities to bring sporting events to town,” admitted Sports Authority Chairman J. Kent Friedman.

Houston’s Super Bowl Committee had no comment.

The NFL reportedly considered moving a Super Bowl out of Arizona over legislation that would’ve offered legal protections to businesses that discriminated against gays. That never happened, because the governor vetoed the bill.

HERO opponents say it’ll never happen here either.

“That’s simply a red herring. That’s simply what they tried to do in Indiana and Arkansas and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” said ordinance opponent Jared Woodfill. “It basically shows that they are going to do anything and everything they can to skew the issue.”

“I think it’s a real threat,” said KHOU 11 Political Analyst Bob Stein. “Now, how it plays with the voters is very interesting. It could conceivably become one in which voters have a backlash against it, see it as a — how can I say this? — a threat.”

Via PDiddie, the blogger in question. The petition is here, and it surely can’t hurt to sign it. How likely it is that the NFL might actually move a Super Bowl that would be 14 months out at the time of the vote if it goes badly I couldn’t say, but it would certainly make it a lot harder, if not downright impossible, for Houston to win bids on other big events, and I would predict with absolute certainty that some events that are currently on the calendar would be canceled, just as they were in Indiana after they passed that ill-advised “religious freedom” law. There’s a good reason why the Greater Houston Partnership supports HERO – this is the norm in the business world, and it’s a base condition for companies that want to recruit top talent. Anyone who thinks repealing HERO would not have negative repercussions is not living in the real world. You can like HERO or not, you can like the way Mayor Parker got it passed or not, and you can be like Dave Wilson and obsess all you want about the genitalia of every person who enters a women’s bathroom if you want, but the prevailing reaction to the loss of HERO will not be good for Houston. Texas Leftist has more.

Who will pay for Super Bowl stadium improvements?

Gotta say, I’m with Steve Radack on this one.

If the NFL has its way, luxury boxes and club seats at NRG Stadium will undergo major upgrades at the expense of Harris County or its tenants before Super Bowl LI arrives in Houston in 2017.

But if the decision is up to Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack, using public funds to improve suites for corporate executives and billion-dollar companies would be a non-starter.

“I’m not about to vote to spend a single dollar of county money updating these luxury suites,” Radack said.

With 21 months to go until the sporting event that launches Houston onto the world stage for one glorious Sunday, much work still remains to prepare for the big party. One of the most significant tasks appears to be dressing up NRG Stadium. The price for seating updates and other improvements could rise as high as $50 million, including $5 million to enhance the facility’s WiFi capacity, sources previously have told the Houston Chronicle.

Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s senior vice president of events, said Monday that upgrading the stadium’s WiFi is something the bid committee has agreed to do. In terms of sprucing up the seating, he said he noted on a recent visit that NRG “is in a very good place at this stage in its stadium life, but there are opportunities to upgrade that are common across Super Bowl stadiums as they prepare and continue to make sure they are state-of-the-art.”

O’Reilly said the burden for the costs of upgrading the facility rests with Harris County or its tenants – the Texans and the rodeo. But so far, none of the parties involved has volunteered to pick up the tab. County officials seem resolute that they won’t be forking over any funds.

Jamey Rootes, president of the Texans, explained that the team is 13 years into its 30-year lease and O’Reilly was merely noting “that there could be some improvements that would help Houston put its best foot forward.”

“Anything that as a fan you might come into contact with might be a factor because you’re going to be in that facility for a long time,” Rootes said.

[…]

For NRG Park, the question of fixing up the premises comes down to a landlord-tenant issue under glaring stadium lights.

The county, through its sports and convention corporation, serves as landlord to NRG’s tenants, which include the Texans and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. [Commissioner Jack] Cagle said WiFi costs are “currently a responsibility of the current tenant.”

“WiFi wasn’t really around when our contracts were set up,” Cagle said. “It’s not one of our landlord responsibilities. We have a contract that is in place, and perhaps that needs to be renegotiated.”

See here for the background. The “landlord-tenant” characterization sounds right to me. I can see the case for upgrading WiFi – who installed it in the first place, if it wasn’t there originally? – and of course if there are actual repairs to be made, that’s a landlord responsibility. But if we’re basically talking about fancier party decorations and accoutrements, that’s on the tenant. Stand firm, y’all. Paradise in Hell and Campos have more.

Appeals court revives MBIA lawsuit against Sports Authority

Here we go again.

A lawsuit against the agency that pays the debt on Houston’s sports stadiums is back on following an appeals court ruling.

Last April, a state district court judge ruled that a bond insurer could not sue the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority or the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp., saying they were immune from such legal action as government agencies.

MBIA Insurance Corp., with the National Public Finance Guarantee Corp., sued the Sports Authority in January 2013, asking that the cash-strapped agency be forced to collect more money to cover its obligations, including additional parking and admissions taxes at Reliant – now NRG – Stadium, and seeking damages for other alleged breaches of contract. The sports corporation, the county agency that manages NRG Park, also was listed as a party in the suit.

In an opinion issued last week, a three-judge panel from the First Court of Appeals ruled that the Sports Authority had waived its immunity when it entered into an agreement with MBIA – now National – that provided that the company, which insures $1 billion in bonds, would guarantee regularly scheduled principal and interest payments on them.

Upholding part of state District Court Judge Elaine Palmer’s decision, it also ruled that the sports corporation was not liable because the company had not accused it of breach of contract.

Sports Authority Chairman J. Kent Friedman said it has not yet decided whether to ask the First Court for a re-hearing, to appeal to the Texas Supreme Court or to “go ahead and try the case.” Deadlines to request a re-hearing or appeal are next month.

“I continue to be very confident in our position in the litigation,” he said. “All it really did is allow them the right to proceed with their lawsuit.”

See here, here, and here for the background. The Court’s opinion is here, and if like me your eyes glazed over after about five seconds, you can skip to the end and confirm that the bottom line is that the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority does not have immunity and thus can be sued, but the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation does have immunity as Judge Palmer ruled and thus cannot be sued. The matter is now back in the 215th Court, pending a decision by either party to appeal the part of the ruling they didn’t like. Also, I’m glad to see that we seem to be done with that “Kenny Friedman” business, and J. Kent Friedman is once again being called “J. Kent Friedman” as well he should be. So there you have it.

MBIA appeals lawsuit dismissal

Here’s the brief that MBIA has filed with the First District Court of Appeals to overturn the dismissal of their lawsuit against the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority and the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation. The issues presented for review are pretty straightforward:

1. The Sports Authority was authorized to waive its purported governmental immunity by the Texas State Legislature in Texas Government Code Section 1371.059(c), and it clearly and unambiguously waived any such claim of immunity in the operative deal documents.

2. The Sports Authority also waived its governmental immunity to suit, as provided in Texas Local Government Code Section 271.152, by entering into contracts for goods or services relating to the issuance of approximately $1 billion in bonds.

3. The Sports Authority, a joint creation of the City of Houston and Harris County, had no right to governmental immunity when it issued bonds in its proprietary capacity after a public vote by the citizens of Houston.

4. The Sports Corporation waived its governmental immunity to suit, as provided in Texas Local Government Code Section 271.152, by entering into contracts for goods or services.

I’ll leave it to the lawyers to evaluate their chances. Typically, it will be months, if not more than a year, to get an answer on this. In the meantime, I came across this link about the Sports Authority’s bond rating. The improving economy has the ratings services optimistic about its revenues in the near term. Take a look if you’re into that sort of thing.

Astrodome-palooza

In case you aren’t completely full of my opining on the Astrodome and its possible fate, I was the author of a op-ed in the Sunday Chron on the subject. It’s kind of the Reader’s Digest version of the things I’ve been saying here, so if you don’t click over you won’t miss anything new to you. I did put a copy of it beneath the fold, since I like to keep track of my own writing.

Elsewhere on those same op-ed pages, former County Judge and State Sen. Jon Lindsay offers his critique of the private proposals that have been floated.

Still cheaper to renovate than the real thing

Now we have an opportunity to develop the premier convention city in the world. Just look at what we could create. The combination of the Metro rail service connecting the George R. Brown Convention Center and Discovery Green downtown to the Reliant and Dome complex would be awesome for really big events like a Super Bowl. There are other events that would benefit, like the Offshore Technology Conference (OTC) that requires event facilities combined with entertainment areas. I’m sure the Convention and Visitors Bureau can name others.

