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Houston First

County approves Astrodome plan

Like it or not, here it comes.

Take a last look at it

Harris County Commissioners Court voted unanimously Tuesday to move forward with the final design and construction of a $105 million project to transform the cherished piece of Houston’s sporting history into what officials hope will be coveted event space.

“It gives us a huge national story line,” said Holly Clapham, chief marketing officer for Houston First Corp., the city’s main marketing arm. “This, obviously, is a very significant building and we can tell the story of its new life, and serving a new constituency that didn’t know it as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World.'”

Construction on the project is expected to begin in October and end in February 2020.

“The first thing we have to do is get it back to where it’s structurally sound,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said after Tuesday’s court meeting. “Nine acres of open space, under cover, in Houston, Texas, is a big deal. We’ve already been contacted by all sorts of groups that want to come use it, so it’s exciting.”

See here and here for some background, though obviously there’s a lot more to this long-lasting story. I like this idea – unlike so many other proposals, this plan makes sense to me, it’s not outrageously expensive, and it keeps the property in the hands of the public. I’m not sure if it will make sense to keep calling it the Astrodome when all is said and done, but we can cross that bridge when we get to it.

Not everyone sees this as I do, of course, and we’ll be hearing plenty from them.

State Senator Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who co-sponsored legislation last year that would have required a public referendum on the Astrodome project, called Tuesday’s vote by Commissioners Court “tone deaf.”

“We just need to recognize the obvious,” Bettencourt said in a statement. “If the county has money to ignore a public vote and refurbish the Astrodome, then they have the capability to offer flooded-out homeowners disaster reappraisal and to cut their property tax rate.”

Bettencourt and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick have called on local taxing jurisdictions to allow residents whose homes were damaged by Harvey to have their properties reappraised to reflect their lower values.

Through a spokesman, Emmett called Bettencourt’s remarks “ill-informed” and said the project would allow the county to generate revenue for upgrades to the NRG Complex that otherwise would fall on taxpayers.

See here and here for more on the failed bill to require a vote on something that we wouldn’t normally require a vote on, since no bonds are being floated. The preview story goes into the funding source for the remodel.

In response to Harvey, the county is poised to call a bond referendum of at least $1 billion to pay for flood control projects, and Commissioners Court has imposed tougher regulations on new development in floodplains, as well as authorized up to $20 million to facilitate buyouts of Harvey-flooded homes.

Of the $105 million cost to renovate the dome into convention and meeting space, about a third would come from the county’s general fund, largely made up of property tax revenue. The other two sources — hotel occupancy taxes and parking revenue — would not be used for flood control Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said.

“We’re the third largest county in the country. We’re having to renovate a lot of buildings. This is another building,” Emmett said. “We need to renovate it and make it usable.”

He added that $35 million “does not go very far flood control-wise” when billions of dollars in improvements and repairs are needed.

People are going to have feelings about this, that’s for sure. There’s no direct vote on the Dome plan, but there will be that bond referendum, and Ed Emmett will be on the ballot, so the politics of this could work out in a number of ways. I’ve said my piece. We’ll see what develops from here.

Super Bowl economic impact was about what we expected

Not too bad.

The receipts are in, and February’s Super Bowl LI appears to have been a substantial boon for Houston — albeit with slightly less spending than expected.

Gross spending during the nine days of Super Bowl programming, minus the amount of usual tourism displaced by the event, came to $338 million, according to a consultant retained by the Host Committee. That’s a bit off the $372 million originally projected by the same firm, Pennsylvania-based Rockport Analytics.

The discrepancy occurred because the costs of goods and services were lower than expected, even though the number of out-of-town visitors was higher than anticipated, at 150,000, according to Rockport Analytics. In particular, visitors spent about half of what was expected on rental cars because of the availability of car-sharing service Uber and special Metro routes.

Host Committee Chairman Ric Campo, the CEO of apartment developer Camden Properties, said that should still be counted as a win for Houston, since it allowed more people to come to the party.

“One of the things that the Host Committee really worked hard on was affordability,” Campo said. “We didn’t want you to have to go to Discovery Green and spend $100 to feed your family.”

The total impact includes $228 million spent on wages and $39 million spent on state and local taxes. Although that number was about $6 million lower than projected, it was more than enough to pay back the state for the $25.4 million the state advanced the Host Committee, with $15 million in proceeds.

[…]

In addition to the financial impact, officials played up the the game’s halo effect for the city’s image, and the benefit of catching the interest of potential customers. Houston First President Mike Waterman said several of the 16 convention organizers he brought down to see the event have committed to bringing conventions to the city.

“We weekly get customers coming to Houston and saying they saw us shine during the Super Bowl, and now they’re interested in booking a meeting here,” Waterman said.

Let’s hope Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick don’t ruin that by forcing a bathroom bill down our throats. The one economic impact estimate I saw before the Super Bowl pegged the haul at $350 million, so it was pretty darned close. I’m glad all these people came to visit, I’m glad they had a good time (and spent some money), and given that we’re preparing a bid for the 2024 Super Bowl, I hope they’ll want to come back. Assuming our leadership doesn’t take the good impression they went away with and turn it into trash.