[…]

I am critical of the proposal to strip the building to its structural steel and leaving it exposed. Where is the logic in having a steel skeleton out there that would require a full-time painting crew working to stop the rust? That tension ring must be protected or we will have a nature-caused implosion. A very large sculpture is not the answer, either.

There are not many stadiums that have better parking than we already have at Reliant. It can and should be improved, however. A parking garage would pay its own way, and if not, some of the event sponsors should contribute. There should be more effort to encourage parking downtown and use public transportation to get to the games and some other events like the rodeo. It’s much easier to get out of downtown after a game than the Reliant parking lot.

The proposal to develop exhibition space might make some sense if done on a grand scale. By that, I mean get some of the big players involved, like our major oil companies. Develop a big oil field in the Dome featuring some of the early oil rigs and everything big in the industry. Why can’t we have a continuing OTC featuring some of the past? Along with that, put in some educational facilities and meeting rooms. The industry could see that as a way to encourage youth to want a career in oil and gas.

He also mentions that if Texas ever does legalize more gambling, the Dome would be a “premier location” for it. The Dome as casino is the granddaddy of all What To Do With The Dome proposals, though as you can see Lindsay’s successor as County Judge didn’t think much of the idea back then.

Finally, Chron sports columnist Randy Harvey calls on Commissioners Court to think futuristically.

I’m open to most ideas, except for demolishing the Astrodome and replacing it with another parking lot. Even at the bargain price of $29 million estimated by the Texans and Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which is half as much as some say that would cost.

There is no doubt the building could be redeveloped as a shopping mall, a theme park, an apartment complex or a movie studio. I’m not so sure about an indoor ski resort.

It would be better if whatever it becomes commemorated the Astrodome.

Ryan Slattery, a University of Houston graduate student, wrote in his masters thesis that the steel frame and dome should remain, covering a park. The New York Times suggested it could become Houston’s Eiffel Tower.

That’s a difficult image to resist.

But I also would ask commissioners court to consider something more futuristic, as futuristic as the Astrodome was in 1965, as futuristic as NASA was by putting a man on the moon in 1969 and as futuristic as Houston still should want to be seen by the world.

Maybe we could create a museum, not of the past but of the future, more like an exploratorium, with interactive exhibits speculating on life on Earth or other planets in decades and centuries to come.

Ideas are the easy part. It’s the execution that’s tricky. If it were easy to do one of these things, we’d have done it by now.

(more…)

Someone attempted to do something about MBIA and the Sports Authority

And others expressed their disapproval about it. What the “it” is, and who it was that was trying to do “it” remain unclear.

Who dunnit?

Who dunnit?

A surprise legislative maneuver has local government lobbyists scrambling to defend the agency that pays the debt on Houston’s sports stadiums against an alleged takeover attempt by the company that insures its bonds.

The insurer, MBIA, has hired lobbyists to circulate language that would prevent the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority from spending money on anything other than debt service and legally required payments without its creditors’ approval.

Sports Authority chairman J. Kent Friedman said the draft, which names neither the Sports Authority nor MBIA, appears innocuous at first glance.

“It’s extremely well done. You have to be an insider to know what this really does,” he said. “In effect, they would take over running the Sports Authority. I’m convinced they’ll try to stick it on some other piece of legislation at the end of the session, on the floor so it’ll get as little notoriety as possible, and try to slip it through.”

A Houston-area lawmaker had considered attaching the language to a pending financial transparency bill, Friedman and others said, but quickly dropped it when a lawyer whose feedback he had sought realized its implications. The legislator could not be reached Friday.

[…]

Harris County lobbyist Cathy Sisk called the legislative maneuver “bizarre,” saying the insurer appears to be trying to get lawmakers to do what a judge did not.

“We’ve pretty much alerted everybody in the delegation to watch for it,” Sisk said. “I’d like to think that means it doesn’t have much of a chance of being attached to anything, but you never know. Anything can happen in the Texas Legislature.”

City of Houston lobbyist Kippy Caraway said her team also is on alert.

Kevin Brown, a spokesman for MBIA affiliate National Public Finance Guarantee Corp., said what the firm seeks in its lawsuit against the Sports Authority and the goals of the draft amendment are different.

“The legislation that we have been promoting seeks to achieve greater transparency and accountability from certain governmental entities that are in financial distress,” he said. “The Sports Authority’s opposition to that legislation should raise serious questions for Houstonians and other stakeholders about the authority’s financial condition and the reasons for its objections.”

The draft amendment runs two pages and would apply to a “political subdivision in condition of financial stress,” as defined by five points that describe the Sports Authority.

The amendment says such an entity “may not, unless authorized by (its) creditors” spend money on anything other than debt service, payments required by law or a contract, or to maintain its assets. The draft also would, among other things, require the entity to submit to its creditors a plan stating how it will address its financial woes.

See here, here, and here for the background on MBIA and the Sports Authority. Frankly, the most important piece of information in this article is that the Chair of the Sports Authority is now being referred to as “J. Kent Friedman” again, after a brief run of being called “Kenny Friedman”. Whether this represents a return to copy-editing standards on the part of the Chron or the documenting of a brief midlife crisis on Friedman’s part also remains a mystery.

Things that the story left a mystery:

1. The identity of the legislator. Why wouldn’t you just say who the legislator was? So what if he couldn’t be reached for a comment by the time the story went to print? The fact that this amendment was drafted and this legislator was shopping it around before pulling it back isn’t in dispute, so no one’s reputation is on the line. What purpose is being served by holding back this information?

2. The full text of the amendment. Reporter Mike Morris has clearly seen it, since he quotes from it, but it runs two pages and all we get is a couple of sentence fragments. The amendment was apparently not filed, since I can’t find it via an amendment search using the phrase “political subdivision in condition of financial stress” or a combination of the words. But clearly it exists, so a document could be made of it and uploaded somewhere for the rest of us to see.

3. The bill that the unnamed legislator was going to try to attach it to. At this point in the session, it could only be attached to a Senate bill, and if adopted it would thus require a conference committee to get the different versions straightened out for final votes. If we knew the Senate bill in question, we could then ask the Senate author what he or she thinks of this maneuver. Given all of the sturm und drang we’ve seen recently, that might have made for a more interesting story than the one we got.

As it happens, from prior communication I’ve had with MBIA representatives, I was able to get answers to these questions. The bill in question was SB14, specifically the committee substitute CSSB14, authored by Sen. Tommy Williams. The House legislator was Rep. Jim Pitts, who was the House sponsor for the bill. I don’t know how you can call Rep. Pitts, who is based in Waxahachie, a “Houston-area lawmaker”, but I suppose that’s a minor quibble at this point Rep. Jim Murphy. The amendment, which was drafted but not officially filed, is here. Again, I’m not sure why this information wasn’t in the story. Be that as it may, MBIA disputed Friedman’s contention that this was an attempt to “take over” the agency, saying that the main purpose of the legislation was to enhance transparency and accountability. At last report, a point of order had been sustained against CSSB14 in the House, so this is all likely moot at this point. But we still should have known more about what was happening at the time.

UPDATE: I have since been informed by Judge Emmett’s office that the legislator was Rep. Jim Murphy, not Rep. Jim Pitts. I suspect this was a matter of confusing one Jim for another.

No X Games for Houston

Alas.

After more than 10 years in and around downtown Los Angeles, the X Games will leave Southern California for a new destination next year. Chicago, Detroit, Austin, Texas, and Charlotte, N.C. have been announced as finalist cities to earn three-year contracts to host the North American summer stop on the X Games global tour beginning in 2014, the X Games said in a statement on Tuesday.

“The X Games have grown significantly and has been enjoyed by millions of fans over the past 10 years in Los Angeles,” Scott Guglielmino, senior vice president, programming and X Games said in a statement. “Our partners AEG and the city of Los Angeles have been instrumental in our success. As we embark on a year of significant global expansion and transformation for X Games in 2013, we are excited about the potential each of these cities bring, and look forward to identifying our next host city for the X Games.”

[…]

Detroit has been the most vociferous in its desire to host the games, at least on social media. The committee representing the Detroit bid has started a Facebook and Twitter campaign and a website encouraging people to sign up to “join the movement.” Dan Gilbert, owner of Quicken Loans and the Cleveland Cavaliers, has recently added his support to the committee headed up by Kevin Krease and Garret Koehler. Charlotte has mounted a public campaign as well with a Facebook and a LinkedIn page.