AirBnB tax collection deal

Seems reasonable.

[AirBnB] announced Wednesday it will begin collecting and remitting the 6 percent state hotel occupancy tax May 1. The decision followed more than a year of talks, said Laura Spanjian, Airbnb’s Texas public policy manager. Airbnb has similar tax-collection agreements with 25-plus states.

“These agreements are a meaningful revenue boost for communities, and we hope to reach similar agreements with cities around Texas soon,” Spanjian said by email.

Houston homeowners who rent out their properties are supposed to pay a total of 17 percent in occupancy taxes, 7 percent of which goes to Houston First, which oversees hotel tax collection for the city.

Yet of the 7,200 active hosts Airbnb says operate in the area, only 70 have registered with the city as taxpaying hosts, said Jonathan Newport, Houston First’s director of government affairs.

[…]

Under the new agreement, the state portion of the hotel-occupancy taxes will be guaranteed. Guests will be charged the correct amount on their bill for a stay of 29 nights or less, and Airbnb will then remit the collected taxes to the state.

“The sharing economy plays an important role in our state’s overall fiscal health,” Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar said in a statement. “We applaud Airbnb for agreeing to collect state hotel occupancy taxes, as all lodging facilities in Texas are required to do.”

See here, here, and here for some background. This is a positive step, as it gets some revenue that otherwise would have been lost for the city while giving AirBnB some regulatory certainty. People want to use AirBnB, and as seems to be the case with everything these days there’s a bill in the Legislature to override local restrictions on it, so this is another level on which it makes sense for the city to reach a deal with them. Hope it works as intended for everyone.

The Super Bowl economic impact calculators have figured out it’s all a game

They’ve adjusted their methods in anticipation of your criticisms.

With less than a month to go before the big day, let no one say that Super Bowl LI — as an economic event, not a football game — has been inadequately forecast.

We’ve already seen two studies on the financial boost that the two-week extravaganza is expected to provide to the Houston area: One from a consulting firm hired to figure out how much hospitality tax revenue the state should provide in advance, and another from a local bank. They ranged pretty widely in their predictions and definitions, making it difficult to know what benefits to expect.

Now comes another study from the Host Committee, this one designed to capture the new money that will flow to Houston as a result of the game and all the programming around it. The headline: The city will net $350 million from the whole affair, which appears to be in the middle of the range of windfalls from Super Bowls past.

Aware of the skepticism surrounding previous in-house analyses, the consulting firm that performed it — Pennsylvania-based Rockport Analytics — emphasizes that it doesn’t count anything that shouldn’t be counted. “One of the reasons why we tend to be hired by events like this is that we produce conservative estimates,” says managing director Kenneth McGill.

As such, the firm took the overall expected amount of Super Bowl spending — based on a budget provided by the Host Committee and data from past Super Bowls — and subtracted out both the typical amount of tourism the city sees during this time of year and the spending that’s likely to leak out to other states and cities. It included the amount the city would be spending on the event, about $5.5 million, as a net gain; city officials have said the Host Committee will reimburse all of those costs.

That got them down from from $450 million to the ultimate $350 million, which is slightly more than the $338 million that Rockport is forecasting for next year’s Super Bowl in Minneapolis — a number that has already come under fire from independent sports finance experts — and the $277.9 million it determined that Indianapolis reaped from hosting the event in 2012.

I don’t really have a point to make, I’m just always entertained by these economic impact estimates. It would be nice if we were systematic about comparing the post-event data to the pre-event projections, so that we could make better projections in the future, but we don’t, and I’m not even sure we could. So take these as I do as mostly for entertainment value, and it’s all good.

Does it matter why infrastructure was improved?

I say no, but maybe that’s just me.

In the days leading up to the nation’s biggest sporting event, thousands of visitors will use Broadway to travel from the airport to downtown hotels and other spots. Work on gravel paths, trees and lighting is expected to be done by the end of the year, one of a series of projects across the Houston area aimed at polishing the city’s image.

It’s an effort that Hollinquest, 57, can appreciate. But she can’t help but think about the discolored, sagging second-story walkway in her apartment that isn’t being fixed.

Others living along the street talk about speeding cars putting pedestrians at danger, or the shooting that recently happened a block away from the corridor in daylight. They represent the real problems that will likely remain even after millions of dollars in infrastructure and beautification projects are completed, a juxtaposition that hasn’t gone unnoticed by residents.

“It’s a shame they want to improve stuff just because the Super Bowl is coming,” said Hollinquest.

Such spending raises a question of priorities, said Victor Matheson, a professor at Holly Cross in Worcester, Mass., whose research has questioned the economic impact of events like the Super Bowl.

Matheson acknowledges that the Super Bowl brings in necessary investment to neighborhoods that might not otherwise occur. But it tends to be in areas frequented by tourists.

[…]

The east side of downtown is being transformed with the investment of roughly $300 million in hotel taxes by Houston First, the city’s convention agency. A renovated George R. Brown Convention Center is having its façade opened up with walls of glass offering sweeping views of Discovery Green park and a reinvented Avenida de las Americas below, with the street shrinking from eight lanes to two to better accommodate pedestrians and restaurants boasting sidewalk patios.

The convention center and the adjacent Partnership Tower – a 10-story edifice, also built by Houston First – offer a good view of the new 1,000-room Marriott Marquis and an accompanying parking garage, which benefitted some from hotel tax revenue.

The area around NRG Stadium has also seen significant work. A redevelopment authority for the area around the stadium has raised more than $3 million for road maintenance, new sidewalks, trees, other greenery, new signs and LED street lights.

The city’s public works department is also carrying out $7.7 million in repairs on 3.8 miles of roads around the stadium – chiefly Main, Fannin, Cambridge and Westridge – either by laying fresh asphalt or replacing damaged portions of concrete streets.

I get that areas that are more visible to visitors are being prioritized, and that the areas that are getting worked have mostly needed it for a long time and still need more than what they’re getting. You do have to wonder how long some of this stuff would have been left undone had it not been for the Super Bowl. But in real life stuff gets done only because of some external stimulus all the time. Sometimes events do change priorities. And in this particular case, the cause of the changed priorities was also the source of some of the funding to pay for it. Most of what is being done will last well past the game itself. I say the fact that it all got done is what matters.

Time once again to talk about the Super Bowl and its economic impact

We’re less than 100 days out from Super Bowl LI here in Houston. I don’t know how much people who are not directly involved in the planning and execution of it are thinking about that.

The economic benefits of hosting a Super Bowl and other major events have long been a matter of debate, however. Houston’s host committee has yet to release its impact analysis, but these reports typically estimate that Super Bowls generate economic activity in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Academics who study such events generally find the added activity, with all the costs taken into account, is much smaller.

“I can’t tell you whether there will be a zero net impact or a modest positive one,” says Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College who has long studied the sports industry, “but it’s not going to be large.”

Houston, though, may be better prepared to benefit from the Super Bowl than other cities, for several reasons. First, there isn’t much winter tourism in Houston to displace, as in other Super Bowl cities such as New Orleans and Miami, so the net gain here is much greater. Second, Houston’s hospitality industry needs the business, with new hotels built during the shale boom struggling with lower-than-expected occupancy rates as business travel declined.

Third – and perhaps most important – the city really could use a period of prolonged exposure to show business leaders and the millions watching at home that it’s not just a stodgy oil town like it was in the early 2000s.

[…]

The accounting firm PwC has estimated the economic impact of the Super Bowl since 2003, pegging the game’s value to Houston in 2004 at about $130 million in direct spending. It estimated that the last Super Bowl, number 50, was worth $220 million to the San Francisco Bay Area.

Cities have gotten better at making the most of Super Bowl week, said Adam Jones, a PwC analyst. By planning events within a relatively small radius so visitors spend more time on experiences than getting to them, cities can capture greater returns.

Houston has done that, with NFL Live at Discovery Green — a 10-day music and food-filled festival open to the public — only a few minutes from NRG Stadium via light rail or taxi. Additional bus and shuttle lines will be available should guests want to venture to the Galleria as well.

“What we’ve seen within the past five years is communities going out, learning what has worked, what hasn’t worked in cities that preceded them,” Jones said. “We continue to see year over year improvement in the model.”

University of Houston economist Bill Gilmer looked at additional tax revenues generated during the 2004 Super Bowl, about $5 million, and estimated the 2017 edition would bring in an extra $6.6 million in sales taxes for the city plus another $2.2 million in hotel occupancy taxes and $6.8 million for Metro.

Longer-term benefits are harder to measure. The city’s tourism promotion arm, HoustonFirst, said it was able to go after bigger conventions when the Hilton Americas was completed in 2004. That added 1,200 rooms directly connected to the convention center, and the Marriott Marquis will have a similar effect. The city booked a record number of room nights for future conventions in 2015 and expects to break the record again this year, according to HoustonFirst.

We’ve discussed this a few times before. I’m sure that the economic benefit of hosting a Super Bowl is generally overstated, but I do think there is a benefit, and I do think it’s possible that cities have learned from past experiences and academic study to maximize the benefit that is available to them. As the story notes, Houston doesn’t have much tourism trade to displace, but we do have an extensive food-and-drink sector of our economy that will surely enjoy having all these out-of-towners around. The spending that has been done on infrastructure is spending that needed to be done, and which will be a public good long after the Super Bowl people have gone home. In the end, someone will put out a number, and we can make of that what we will. Whatever that number is, I expect the city of Houston will look back on this experience and decide that it was worth it.

“Space City” fight escalates

It’s getting real.

The Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau is asking a federal judge to stop a rival comic convention from using the phrase “Space City” for its three-day festival scheduled for NRG Center over Memorial Day weekend.

The convention bureau filed a request Friday for a temporary restraining order to prevent Space City Comic Con from continuing to use the phrase the bureau trademarked 12 years ago to promote the city.

The bureau owns 50 percent of another comic convention, Comicpalooza. That show is scheduled for the George R. Brown Convention Center in mid-June.