The new host city is expected to be announced this summer.

The city of Houston had submitted a bid to host the X Games here, but apparently that didn’t measure up. Austin’s bid was made in conjunction with Circuit of the Americas, which is their new F1 Grand Prix facility. Here’s their press release on making the cut.

Austin’s proposal included utilizing the 1500-acre Circuit of The Americas facility, located in southeast Austin near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, as the primary site for the competition. With the on-site infrastructure for hosting tens of thousands of fans, entertainment amenities such as the Austin360 Amphitheater and park-like Grand Plaza, and lots of space to stage a variety of competitions, X Games officials determined the site is well-suited for the massive event.

“This is fantastic news for Austin and Circuit of The Americas,” said Paul Thornton, leader of the effort on behalf of Austin extreme sports fans and the Circuit. “ESPN’s X Games are hugely popular, large-scale sports and entertainment events that have become an important part of the annual major events calendar. Bringing the X Games to Austin would mean a significant economic impact for our community, bringing fans, competitors and media representatives from around the world to our hometown while once again putting Austin in the international spotlight.”

“We are thrilled that Austin is on the short list,” said Matthew Payne, executive director of the Austin Sports Commission. “We feel that the world-class venue at Circuit of The Americas is the perfect location for the ESPN X Games. If we are selected, the exposure for the city of Austin would be great on all fronts.”

[…]

ESPN will next schedule site visits to the four cities on the list of finalists, with a visit to Austin anticipated the week of June 3-7. ESPN will announce the new host city for the summer version of the X Games later this summer. Fans and community members can do their part to help Austin land the ESPN X Games by visiting the dedicated Facebook fan site, www.facebook.com/xgamesaustin, clicking “Like” and sharing messages of support that will be read by ESPN officials and X Games fans worldwide. There is also a dedicated Twitter account, www.twitter.com/xgamesaustin, for supporters that want to keep tabs on progress and participate in the discussion.

Best of luck, Austin.

MBIA lawsuit against Sports Authority dismissed

I haven’t seen a story about this in the print edition for whatever the reason.

A state district court judge on Tuesday ruled that the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority cannot be sued by the company that insures the $1 billion in debt that the agency services on local sports stadiums.

Bond insurer MBIA, with the National Public Finance Guarantee Corp., sued the Sports Authority in state district court in January, requesting that the cash-strapped agency be forced to collect more money to cover its obligations. Other local entities were listed as defendants, including the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp., the county agency that manages Reliant Park.

In granting two pleas to jurisdiction, 215th District Court Judge Elaine Palmer also ruled that the Sports Corp. cannot be sued. The Houston Texans and Livestock Show & Rodeo were also listed as defendants in the lawsuit.

Attorneys representing both sides made their cases in front of Palmer on Friday with the Sports Authority arguing it is immune from suit as a governmental agency created by the state Legislature.

Some folks from MBIA reached out to me a couple of weeks ago, presumably because I’d been blogging about this and had expressed some befuddlement about the finer points of the issues. As a result of that conversation, I now have a copy of the original complaint and response filed by MBIA, and a slightly better understanding of the whole thing as well. Though I am not a lawyer in addition to not being a finance guy, I confess that I am somewhat uneasy with the idea of a quasi-government entity like the Sports Authority being granted immunity like this. Hypothetically speaking, what if there had been an allegation of actual malfeasance? What would be the recourse in a case like that? I suppose the answer is that the County Attorney would investigate and hand things over to the DA if appropriate. While I have no doubt that Vince Ryan and his staff would be more than equal to that task, it seems there might be the potential for a conflict of interest. I don’t know. Any lawyers out there want to offer an opinion on this?

Anyway. I also received the following statement from Kevin Brown, a spokesman for National:

National and MBIA respect but disagree with the Court’s decision. This ruling raises a red flag for anyone doing business with governmental entities in Texas and calls into question whether their contracts are enforceable. We intend to appeal promptly and look forward to presenting our arguments to the Court of Appeals.

So it ain’t over yet. I’ll let you know when I hear more.

Feeling good about the Super Bowl bid

The city of Houston has submitted its bid to host Super Bowl LI in 2017, and they feel pretty good about their chances.

Houston’s competition will be San Francisco or Miami – the city that fails to get the coveted Super Bowl L.

League owners will vote on both Super Bowls on May 22 in Boston.

For now, Houston officials are confident but cautious because they know there are more steps in the process to host the first Super Bowl at Reliant Stadium since 2004, when New England defeated Carolina.

“We feel really good about our chances,” said Ric Campo, chairman of the host committee. “We believe Houston will be hard to beat.”

[…]

Campo, chairman and chief executive officer of Camden Properties, pointed out the numerous improvements the city has made or will make before 2017.

“The east-west light rail will be completed in 2014,” he said. “We’re building a new 1,000-room Marriott Marquis that’ll be a bookend to the Hilton-Americas. We’ve got Discovery Green.

“The NFL requires at least 19,000 rooms in the city. We have more than 20,000, including 6,000 downtown.

“For fans and visiting teams, it’s going to be the ultimate experience. We’ve got world-class buildings and incredible venues for the NFL Experience and Super Bowl Village.”

Don’t forget our nationally-known restaurant scene now, too. It’s a little funny to think how much has changed since Super Bowl XXXVIII in 2004. We’ve been confident about our chances from the get go. We’ll see if our optimism is warranted.

The general feeling around the NFL is that San Francisco, with its new stadium in Santa Clara, will beat out South Florida for Super Bowl L. South Florida is trying to get $400 million for stadium improvements.

At the league’s spring meetings in Phoenix last month, officials from South Florida met with the owners and asked for help.

“The mayor of Miami was trying to get the NFL to make a commitment that if they passed this referendum there, they’d get a Super Bowl,” Texans owner Bob McNair said in Phoenix. “The league would not make that kind of commitment.

“They had no assurance that if we voted them a Super Bowl that they would get the money. I think the governmental bodies in South Florida are going to have to move first and say, ‘OK, we’re going to approve the stadium, and we’ll take our chances on the Super Bowl.’

“It’ll be interesting to see what happens in Miami that will impact our chances of getting the Super Bowl. If they don’t get improvements to their stadium, I think that’ll work against them.”

You would think that after the debacle that was the financing of Marlins Stadium that the Dolphins would be tarred and feathered for making such a request, but this is Florida. You have to grade on a curve.

In related news, via Swamplot the city also put in its bid to host the Summer X-Games for the next three years. (See here for more on that.) We won’t know the answer for that until August, though we will know if we make the next round of cuts shortly. We have a lot more competition for this, including Austin and Fort Worth. Wouldn’t it be cool to get both bids?

The Summer X-Games

Another sporting event that could be coming to Houston.

The Harris County-Houston Sports Authority is making a bid for ESPN’s action sports event, an annual competition that began in 1995.

“It’s definitely another feather in our cap,” said Janis Schmees, the CEO of Harris County-Houston Sports Authority. “It’s a useful event, it’s a great timing because we have a brand new skate park that we just broke ground on. There, it attracts a younger crowd. Even in the Olympics they’ve added snowboarding because they’re trying to keep the youth excited about the Olympic movement. I think that up and coming generation loves the X Games.”

[…]

The winner will host the event over a three-year span from 2014 to 2016.

“The three year model allows for the event to grow and develop in the region and identify efficiencies over the course of the hosting period,” said Deane Swanson, ESPN’s senior director of event management, X Games, in an e-mailed statement.

Representatives from HCHSA traveled to Aspen, Colo., last month during the Winter X Games to meet with officials of the games. ESPN representatives have also made a site visit. Reliant Stadium, BBVA Compass Stadium and the Lee and Joe Jamail Skatepark are among possible venues for the games.

Los Angeles, which has hosted several Summer X Games, saw a $50 million economic boon from the 2010 games, according to economic research and consulting firm Micronomics. That figure came from a $12 million influx from increased tourism, $6 million related to the television broadcast production and $12 million from direct spending associated with the games. It also factored in the monetary value of having 31 hours of live programming throughout the games.

Yeah, yeah, economic impact projections, ’nuff said. This would still be a cool thing to have. We’re in a much better position to compete for this sort of thing now, too. Final bids are due on April 2, and the decision will be announced in August.

Sports Authority gets sued

MBIA, the company that insures the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority’s bonds, has filed a lawsuit to force the Sports Authority to collect more money to pay its obligations.