U.S. District Judge Nancy F. Atlas heard the request at 3 p.m. Monday, but did not issue a ruling. The dispute has been brewing for months but reached the courthouse earlier this year when the bureau sued Space City Comic Con along with its owner George Comits over alleged trademark infringement. The bureau is seeking profits from previous shows in which Comits used “Space City” as part of its name.

That was the early story. The judge has since declined to issue the TRO to the Visitors Bureau.

Instead of a court order, she suggested a much simpler solution: adding a disclaimer on tickets and brochures that Space City Comic Con event is not affiliated with the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“I’m not prepared to shut the conference down,” Atlas said.

[…]

The convention bureau calls Comicpalooza, which drew about 45,000 visitors last year, “Houston’s Official Comic Con.” In its request for a temporary restraining order, the bureau said the use of “Space City,” is causing irreparable harm to its business of promoting tourism, trade and conventions in the Houston area.

Not only will it likely cause public confusion, it will also destroy the bureau’s goodwill and reputation with its current and prospective customers, the convention bureau said in court documents.

During the hearing Monday, Atlas pointed out that the bureau’s arguments gave her pause, since many businesses already use “Space City,” a nod to Houston’s long-time connection to the space industry through NASA’s Johnson Space Center. She also questioned why the bureau waited so long to seek a restraining order after filing suit in February.

[Space City Comic Con owner George] Comits testified that the bureau won’t even put Space City Comic Con on its calendar of events because of its investment in Comicpalooza. Atlas was surprised to learn that the convention and visitors bureau had a financial interest in Comicpalooza. “Really?” she asked.

See here for the background. Judge Atlas has scheduled a hearing on the request for the TRO today at 8 AM, so we could have an answer to that part of the fight shortly. I personally remain lukewarm to the idea that “Space City” is a term that requires traademarking or that people will be confused by two different events at two different locations in two different months, but then considering how little information people have about other things, I can see an argument. I like the disclaimer suggestion and hope the two sides can work this out peacefully.

We Heart Houston…someplace else

A popular piece of public art is looking for a new location.

It’s difficult not to smile while driving east on I-10 when passing the “We Heart Houston” sculpture near the Patterson St. exit in the Heights. Since 2013, the colorful, 20-foot-tall work has been a great sight for those with pride in Houston. However, the sculpture’s days there are numbered.

The good news? Houston is getting a larger, more substantial sculpture touting our arts scene in its place. “Art is Everywhere Houston” is on the horizon, and promises to make an even greater impact.

The “We Heart Houston” sculpture’s new location is currently under consideration according to the artist, 89-year-old David Adickes. A prolific and treasured local sculptor, Adickes has numerous larger-than-life works to his credit including “Virtuoso” at the Lyric Center, the enormous President’s Heads, and the 76-foot-tall Sam Houston on display on I-45 in Huntsville.

Adickes is working with the Houston First Corporation to review options. Houston First is the agency charged with enhancing the quality of life in our city, as well as advancing economic prosperity, and the city’s image with the world.

“At first we thought we would move it in front of the Hobby Center on the slope of Buffalo Bayou,” Adickes said. “As people drove by, the skyline would have formed a backdrop for the piece. It was the perfect spot.”

Well, not exactly perfect, as it turns out. The portion along Buffalo Bayou chosen for the sculpture routinely floods. Decision-makers concluded that it was only a matter of time before a photograph of a half-submerged “We Heart Houston” sign saturated the internet – not exactly an image the city wants to project.

‘My next choice of locations is on the jogging path as it runs near Stude Park in the Heights. People could still see the sculpture from the street as they drive by, and it would lend itself to joggers and people in the park taking selfies. That’s another good solution,” stated Adickes.

Why the big move? Since the sculpture’s placement on Adickes’ 3,000-square-foot sliver of property along the feeder of I-10, a large town home development was constructed be hind the work. Then, another wall was built between the town homes and the sculpture itself. The aesthetics no longer fit, says Adickes

“Another reason we’re moving ‘We Heart Houston,’ is safety,” said Christine West, Cultural Programs Manager with Houston First. “It’s popular, and people want to stop and photograph themselves standing with sculpture, but it’s dangerous to do that where it is. There’s no parking along the feeder road and traffic whizzes by there. Houston First wants to place it where people and families can enjoy it without risk, and we can actively maintain it.”

Sounds reasonable to me. As you know, I’m a longtime fan of Adickes’ work, and my kids love this particular piece, so I’m glad it will be moved to a place that is safer and more convenient for taking pictures. I feel confident it will be making an appearance on my Facebook wall in the near future.

“Space City” trademark lawsuit

Fascinating.

Houston’s convention bureau is suing the operators of a popular local convention over the use of “Space City” in its name, claiming it infringes on a 12-year-old trademark.

The convention in question, Space City Comic Con, also happens to compete with a similar event that is half-owned by the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau itself. The bureau acquired a 50 percent stake in the more established Comicpalooza last September, spokesman A.J. Mistretta said.

Both events bring in television and film stars for appearances that attract thousands of autograph buyers. Fans come dressed as their favorite characters from science fiction, anime and super-hero fantasies to browse exhibits, purchase items from vendors and play video and table-top games. The fests charge comparable admission fees.