If MBIA must cover payment shortfalls and cannot reimburse itself from the authority’s reserves, the amount owed to the insurer will accumulate with interest. In such a scenario, MBIA officials have said, hotel and car rental taxes would be tied up for years paying off MBIA when those dollars could have been put toward local projects had the bonds been paid off on time.

Authority Chairman Kenny Friedman said MBIA’s urgency is driven by a desire to skirt its obligation to pay the bonds, an accusation the insurer denies. The authority bought bond insurance for a reason, Friedman said, and added that neither the stadium homes of the Texans, Rockets and Astros – which the authority was created to finance – nor the land under them are at risk.

“It’s a frivolous lawsuit. I think it’s designed to get them some perceived PR advantage,” the agency’s chairman said. “We’re the third-largest county in the country and we’re not going to be bullied by a second-rate insurance company. What MBIA is looking for is a bailout, and it’s just not something we’re going to do.”

It was MBIA’s 2009 downgrade that strained the authority’s reserves in the first place, Friedman said.

After MBIA’s downgrade, $125 million in variable-rate bonds the authority sold to help build Reliant Stadium were converted into a loan due in 2014 rather than the original 2030. The authority since has struggled to make much larger payments under this “term-out,” and MBIA has had to cover shortfalls seven times, including last November, reimbursing itself each time from the authority’s reserves. Three term-out payments remain.

Again with the “Kenny Friedman” stuff. Did I miss a memo or something? Is there a new style guide out that says the name “J. Kent Friedman” is, like, so 2012? First this and then David Ward – where will it end?

Ahem. See here for the background. I don’t know who’s right and who’s wrong, but I do know that if MBIA prevails, the price of tickets and parking at Reliant will go up, because the current tax levied on tickets and parking, which is where the revenue to pay off these obligations comes from, are lower than the law allows them to be. You Texans and Rodeo season ticket holders might want to keep an eye on this.

The Sports Authority’s finances are back in the news

I still have no idea whether this is something we need to worry about or not.

The firm that insures the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority’s $1 billion in bonds – sold to finance the homes of the Texans, Rockets and Astros – is calling on the cash-strapped authority to bolster its depleted reserves and warning of potential consequences if it does not.

MBIA Insurance Corp. Assistant Vice President Kenneth Epstein said this week the authority’s reserves are half what they should be and that the bulk of the agency’s debt, issued in 2001, has fallen short of revenue projections every year but one since then.

“We’ve been a willing participant over the last four years in trying to come up with a solution to the authority’s problems. The authority has not come back with any solution to what’s been happening,” Epstein said. “We want the authority to recognize that a problem exists, to bring people to the table, and to try to come up with a solution.”

The depleted reserve should be $55 million but is $25.4 million, Epstein said, putting the authority “in a very precarious position” and limiting its ability to handle dips in hotel and car rental taxes, its main revenues.

Sports Authority Chairman Kenny Friedman said the group is looking for a deal that could let it replenish its reserves and lower its payments in the long term, but said his board does not share MBIA’s urgency. The deal is structured to protect the city’s and county’s credit ratings and the stadiums, he noted.

“They are focused on what they should be focused on, which is protecting MBIA’s insurance obligations, and we’re focused on what we should be focused on, which is what’s right for this community and for these venues,” Friedman said. “We’re not going to do a deal just because it’s good for MBIA. It’s going to have to be good for the community. If we find one of those, we’ll do it.”

Friedman called MBIA’s concerns “strange” given that the insurer’s 2009 downgrade amid the financial crisis contributed to the strain on the reserves.

Important question: Are “Kenny Friedman” and J. Kent Friedman the same person? Because if they are, it’s the first time I’ve ever heard the name “Kenny Friedman”.

Be that as it may, see here, here, and here for some background. Not being a finance guy, I struggle to understand this stuff every time it comes up. County Judge Ed Emmett is quoted in the story telling MBIA to calm down, which reassures me somewhat but doesn’t really clarify things. I don’t know what else to add to this, so just consider this latest chapter in the saga noted for the record.

Will the Astrodome derail our Super Bowl bid?

Heaven forbid.

Is the end in sight?

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell told a crowd on Tuesday that by 2017, Reliant will be 15 years old and therefore in need of some upgrades like digital scoreboards. Texans owner Bob McNair says the city must look at all its venues when wooing the NFL, and on the top of that list is the Astrodome.

At a luncheon in downtown Tuesday afternoon, Goodell talked about only one facility as he addressed Houston’s bid for Super Bowl 51.

“The stadium is critical to any Super Bowl bid. That’s our stage,” he said.

But McNair is clearly concerned about the one that sits right next to it.

“We need to come to the conclusion as to what’s going to be done with the Astrodome. It’s not a pretty sight sitting there now and it’s noticeable and people comment on it, so we need to make a decision and move on,” McNair said.

Once again, what to do with the Astrodomee; this time as it affects the city’s chance of hosting a third Super Bowl in 2017, and leading the charge for urgency is McNair.

“It’s just another issue and the better the facilities are that we can make available to the league, the more attractive Houston is as a site,” McNair said.

And the so-called Eighth Wonder of the World, as it is, is useless. It’s a costly health hazard that’s been closed for five years.

Demolition and repurposing are on the table. Harris County commissioners want the people to decide at the ballot box sometime next year. It can still fit into the bid timeline, says Greg Ortale with the Greater Houston Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, but addressing it is a must.

“I think if we don’t address it in the bid, I think it could be a problem,” Ortale said.

That sound you hear is County Judge Ed Emmett breaking open a new case of Maalox. Commissioners Court chose to defer on a Dome-related referendum this year. We may have yet another report on what to do with the Dome, but we don’t have a consensus yet, and it’s not clear to me how a vote on the Dome’s fate would go. But since I’m sure that nobody will want to be blamed for fumbling away the opportunity to host another Super Bowl, I feel fairly confident that we’re going to get the chance to take that vote real soon.

The Chron doesn’t mention the Dome, but it does discuss the scoreboard in Reliant Stadium as another thing that Must Be Dealt With before the NFL makes its decision.

Mark Miller, general manager of SMG-Reliant Park, explained what has to happen for Reliant Stadium to get a new digital scoreboard in time for the 2013 season.

“It would be physically possible to be in by next season, but it would be an issue of whether the funding would work out,” Miller said. “Right now, we’re working with the Texans, the rodeo and the county to see what we can do to get a new scoreboard.

“We’ve got a number of issues with it, but the one (scoreboard) we have now is an older format that really causes problems with the resolution — the overall picture. We’re trying to get it back to standard, an exciting enhancement for the fans.

“Hopefully, it’ll be state-of-the-art for a long time.”

The Texans and the rodeo will have to agree on a new scoreboard, and then they’ll have to work out a plan with the county to pay for it. Representatives of the rodeo are “taking the lead,” according to Miller, and talking with manufacturers of scoreboards.

I’m thinking that with the pace of technological change, nothing is “state of the art” for long. I’d settle for “sufficiently adequate”, with the capability to up upgraded or expanded or whatever in a cost-effective manner, for a long time. The cost estimate for a new scoreboard ranges from $10 million to $30 million, and some of that money could come from a state trust fund that uses tax money to help communities play host to major sports events, of which both Reliant and JerryWorld have been beneficiaries. Frankly, the scoreboard will be the much easier obstacle to overcome than the Dome.

Maybe the fourth time will be the charm

The city of Houston is once again bidding for a Super Bowl.

If everything goes according to an ambitious plan devised by city and county leaders, Houston will host its third Super Bowl in 2017.

The NFL informed the Texans and the city on Tuesday that Houston will be one of two finalists for Super Bowl LI, to be played in February 2017.

At the conclusion of the league’s winter meetings in Chicago, commissioner Roger Goodell disclosed that San Francisco and South Florida had been selected to bid on Super Bowl L. Goodell said the runner-up will compete with Houston for Super Bowl LI.

[…]

Houston’s Super Bowl bid is a joint venture among the Texans, the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Harris County/Houston Sports Authority, and Reliant Park.

Houston wants the 2017 Super Bowl because the Final Four is here in 2016, and two big events like that two months apart is a lot. Previous attempts to land Super Bowls XLIII, XLIV, and XLVI all came up short.

The owners will vote in May on the two games. The first vote will be between San Francisco and Miami for 2016, followed by a second vote between Houston and the 2016 runner-up for the next year.