The convention bureau, which declined to discuss the case for this article, may believe it’s losing money if people are confused over which show is sponsored by the economic development arm of Houston, said Betsy Gelb, professor of marketing and entrepreneurship at the Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston. She agreed that if it managed to trademark “Space City,” it has every reason to defend it in court.

But, she added, “Does it help your image to do this?”

[…]

The convention bureau claims in its lawsuit in federal court in Houston that through its promotional efforts, “Space City” has become widely known in the United States and that Space City Comic Con is causing “irreparable harm” by using the trademarked name.

The bureau is seeking a court order to force the show to stop using “Space City.” The lawsuit also would require the company to give up any profits earned from using the trademark and stop competing unfairly against the bureau.

Gotta admit, in almost 30 years of living in Houston, I don’t think I’ve ever thought of it as “Space City”. Speaking as a longtime Rockets fan, on those occasions when I feel the need to attach a nickname to Houston, “Clutch City” is by far the most likely moniker to come to mind, however outdated that may be by now. “Bayou City” is a distant second. I get “Space City”, of course, and if the GHCVB thinks that has value and specific meaning, I won’t argue. It’s just not something that naturally occurs to me. My guess is that in the end the Space City Comic Con will rebrand itself and that will be the end of this. I don’t know that that will happen in time for this year’s Con, which as always happens over the Memorial Day weekend and for which marketing is underway. The Space City folks say on their Facebook page that they have not been contacted for comment about this, despite what the Chron story says, and they encourage their fans to contact the GHCVB to tell them what they think about this. So it could get quite contentious, but in the end I do think some kind of settlement will be reached. Taking this to a courthouse won’t be good for anyone but the lawyers.

Another look at AirBnB

Interesting.

The hotel industry is starting to object. On Wednesday, a report funded by a national trade group claimed some Airbnb hosts function illegally and operate essentially as full-time hotels without the same health and safety oversight. It also says they can reduce the number of affordable options for full-time renters.

The home-rental site has stirred tensions in cities such as New York City, San Francisco, Paris and Barcelona. Austin has created new short-term rental regulations as a result.

In Houston, which does not have similar regulations, the city’s primary tourism agency is working with Airbnb and similar operators about taxes.

A city of Houston spokesman said Wednesday that the state is responsible for health and safety regulations that affect short-term rentals. But a spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services, which regulates hotels and bed-and-breakfast operators, said it does not have a role in Airbnb or short-term rentals.

Houston is the state’s second-largest Airbnb market, behind Austin, and officials are preparing for an increase in tourism around the 2017 Super Bowl. It was one of a dozen large U.S. cities included in the American Hotel & Lodging Association study released Wednesday by Pennsylvania State University’s School of Hospitality Management. Researchers tracked Airbnb data from a 13-month period.

“This study shows an explosion in activity among multi-unit hosts and the rise of full-time operators in each of the 12 markets we analyzed. Further, operators renting out three or more units represent a disproportionate share of revenue with only 7 percent driving more than $325 million in the period studied,” said John O’Neill, the Penn State professor who directed the research and is director of the school’s Center for Hospitality Real Estate Strategy.

The study found that nearly 30 percent of the revenue generated from hosts comes from people operating as full-time landlords, or 360 days a year. Individuals or entities renting out two or more residential properties on Airbnb account for 17 percent of hosts and drive nearly 40 percent of the revenue in those markets, according to the study.

The report found that in Houston there are 30 full-time operators who rent out their space for at least 360 days a year, generating $3 million in revenue during the 13-month period studied. In all, 956 hosts generated a total of $11 million in revenue, the report said.

It found 83 hosts operating three or more properties and 82 others with two units.

A copy of that report is here. AirBnB has disputed its findings and released its own report about its potential tax revenue for cities. I have no judgment about who is right or wrong in their facts and figures, I’m more interested in how cities are going to react to AirBnB, which I presume they’re going to have to do sooner or later. So far it has not been on the radar in Houston, but it has been in Austin and may be in San Antonio and elsewhere. I’ll be a little surprised if we see AirBnB regulation on the Council agenda in the near future, but if there’s any indication that it’s negatively affecting hotel tax revenue that could change.

Houston gets a Bitcoin ATM

Just what you were waiting for, I’m sure.

Houston unveiled its first bitcoin ATM on Wednesday, hoping to attract international travelers and more conventions to the George R. Brown Convention Center.

Bitcoin is like digital cash. And this ATM, on the downtown center’s second floor next to a Starbucks, allows users to convert cash to bitcoin and vice versa.

“Houston First always wants to be the first in offering amenities to its attendees and guests,” said Mark Goldberg, assistant general counsel for Houston First Corp., the quasi-public organization that manages the convention center. “With us now having this ATM machine … we’ve proven that we’re on the cutting edge of technology.”

Bitcoin is gaining momentum in Houston, although the adoption rate here lags behind Austin and Dallas, said Adam Richard, president of the Houston-based nonprofit Texas Coinitiative.

He predicts local awareness will continue rising as Apple Pay makes consumers more familiar with digital payments and as merchants begin offering incentives for people to pay with bitcoin.

“The interest keeps rising every week,” he said. “I’m excited to see where we’re going to be in a year from today.”

[…]

The downtown convention center’s ATM charges a 5 percent fee based on the real-time market rate for bitcoin. A user can create an account at the ATM. Then, each time the ATM is used, a text is sent to the user’s phone with a six-digit authentication code. This number needs to be typed in to the ATM, for security purposes, before any transactions can be made.

Weisfeld said he believed this ATM would help attract business to the convention center.

“The bitcoin community is the world’s largest loyalty population,” he said. “People that have bitcoin around the world have a tendency to want to do business in places that will do business in bitcoin. So we see the George R. Brown Convention Center establishing a first that is going to bring conventions to Houston.”

These types of ATMs can also be a draw for international travelers. Michael Cargill, who installed a CoinVault ATM at his Central Texas Gun Works in Austin in March, said visitors from other countries come in to exchange their virtual currency for U.S. dollars.

“We’re keeping up with technology,” he said. “A lot of gun stores are still on fax machines.”

Well okay then. I’m still not convinced that Bitcoin is going to go the distance, but certainly there are people who use it now. I rather doubt there are that many people who base their travel or business location decisions on the presence or absence of a Bitcoin ATM, but I will readily concede that a large international city like Houston ought to have one. So good on Houston First for making this happen.

Transforming the GRB Convention Center

I don’t think I’d realized that there was a renovation of the George R. Brown Convention Center in the works, but after reading this story, I’m excited about it.

George R. Brown Convention Center

By late next year, people strolling the George R. Brown Convention Center plaza can take in restaurants, sidewalk cafes, landscaped walk-ways and a water fountain. At night, if all goes according to plan, they’ll be treated to a fog and light display.

By the time the Super Bowl rolls around in 2017, the plaza is expected to host a party for 100,000.

Those plans are much grander than when the project was initially bid a year ago. They evolved into a full-blown re-imagining of the area surrounding eastern downtown’s Discovery Green park.

Marie Hoke, a principal at WHR Architects and the project’s lead architect, says she has never worked on a design job that has expanded as much as this one – fitting, perhaps, given the 48-year-old Houstonian’s self-described penchant for “stretching, reaching and not leaving well enough alone.”

Hoke spent her earliest years in her mother’s hometown of Quito, Ecuador. She said she feels at home in a melting pot city like Houston, a place “where you don’t have to leave your culture of origin behind.”

“There is an opportunity to synthesize who you are into something new. We’re all kind of hybrids in Houston, comfortable with each other’s cultures.”

[…]

The original proposal Houston First sent to the architectural firms was more modest, Hoke said. It called for a mixed-use parking garage with some office space, and it included a vague reference to making the convention center more pedestrian-friendly.

After Hoke’s team won the bid, she and representatives of WHR and Houston First visited convention centers in other U.S. cities and came back with “game-changing” ideas, she said.

In Anaheim, Calif., they realized they could take buses off the front of the convention center and have drop-offs at the building’s sides, she said. In Chicago, they saw beautifully integrated public art.

A plan to add three restaurants in the area has grown to eight or nine.

And after Hoke brought SWA landscape architects on board, the project “caught fire” with ideas for the plaza, she said.

The city’s Public Works Division and Houston First are in talks to change the lane configurations on Avenida De Las Americas to allow more room for people to roam in the plaza, she said.

Once completed, the plaza “will take on the feeling you have in Discovery Green and extend it to the convention center,” Central Houston president Bob Eury said.

David Crossley, president of Houston Tomorrow, a group focused on local quality-of-life issues, said: “This is really beautiful stuff and revolutionary in Houston.”

That’s quite the endorsement. Discovery Green has been transformative, not just in the sense of turning an ugly vacant lot in an unloved part of downtown into a beautiful and heavily used city park, but also in the sense of spawning a lot of good construction around it, some of which is still underway. As someone who works within walking distance – or at least B-cycling distance – from Discovery Green and the GRB, I’m definitely intrigued by that news about the eight or nine restaurants. We’ve been hearing about this for almost three years now, and we’re still a ways off from its completion. I’m really eager to see how it all turns out.

The Super Bowl is making us get stuff done

Nothing like a deadline to focus the mind.

The 2017 Super Bowl not only will drive thousands of football fans to Houston, it will put a hard deadline on projects from office and hotel construction to a light-rail extension, a local developer said Wednesday.

Ric Campo, CEO of Houston-based Camden Properties and chairman of the Houston Super Bowl bid committee that successfully lobbied the NFL for the big game, said over the next three years developers and the city plan to invest $3.5 billion in downtown. By contrast, he said, the business community and city have invested a total of $5 billion there over the last 14 years.

“It creates incredible deadlines and amazing pressure to get projects done,” he said. “We’re trying to turn downtown into a 24-hour city.”

Campo told a real estate group at its monthly meeting that the Super Bowl would have a combined $500 million positive impact to the city.