“I think the chances are really good,” said Janis Schmees, executive director of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority.

The 50th Super Bowl in 2016 will be a special-anniversary celebration. If San Francisco wins, the game will be played at the 49ers’ new stadium in Santa Clara. That stadium is set to open in 2014. If South Florida wins, the game will be played in the Miami Dolphins’ stadium, which still faces questions about possible renovation, including a partial roof.

We know that the owners love awarding the Super Bowl to cities that have built new stadia – this is, after all, mostly why Houston got the game in 2004 – so if you want to see this happen, you should root for San Francisco to win the bid for 2016. We’ll see if the optimism is warranted this time.

District E overview

Here’s the Chron overview of the special election in City Council District E to replace CM Mike Sullivan.

David Martin

The establishment guy is David Martin, a member of the Humble Independent School District board. Until he resigned in August, he was one of Mayor Annise Parker’s appointees to the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority. He has the endorsement of incumbent Mike Sullivan, who is resigning the seat to run for county tax assessor-collector with a year left in his council term. Martin is the only candidate who has organizational endorsements, including those of the Houston Police Officers’ Union and the Houston Apartment Association, as well as from former District E Councilman Rob Todd and state Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Humble. He is a managing director at Marsh & McLennan Companies.

Elizabeth Perex

He is cut from the same cloth as Sullivan, who is among the chief critics of the mayor and representative of the district where Parker fared poorly in her re-election last year. Martin describes himself as “a Republican, fiscal conservative, a Christian. I believe in good schools, I’m pro-business.”

Lonnie Allsbrooks

Yet, unlike his opponents, he is not throwing rocks at City Hall.

“I want to work with the mayor to get things done for District E,” Martin says. “I think she respects me and I respect her.”

The upstarts: Lonnie Allsbrooks and Elizabeth Perez.

Here are the candidates’ websites: Martin, Perez, Allsbrooks. As of this morning, Perez and Martin had 30-day campaign finance reports filed; she showed a paltry $375 raised and $1500 spent, with a $4500 outstanding loan to herself, while he raised $15,150, spent $3,742, and had $11,407 on hand. Martin is a first time candidate for Council, Perez finished third in the open At Large #2 race in 2011, Allsbrooks finished last among eight candidates for At Large #1 in 2009. Martin is also the lone Kingwood candidate, and the last two Council members from District E have been from Kingwood. I did not have the bandwidth to try to schedule interviews with these candidates, so I can’t give you an impression of them beyond that. (I did interview Allsbrooks in 2009.) If you live in District E, what is your impression of these candidates?

Three for E

There will probably be more when all is said and done, but at this time there are three candidates running for District E this November.

The candidates are:

Lonnie Allsbrooks – Former owner of Beer Island bar in the Heights. Ran for At-Large Position 1 council seat in 2009. Moved to Kingwood earlier this year. Wants to promote restaurant/hospitality industry issues.

Dave Martin — Humble Independent School District trustee, Harris County-Houston Sports Authority board member. Clear favorite of Sullivan, who served with him on the Humble board. Managing partner at Marsh McLennan, a professional services and insurance brokerage firm.

Elizabeth Perez – self-employed accountant who lives near Hobby Airport, plaintiff in unsuccessful suit to overturn the city’s drainage fee. Ran for At-Large Position 2 council seat last year.

Sullivan submitted his resignation last month. I presume the filing deadline for this will be in September sometime. Candidates from Kingwood have won the last two times the seat was open. We’ll see if that streak continues.

UPDATE: As noted by outgoing CM Sullivan in the comments, the filing deadline for District E has passed, and these three candidates are it. I guess I thought it would be later than this because that’s usually how it is for city elections; the filing deadline in 2011 was September 7. Be that as it may, this is your lineup. My thanks to CM Sullivan for the correction.

The bid is in for the NCAA Champions game

We are officially bidding on the new Champions Bowl, the 2014 replacement for the BCS Championship Bowl, for Reliant Stadium. We heard about this in July, and it makes sense that Houston was solicited for a bid and that we’d go through with it. Mostly I’m noting this because I was amused by the following in the story:

The bid for the Champions Bowl is for 12 years and includes being a semifinal site four times, said Heather Houston, executive director of the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.

Houston declined to disclose the terms of the bid – a joint effort between the city of Houston, the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority and Lone Star Sports & Entertainment – but said “it’s really competitive.”

“We’re really honored and very proud of the bid that we’ve put forth,” Houston said. “We feel like it’ll stack up against any other market.”

Part of the reason for submitting a bid, Houston said, is the city’s “proven track record” of hosting a postseason bowl game and major sporting events. Reliant Stadium was the site of the 2004 Super Bowl and the 2011 NCAA men’s Final Four. A bowl game, currently the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, has been played at the stadium since 2006.

“We felt like we have just as strong a chance as anyone else,” Houston said. “The only thing we don’t have going for us is the history, but we have a lot of other things that make up for that.”

Am I the only one who read that and had a brief moment where it seemed like the city of Houston had come to life and begun speaking for itself? I’m thinking this is one of those time when the Chron should have adopted the NY Times style guide and referred to the spokesperson as “Ms. Houston”, which might have made the whole thing seem a bit less surreal. Be that as it may, I hope the bid is well-received.

Houston to compete for new college football championship game

Sure, why not?

The city of Houston and Reliant Stadium plan to make a push to host college football’s new football championship game, the head of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority said Tuesday night.

“We decided we want to aggressively pursue this opportunity for Houston,” said Janis Schmees, the executive director of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority. “We want the decision-makers to know Houston is serious about hosting.”

With the support of local business and community leaders, Schmees said a bid committee has been formed and met Monday to discuss the next steps in the bid process.

That was from last week. I was looking for more information on this – there’s nothing on the HCHSA webpage and nothing useful on their Facebook page – but a little Googling found this:

No. 1 will play No. 4, and No. 2 will play No. 3 on Dec. 31 and/or Jan. 1. The sites of those games will rotate among the four current BCS bowls — Rose, Orange, Fiesta and Sugar — and two more to be determined. One of the new sites will likely be wherever the newly formed bowl created by the SEC and Big 12 is played, Slive said.

The Cotton Bowl, played at the $1.1 billion Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, has long wanted to be part of the BCS and is expected to make a strong push to be in the semifinal rotation.

The winners of the semis will advance to the championship on the first Monday in January that is six or more days after the last semifinal. The first “Championship Monday,” as it was called in the BCS release, is set for Jan. 12, 2015.

The site of the title game will move around the way the Super Bowl does, with cities bidding for the right to host.

And this:

The semifinal games will be played in a rotation among six bowl sites and the championship game will be offered to the highest bidding city, like the NFL does with the Super Bowl. At this point, only two games are guaranteed a spot in the semifinals rotation: the Champions Bowl (which will pit the Big 12 against the SEC) and the Rose Bowl (which pits the Big Ten versus the Pac-12). The ACC is close to finalizing an agreement with the Orange Bowl, which would also become one of the three contract games included in the rotation.

The commissioners will take bids to host the other three bowl games that will be part of the semifinals mix. The Fiesta Bowl and Sugar Bowl will probably be considered, but a source told ESPN.com that commissioners probably favored having the additional games in the Southeast, Texas and the West Coast.

Under the 12-year agreement approved by the presidents on Tuesday, each of the six bowl games would host a semifinal game four times. But a source told ESPN.com that there might be one or two more opportunities for hosting semifinals because the Rose Bowl might prefer to host its traditional Big Ten-Pac-12 matchup, instead of being included in the semifinals rotation four times.

So you have to figure that Houston and Reliant will have as good a chance as anyone. This new setup is in place through 2025, so there will be plenty of opportunities to bring the game to Houston. No clue at this point what the deadlines are or when host cities will be announced; my guess is we won’t know much till next year at the earliest. Plenty of time to get a good bid together. We’ll see how it goes.

Sports Authority will not impede Astros move to AL

One of the odd side stories that came out after MLB officially approved the sale of the Astros to Jim Crane was this contention by attorney Kevin W. Yankowsky of Fulbright & Jaworski that the Astros’ lease at Minute Maid Park required them to be in the National League. At the time, Sports Authority Chair J. Kent Friedman said it was an “interesting analysis” and that he’d have their legal beagles look it over. It didn’t take them long to kick it out.

On Tuesday, McLane and Crane completed the transfer of the Astros.

[…]

Crane said he will attend the winter meetings. One thing he won’t have to deal with is any challenge from the Harris County Houston Sports Authority over the Astros’ move to the AL. A partner from Fulbright & Jaworski L.L.P. last week said a move to the AL would violate the terms of the lease at Minute Maid, but the HCHSA said in a release that its legal team has a differing opinion. Withholding consent for the Astros playing as an AL team, the HCHSA determined, would be “unreasonable.”

Here’s the Sports Authority’s full response:

The Lease provides in Section 5.1(a) that the Astros have the right to use the Stadium for “the operation of a Major League Baseball franchise.” There is no reference in this Section to league affiliation. Further, as defined in the Lease, the term “Major League Baseball” expressly includes the National League, the American League and all Member Teams. In addition, Section 5.1(a) of the Lease expressly uses the uncapitalized word “franchise” instead of the capitalized, defined term “Franchise.” Only the capitalized, defined term “Franchise” is limited to a National League franchise. The uncapitalized term “franchise” is not so limited. Finally, the reference to “Baseball Home Games” (basically defined as Astros baseball games as a member of the National League) in Section 5.1(a) of the Lease is not a limiting phrase. Rather, it is used as an example of a use incidental to the use of the Stadium for the “operation of a Major League Baseball franchise,” not as an exclusive use. This interpretation is confirmed by the use of the phrase “including, but not limited to,” which precedes the phrase “Baseball Home Games.”

Accordingly, the Astros are permitted under the Lease to operate a Major League Baseball franchise in either the National League or the American League and to play their games in the Stadium attendant to such operation. Therefore, the Sports Authority is not in a position to prevent Major League Baseball from potentially moving the Astros to the American League.

The Astros transfer to the American League does require a minor change to the Non-Relocation Agreement to confirm that the Astros cannot play any home games outside the Stadium in violation of the Non-Relocation Agreement. The Astros have agreed to this minor change.

Even though the Astros cannot assign their interest in the Lease or mortgage their leasehold estate in most instances without the consent of the Sports Authority, the Sports Authority may not unreasonably withhold its consent. The Sports Authority’s withholding of its consent based solely on a potential Astros move to the American League could be considered unreasonable and therefore a violation of the Sports Authority’s covenant not to act in an unreasonable manner in this regard.

I don’t know, I have a hard time believing this will be the end of it. I just have a feeling that there’s a lawsuit out there to force the issue. I certainly could be wrong, I have nothing more than my gut to go on, but this is what I think. What do you think?

MLB approves Astros sale

It’s official.

Jim Crane’s $610 million purchase of the Astros from Drayton McLane was unanimously approved by Major League Baseball’s owners this morning.

All that remains is a formal closing of the transaction, which likely will take place early next week. At that point, McLane’s 19-year ownership of the club will end.

As we know, this not only means that the Astros will be changing leagues, but that the MLB playoff format will change as well.

Two wild card teams will be added to Major League Baseball’s playoffs no later than 2013, the same year the Houston Astros will begin play in the American League.

Commissioner Bud Selig announced Thursday that baseball’s owners unanimously approved Jim Crane as the Houston Astros’ owner. As part of his agreement to buy the club, Crane will shift the Astros to the AL after 2012, creating two 15-team leagues.

“It’s a historical day,” said Selig, whose new format ensures that an interleague game will be contested “from opening day on.”

Selig did not offer specifics on the schedule or playoff format, but said his committee for on-field matters favors the one-game playoff among wild-card teams in each league, saying it would be “dramatic.” The additional wild cards could be added for the 2012 season, but will be in place by 2013 for sure.

I’m not a hidebound traditionalist by any means, but count me among those who thought the current system, which as noted before produced two of the most compelling playoff races we’ve seen in a long time, was working just fine and didn’t need any further tweaking. But never let it be said that MLB and Beelzebub Selig are letting moss grow on them.

A potentially troublesome, or at least potentially hilarious, side item here has to do with the Astros’ lease at Minute Maid Park.

An Astros move to the American League could violate the team’s lease agreement with the Harris County Houston Sports Authority, according to a local attorney.

Kevin W. Yankowsky, a partner at Fulbright & Jaworski L.L.P., outlined his findings from a review of the lease in a Tuesday letter to J. Kent Friedman, the Sports Authority’s chairman of the board.

Yankowsky, an Astros fan since the 1970s, will make a presentation at the Dec. 1 Sports Authority Board of Directors meeting urging a strict enforcement of the Astros’ lease to play their home games at Minute Maid Park. The wording of the lease agreement, Yankowsky said, spells out that the Astros cannot play at Minute Maid as anything but a National League team without receiving prior consent from the Sports Authority.

[…]

“My position would be: (The Sports Authority) simply ought to refuse to renegotiate their lease,” Yankowsky said. “All they have to do is stand on their rights and let Major League Baseball know that come 2013 they intend to stand on their right. Then it’s up to baseball.

“Baseball can either sue the Sports Authority or give in. The Sports Authority doesn’t have to sue anybody. They can sit back and say, ‘We’ve got a valid lease, and this is what it says, and we’re going to enforce it.’ ”

Citing provisions from a 2000 agreement that expires at the end of 2029, Yankowsky said the terms spell out that the home team — the Astros — be a National League franchise.

[…]

“In the simplest form, what this means, in my judgment, is come opening day of 2013, the Sports Authority can refuse to let them play because it’s not a permitted use of the stadium,” Yankowsky said. “They can quite simply lock the doors and say, ‘No, it’s not a permitted use.’ The play of Major League Baseball games, by definition, are limited to games in which a National League team is the home team.”

Friedman called it “an interesting analysis” and said he has asked the Sports Authority attorneys to review the matter.

“We’ll take a hard look at it,” Friedman said. “If there is a legitimate legal position to be taken by the Sports Authority that benefits the community, we ought to take it. If it’s a stretch or if it’s something that ultimately doesn’t benefit the community, then that’s not what we should be doing. But that’s easy to say. How to sort through all that remains to be seen.”

While I applaud the outside-the-box thinking here, I have a hard time seeing this as anything more than a minor annoyance for MLB and the ‘Stros. Let’s be honest, this is the sort of problem (if it really is one) that is solved by whacking it with a checkbook until it dies. There’s a negotiated settlement in someone’s future, if it comes to that. I hope I’m misunderestimating Attorney Yankowsky’s interpretive skills, because I love me some misdirected chaos, but I’m not holding out much hope. Greg has more.

More on the county going after city sales tax revenue

And on we go.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday will decide whether to seek legislation to capture city of Houston sales taxes generated at county facilities, including Reliant Park.

Commissioner Steve Radack floated the idea at the court’s last meeting, spurred by the $353,000 annual bill the county will pay for Reliant under the city’s drainage fee.

The city collects about $950,000 in sales taxes each year from events at the Reliant complex, according to officials with the Harris County Sports & Convention Corp. That money would be the easiest to target with the legislation. Millions more in sales taxes are generated inside Reliant Stadium, but those dollars go to pay construction debt on the building.

“I consider a million dollars a lot of money,” Radack said. “Obviously, the city thinks $353,000 is a lot of money. Absolutely we should pursue it.”

Honestly, the level of whining from Commissioners Court on this just amazes me. If the county had handed the deed for Reliant Stadium to Bob McNair instead of acting as his landlord, nobody would consider it remotely unusual for the city to hand McNair a bill for the acres of impermeable parking lots on that property. I don’t see why McNair’s landlord should be exempted from paying a drainage fee on this profit-generating piece of land. I understand that the County has its own reasons for counting every penny related to Reliant, but instead of getting their undies into a bunch and wasting the Legislature’s time, why not just pass the bill on to the Texans, since they’re the ones making the real money off of the stadium and its parking? Wouldn’t that make more sense?

The dispute has sparked a wider discussion of who pays for what.

Taxpayers give $500 million in property taxes each year to the Harris County Hospital District to provide health care for the poor, many of whom are Houstonians, and Harris County spends $200 million a year to run the county jail, temporary home to many city residents. The city should help pay both bills, Radack said.

Most of the county’s tax revenue, Parker responded, comes from city residents, and county residents use city roads, parks and libraries for which they are not taxed. Parker said she would love to know what share of her county taxes are spent in the city.

“I don’t think that we necessarily as Houston taxpayers get our fair share, but I’m out there beating on Harris County about that,” she said.

Emmett said he is not interested in a precise breakdown.