He cited several projects that are now under pressure to finish in time, including a Hampton Inn and Homewood Suites, a Hyatt Place, the Marriott Marquis Convention Center Hotel and a Spring Hill Suites. At least six planned residential towers and seven office projects planned for downtown are expected to be completed in time for the big event.

As you know, there’s nothing I like more than an economic impact estimate for a major sporting event. At least for this major sporting event, the construction work being done is for things that will have a benefit for the city before and after The Big Game and would have been good to have even in the absence of said game. Now that I work downtown I have a much better appreciation of all that’s going on there. All this construction is a pain to deal with now, but it’ll be great once it’s finished. It’s reassuring to have a deadline for that.

Finally doing that front door facelift

Better late than never.

Renovations started this week on the historic Sunset Coffee Building at Allen’s Landing on the north end of downtown.

The more than 100-year-old structure, now behind a fence as construction begins, is getting a $5.3 million facelift from Houston First Corp. and Buffalo Bayou Partnership. They hope the new design will reconnect the bayou with downtown Houston.

The building sits on a spot often referred to as “Houston’s Plymouth Rock,” according to a joint announcement Friday from the Partnership and Houston First. Brothers August Chapman Allen and John Kirby Allen established Houston there in 1836.

[…]

The project should be completed in about one year. At that time the building will have an outdoor plaza with refreshment and rental facilities for runners, canoeists, kayakers and bikers. The first level will be office space for the partnership and the second level and a rooftop terrace will be used as event space.

A walkway will connected the building to Commerce Street. Ultimately, the building will connect to Buffalo Bayou’s trail system that stretches to Shepherd Drive.

We first heard about this almost a year ago. At the time, the plan was for work to begin in April, 2013. I don’t know what caused the delay – this story doesn’t indicate – but at least it’s getting started now. I can’t wait to see what it looks like when it’s finally done.

Big Brew

I like the sound of this.

beer

For three days in October, the [George R. Brown] convention center will host Big Brew, a major new festival that aims to tap into the region’s burgeoning craft-beer scene by putting 1,000 beers out for public sampling, along with seminars on what you’re drinking and where it comes from.

To satisfy Houstonians’ growing passion for pairing food with beer, some of the biggest chefs in town are lining up 40 local restaurants for an evening of culinary improvisation.

“We really do think we can make this a beer-tourist destination,” said Big Brew organizer Clifton McDerby of Food & Vine Time Productions.

[…]

McDerby said the sampling hall during Big Brew will feature 1,000 craft beers. A selection that large would rank among the larger ones in beer festivals nationally, said Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the Brewers Association industry group.

“It’s a goal, but it’s a goal that we will reach,” McDerby said.

The main tastings will be preceded by two smaller events, a food-and-beer pairing and an exclusively Texas tasting, on the evenings of Oct. 23 and 24, respectively. All will be inside the Brown Convention Center.

McDerby said there also will be a downtown pub crawl, and additional events in the vicinity are likely to be added.

The pairing event will feature food selections from 40 Houston restaurants, 29 of which have signed up.

McDerby said a culinary committee led by noted restaurateurs Robert Del Grande of RDG & Bar Annie, Michael Cordúa (Américas , Artista) and Randy Evans (Haven) is developing the list.

The Texas tasting will feature 40 in-state breweries exclusively.

I’m thinking this was Mayor Parker’s favorite press conference of all time.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker on Tuesday turned a public announcement about a new beer festival into a toast to the city’s industriousness and traditions of hospitality.

“Houston has always been a place for entrepreneurs,” she said, adding craft brewers to a legacy of dynamic business owners who stimulate the local economy.

“Today we celebrate an industry and a city on the rise,” she said, raising a glass of Houston-brewed beer from Saint Arnold Brewing Co. “Here’s to our city, and here’s to beer.”

I’ll drink to that. The festival will run from October 23-25, and tickets go on sale on February 17. They’re limiting sales to 11,000 tix for the main event, so I’d advise buying yours quickly, not to mention perhaps planning for a vacation day on the Friday. The event webpage is here, the Facebook page is here, and a photo gallery from the press conference is here. CultureMap has more.

Here come the hotels

Lots of downtown hotel construction going on, or about to go on.

George R. Brown Convention Center

The area around the George R. Brown Convention Center is about to see a burst of hotel construction as developers plan several new projects, two of which will offer more moderately priced rooms.

The new projects are planned for sites just outside the convention center’s front doors, making this the most active period for hotel construction in this part of downtown in a decade.

Houston hotel firm American Liberty Hospitality is planning a 300-room property along Crawford between Capitol and Rusk.

The 14-story building will have two brands under the same roof: a Hampton Inn and Homewood Suites.

[…]

A second project, to be built on the same block as Massad’s property but fronting Rusk, will be a Hyatt Place.

The 11-story hotel will be developed by College Station-based Oldham Goodwin Group and Phin-Ker of Houston. The group expects to break ground on the 261-room property by January and open by the summer of 2015.

Hyatt Place is considered a “select-service hotel,” which offers a slightly bigger amenity package than a limited-service property. Rooms typically include free breakfast, Internet service and coffee throughout the day.

A third property will be a 1,000-room Marriott Marquis planned for a site just north of Discovery Green park and west of the convention center.