“The people in the city say, ‘We pay county property taxes, but we don’t get sheriff patrols and you don’t build any roads in our area,’ ” Emmett said. “People at the county say, ‘We provide health care for the indigent and we provide jail “services” for people in the city.’ Does that even out? I have no idea.”

Well, one person has been saying it, anyway. With all due respect to Judge Emmett, I am interested in a precise breakdown of Harris County’s revenues and expenditures. It should be easy to determine what share of the county’s property tax monies come from inside Houston city limits. Figuring out how much gets spent where will be trickier, but I’m sure the city and the county have accountants who are smart enough to handle it. I for one promise to quit whining about this if it turns out that in fact Houston is getting a fair shake. Anyone from the county willing to make the same commitment if it turns out Houston really is getting the shaft? You know how to reach me if you do.

Time for another “What to do with the Astrodome?” study

It’s been two years since we had one of these.

The Astrodome’s next incarnation — planetarium? hotel? heap of dynamited rubble? – will be the subject of yet another study ordered up by Harris County Commissioners Court this week.

What to do with the dusty 46-year-old landmark has nagged at county officials even before the Astros left for what is now Minute Maid Park in 1999. How to pay for any proposal has not been far from their minds, either. Even tearing it down would cost tens of millions of dollars.

“We have to make a decision” on the Dome, County Judge Ed Emmett said. “I wanted us to make our decision this year. They’re going to look at every option there is and come back with the recommendation. It’s about time we do that.”

The county will contribute $50,000 toward a $500,000 study, bringing to $100,000 the total the county has spent in the past two years studying what to do with the aging Houston icon.

The remaining $450,000 for the latest study will be funded by the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, Houston Texans, Harris County-Houston Sports Authority and Aramark Corp.

The study, slated for completion in December, also will plot the future of the entire Reliant Park complex, home to the long-vacant Dome, the Texans’ Reliant Stadium, Reliant Center and aging Reliant Arena.

It was almost exactly two years ago when the previous study was approved. That led to the infamous three options proposal that nobody liked. County Judge Ed Emmett said at the beginning of the year that something needs to happen, and he reiterated his call at the State of the County address. According to the story, he wants to have a bond referendum on next year’s ballot. We’ll see if this study works out any better than that last one.

Are we really still looking for an NHL team?

Haven’t seen this pop up in awhile.

Fans purchased more than 17,000 tickets to watch the Aeros split the first two games of the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup finals against Binghamton at Toyota Center on Friday and Saturday.

The minor league team is seemingly thriving here, on and off the ice. But because this is considered a major league city, some wonder what might be.

“We love having the Aeros,” Janis Schmees said. “They’re a great team. But if we’re able to bring in a NHL team, we’re going to jump at that opportunity.”

Schmees is the executive director of the Harris County Houston Sports Authority. That organization would be one of the driving forces behind any such venture. At the moment, she said there is no such movement afoot.

However, if the NHL were to settle in Houston with the Toyota Center as its home base, Schmees said Rockets owner Les Alexander would own the team — specific language was written in the Toyota Center lease saying as much. If another individual or group expressed a desire, another venue would have to be located or built.

Alexander, who has flirted with the possibility of NHL ownership on at least two occasions during the past decade, declined to comment.

The talk has been around for longer than that. Have we forgotten the Les AlexanderChuck Watson feuds already? Part of what made the Toyota Center saga so dramatic was the argument over who would be able to bring a major league hockey franchise to the new venue. The NHL did a lot of expansion and a few franchise moves in the 90s, which helped fuel that speculation, though things had been largely stable since then. With the Atlanta team moving to Winnipeg, I guess that’s all starting up again. I confess, I haven’t paid any attention to the Aeros lately, but it seems to me that the case against an NHL team, which is mostly that the game experience would be a lot more expensive than it is now, hasn’t changed. I doubt the likelihood of Houston emerging with an NHL franchise has changed much either, but I guess you never know.

Lockout or no, it makes no difference to them

Must be nice for them.

An extended NFL lockout and the loss of a season for the Texans actually would result in a small financial gain for the governmental body that manages the Reliant Stadium complex, officials said Thursday.

The Harris County Sports & Convention Corp., an arm of the county that oversees the Reliant complex, would save the $30,000 it takes to install and remove the football playing field for each home game.

[…]

The [Harris County-Houston Sports Authority] is in a slightly different position.

The Texans paid their $4.01 million annual rent last month, executive director Janis Schmees said.

Under the authority’s funding agreement, as with the sports corporation, the Texans keep the revenues they generate during home games.

The authority did collect $3.76 million last year during Texans events from taxes on tickets, parking surcharges and a portion of the sales taxes charged on merchandise and other such items, but the funding agreement requires those revenues be rebated to the Texans.

“As I review the documents, I don’t think there’s an upside or a down, necessarily, to the Sports Authority,” Schmees said. “It’s neutral.”

Well, I’m glad this won’t put the Sports Authority any further into debt, which was something I had been worried about. Of course, while the Sports Authority itsemf may be all right, I doubt the same can be said for all the folks who work at Reliant Stadium during the season and at the games. Maybe for the next story we can ask some of them how the lockout is affecting their bottom lines.

More Sports Authority woes

The Harris County-Houston Sports Authority is dealing with more financial issues that may require it to dip way into its cash reserves.

Lawyers for the authority and MBIA now are disputing whether Swiss bank UBS gave proper notice of its intent to terminate the interest-rate swap agreement that would require the $27 million payment. The deal was intended to control interest-rate spikes on the $125 million in variable-rate bonds the authority issued to help build Reliant Stadium. The authority’s other $875 million in debt is on a fixed rate.

The authority’s main reserve account today holds about $51 million, Executive Director Janis Schmees said; the payment to UBS would come from that account.

Schmees said neither the payment nor a default by the authority would affect the average citizen or sports fan. The authority, a quasi-governmental entity whose unpaid board members are appointed by the city and county, was created to finance the stadiums, in part, so the city and county’s credit ratings would not be at risk in the event of financial trouble.

[…]

Barton Smith, professor of economics emeritus at the University of Houston, said the situation presents, at worst, an “indirect risk” that would have an “almost not detectable” effect on taxpayers.

“If they default, who’s it going to hurt? Well, it’s going to hurt the bondholders if they’re stupid enough to let them default,” he said. “The risk to us Houstonians … is that they couldn’t continue to carry out their functions without some type of Harris County bailout.”

A potential default would have no spillover effects on other governments, Smith said, because the factors that would lead the city or county to default have nothing to do with the authority’s situation.

In case you’re wondering what the HCHSA’s functions are these days, their Chair J. Kent Friedman was kind enough to tell us all about them in this op-ed from a few months ago. Frankly, other than being the Dynamo’s landlord I don’t think there’s much that would need to be replaced. As long as they can’t do any damage to the city or the county in the event they do go down, I’m not terribly worried.

Houston bidding for another NBA All Star Game

I wish them good luck with that.

Rockets CEO Tad Brown has often said that the Rockets have pursued another All-Star weekend since the 2006 event in Houston ended, but he said Tuesday that he was more confident than ever that the Rockets and the City of Houston would land the game and the events that come with it.

“Since last All-Star game, we’ve submitted to the league a proposal to host the All Star game again. We’re under consideration for 2014. We’re hopeful, but the NBA has not made any determinations. There are a number of cities bidding for the same thing. We’re working with the City and the Sports Authority to try to get the game.”

Like I said, I wish them luck. Far as I can tell from my archives, the only thing I wrote about that previous All Star Game was my usual harrumph regarding economic projections for it. I look forward to getting to do that again. Hair Balls has more.

What about Bob?

Chron columnist Jerome Solomon has a question for Houston Texans owner Bob McNair.

Texans owner Bob McNair, who won’t talk about the CBA negotiations, should come out strongly against a lockout.

Though he has pocketed plenty as an NFL owner, McNair has said on a number of occasions that he didn’t get into this business to make money.

If that is indeed the case, he should put his mouth where his money is.

If McNair was willing to take a stand in support of Brian Cushing’s dubious claim about the cause of a failed performance-enhancing drug test, shouldn’t he be willing to take a stand in favor of the fans of Houston who have supported his Texans for nine seasons?

I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting. Whatever McNair’s feelings about the impending lockout, which is looking more likely every day, I doubt he’ll go rogue and express an opinion that might undercut his fellow owners in public. But by all means, fans should put pressure on the owners in every NFL town to get real and let the players play. It can’t hurt and who knows, they may even listen.

On a side note, I wonder what the effect of a lockout might have on the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority’s ability to make payments on its debts. Their revenues are dependent in part on stadium receipts, and if there are no games, there are no receipts. What happens then? Maybe someone ought to ask McNair about that, too.

Spin insurance

Some things just defy parody.

If things go really wrong for the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority in the coming year, an insurer now will cover what the public agency spends on spin.

This new kind of insurance kicks in, according to a policy summary, when an event “has caused or is reasonably likely to result in adverse publicity.”

Examples of such an event include the indictment of a board member or the agency declaring bankruptcy. It does not cover the cost of the board member’s legal defense or the financial expertise needed to unwind a fiscal disaster. Instead, it pays up to $50,000 for explaining to the public what went wrong.

“Basically, this is a PR coverage,” said Bill Jones, whose W.M. Jones & Company sells the Sports Authority its liability insurance. The authority receives it at no cost.

The so-called “special event management” coverage can apply to crisis management expenses incurred on public relations, marketing and legal experts.

The question of whether the Sports Authority is the local government agency most in need of this type of coverage or not is left as an exercise for the reader. I got nothing.

Eversole indicted

This has been so long in coming I was beginning to wonder if it would ever arrive.

Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jerry Eversole pleaded not guilty to federal bribery and income tax charges today.

Eversole is charged with accepting a bribe from developer and former Harris County facilities director Mike Surface. Details of the alleged bribe were not immediately available.

[…]

The indictments were handed down Monday, but only were unsealed in Johnson’s courtroom today.

“This is the federal government criminalizing a 30-year friendship,” Surface defense attorney Chip Lewis said outside the federal courthouse before the hearing.

Asked earlier today if his client would turn himself in to authorities, Eversole’s defense attorney Rusty Hardin replied, “He’s going to do whatever the government asks him to do, except admit he committed a crime, which he hasn’t committed.”

Surface already was under federal indictment on conspiracy charges, accused along with his business partner, Andrew Schatte, of giving gifts to Monique McGilbra, former director of the city’s Building Services Department to win contracts to build the city’s $53 million 911 call center and a $20 million fire station. McGilbra pleaded guilty and is cooperating with federal prosecutors, who allege Schatte and Surface gave her gifts including the use of a condo in California, $1,000, and a $40,000 consultant job for her boyfriend.

Eversole spoke about a looming federal indictment two years ago, though there were signs of it nearly a year earlier than that. Mike Surface was ousted from his position almost exactly three years ago, but wasn’t indicted till later. Several people were openly looking at Eversole’s seat on the Court, on the assumption that he’d quietly ride off into the sunset and await that knock on the door, when he surprisingly announced a re-election bid, which chased them all off. The assumption then had been that he’d resign after being re-elected so a successor could be appointed and given a good head start on fundraising before needing to run for the seat. I guess that part is still operative. Maybe he can bunk with Tom DeLay in the pokey. John and Juanita have more.

UPDATE: John has a timeline of Eversole’s misdeeds.

The Sports Authority wants you to know it’s working hard for you

I feel like the Chron should send a bill for its standard advertising rates to the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority for running this op-ed by its chair, J. Kent Friedman. It’s one part victory lap for negotiating the Dynamo Stadium lease and one part “Hey! Look at all this stuff we’re doing!” rah-rah. I like the Dynamo Stadium deal as much as the next guy, but the basic outline for it was in place long before the HCHSA got involved at El Franco Lee’s insistence earlier this year. As for the rest, nice work and all, but next time just send out a press release, OK?

On a side note, since the recent Port Commission kerfuffle, I thought it might be useful to examine the membership of the boards and commissions I happen to blog about. The Sports Authority board is thirteen members, six each chosen by Houston and Harris County, plus one – Chair Friedman – chosen jointly. Of the six board members selected by Harris County, five are white and one is African-American. Of the six chosen by the city of Houston, two are white, two are Hispanic, one is African-American, and one is Asian. Of the five non-white members on the board of 13, four were city of Houston appointments. Oh, and both of the women on the board – one white, one Hispanic – were City of Houston appointees. Just thought you’d like to know.

Dynamo Stadium lease deal reached

We didn’t get the World Cup, but soccer fans here had something to celebrate this week.

The Dynamo have agreed to pay $76 million to build a professional soccer stadium in downtown Houston and then lease it from the city and county for $65,000 a year.

The board of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority, a joint city-county agency that acts as a pro sports stadium landlord, unanimously approved the deal Thursday morning. While the Dynamo will pay most of the cost of construction, the city and county will own the stadium.

Thursday’s approval sets the stage for construction to begin as early as next month just across U.S. 59 from the George R. Brown Convention Center.

The deal still has to be approved by Houston City Council and Commissioners Court, but I expect both to happen this month. Looking through the archives, the first mention I can find of “Dynamo Stadium” is just over four years ago, shortly after they had settled on the team’s name. You can’t say we’ve rushed this, that’s for sure. Construction is projected to take about 16 months, meaning the stadium may be open in time for the 2012 MLS season. In addition to being the home of the Dynamo and TSU football, the new stadium will also be a live music venue.

The Dynamo’s owners, entertainment giant AEG Worldwide, will be looking to book musical acts into the 22,000-seat stadium.

The Dynamo has worked out a somewhat informal non-compete clause with the Toyota Center, but there’s no such agreement with the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion.

The Pavilion’s capacity is about 17,000; with field seats the new stadium could hold 25,000.

“We’re a larger venue…Our parent company is AEG, that’s their business, live entertainment and they do a lot of musical shows across the country,” Canetti said. ” So I suspect that we’ll be looking to do a handful of shows if not more in the new stadium.”

Canetti noted the Pavilion’s success. “I think they have a niche both in terms of where they’re located and the size of the venue and I think we’re going to provide something that’s just a little bit different for everybody.”

Sounds good to me.

Dynamo Stadium on the agenda

The Sports Authority will meet this week to try to hammer out a lease agreement for the Houston Dynamo in their future stadium.

The Sports Authority will meet Dec. 2, but it won’t meet again until February, which is partly why the lease topic was placed on the agenda.

[Sports Authority Chair Kenny] Friedman said the lease was put on the agenda to give the Sports Authority a chance to vote on it if all the issues are resolved in the negotiations between the Sports Authority and the Dynamo.

I figure it’ll happen in time for the meeting. Deadlines have a way of focusing the mind.

Once again mulling the fate of the Astrodome

Am I the only one who noticed the omission in this story about the current state of the Astrodome?

Debt and interest payments will amount to more than $2.4 million this year, according to a payment schedule for the higher debt estimate. The Astrodome’s manager estimates it also will cost $2 million for insurance, maintenance, utilities and security.

The debt likely would have to be reckoned with in any deal to redevelop the Astrodome, said Willie Loston, executive director of the Harris County Sports & Convention Corporation, which the county created to run the Reliant Park complex.

But no deal to restore what once was known as the “Eighth Wonder of the World” is likely to be affected by $32 million, Loston said.

“Practically anything that would be done with the building would be some multiple of that,” Loston said. “It’s not enough to make or break a development proposal.”

Not a word is mentioned about any specific redevelopment project. Nothing about the planetarium, the movie studio, or the convention center. Does that mean all these ideas are now officially dead, and that the most likely but still only spoken about in whispers outcome is this? You tell me.

That story was also about Commissioners Court finally getting around to the matter of the Dynamo Stadium deal. As expected, they approved it.

County Judge Ed Emmett emphasized that the Dynamo deal differs sharply from past stadium projects in which taxpayers picked up a much greater share of the tab.

“This is a team building its own stadium,” Emmett said.

Nor does the Dynamo deal cost any general fund money, Emmett and other county officials reaffirmed. Instead, a redevelopment zone will be created around the stadium so that future increases in tax receipts in the neighborhood will be funneled back into the project.

[…]

Much remains to be done before construction begins in October for a planned 2012 opening.

“This is, practically speaking, an agreement to agree,” said David Turkel, who as director of the county’s community services department is negotiating the deal with the city.

The Dynamo and the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority must negotiate a lease for the soccer team’s use of the stadium. The city and county must also formally approve the creation of the redevelopment zones.

It’s still a significant step forward, and it ought to be a lot easier from here now that the basic framework is in place. Enjoy the moment, Dynamo fans, it’s been a long time in coming.