Financing for the $335 million Marquis project, expected to open in 2016, will come in part from Houston First, which operates the city’s arts and convention business. The agency is providing funds to buy the hotel site and build an adjacent parking garage. The new hotels are expected to be up and running by the time Houston hosts Super Bowl LI in 2017.

City leaders have been pushing for more hotel rooms within walking distance of the convention center – something convention bookers look for when selecting a city.

Greg Ortale, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the additional room types downtown will help boost convention bookings.

They will also serve the growing leisure traveler segment.

“We’re starting to get a lot more leisure traffic,” he said. “Our image has improved dramatically.”

See here for some background. There’s still a lot of open and underused space on the east side of downtown, so it’s good to see this moving forward. The city has been trying to get more hotel space for the GRB for years, in the hope of making it more competitive with other convention centers. At least with the Super Bowl and other big sporting events coming to town, it’ll be nice to have. I do wonder, however, how well this will mesh with the New Dome Experience, since the New Dome’s new life as a multi-purpose event center might make it a competitor with the GRB. Not as much as it would have been had it been turned into a hotel/convention center itself, of course. Anyway, if you like seeing construction cranes in and around downtown, it’s going to be a good couple of years for you.

Fixing our front door

This sounds very cool.

The century-old Sunset Coffee Building, looming in disrepair over Allen’s Landing at the north end of downtown, will become Houston’s “front door” with an $8 million public-private renovation set to begin in April.

The three-story brick structure is boarded up, marked with graffiti, and has shrubs growing out of some second-floor windows.

Come mid-2014, however, the facility will house kayak, canoe and bike rentals on the first floor, office space on the second floor, private event space on the third floor, a rooftop terrace, and will be flanked by outdoor plazas and walkways connecting to Commerce Street.

Most of the money comes from private donations to the nonprofit Buffalo Bayou Partnership. The fundraising also was boosted by a $500,000 federal grant and finished off with a $2.4 million infusion from Houston First, the board that runs the city’s convention and arts facilities.

[…]

Susan Keeton, chairman emeritus of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, said it has been a long road, with some skepticism from the nonprofit’s board members, since the partnership first bought the building in 1997, with the dream of making it a focal point of recreation on the bayou. Renovations had been slated to start in 2008, but fundraising lagged amid the national recession.

“It is our Plymouth Rock, and the wonderful thing about it is that, unlike Plymouth Rock – which now is sort of small and forlorn, I’ve seen it off of Cape Cod – this, particularly when the Coffee Building gets renovated, is not going to be a lonely place,” Keeton said. “A day like today, this beautiful slope ought to just attract people, too many, almost.”

Sounds awesome to me, and long overdue. Kudos to the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, Houston First, and the city for making this happen. I can’t wait to see the finished product. Here’s the Houston First press release, and CultureMap and Swamplot have more.

Here comes the Convention District

We’ll see what this turns into.

The newest vision for the eastern edge of downtown includes hotels and residential buildings in place of what are now parking lots.

Officials also picture a bustling pedestrian scene where shops and restaurants line the streets leading to the city’s 1.2-million-square-foot George R. Brown Convention Center, which, too, would grow as part of their plan.

The group that operates the nearly 25-year-old convention center and other city-owned buildings will publicly unveil its vision this month.

“The economic impact over the past 25 years has been significant,” said Dawn Ullrich, president and CEO of Houston First Corp. “We’re going to build on that.”

The 2025 Master Plan takes a long-range approach to the area, which officials hope to brand as the “Convention District.” The boundaries would be U.S. 59, Bell, Austin and Congress.

The plan focuses on three main components: new hotel rooms, more amenities and an expansion of the convention center, which would happen once the other elements were complete.

Some of the improvements will be financed by Houston First, which could also purchase land to help carry out the plan.

Houston First is the spinoff of the city’s Convention and Entertainment Facilities Department and the Houston Convention Center Hotel Corporation, which runs the Hilton Americas. The idea behind it was to allow the convention center to have more freedom to make decisions, which would allow it to be more innovative and grow the business. Given that plans like this don’t generally come out of nowhere in six months’ time, you have to figure it was part of the reason for the spinoff. Houston First is seeking private investors for this project, which is fine as long as there’s no assumption there will be public funds as backstops. If private investors think they can make this work, more power to them.

Meeting planners have also cited the area’s lack of amenities, saying the convention center is blocks away from most of downtown’s dining and shopping.

“For the out-of-towner, it’s not a significant draw,” said Alan Colyer, a principal with the Gensler architecture firm, which led the overall planning effort for Houston First that began more than a year ago.

The closest collection of shops, restaurants and entertainment venues is at Houston Pavilions, about five blocks away.

Looking at the map of the area, I’d guess that EaDo and its amenities aren’t far away, but getting to them isn’t pedestrian-friendly, at least not yet. The forthcoming Southeast and Harrisburg light rail lines will help with that, and there are other options to consider, like the revived downtown trolley, REV Eco Shuttle, and perhaps a new frontier for the Houston (formerly Washington) Wave. A little creative thinking could go a long way, though some more options nearby wouldn’t hurt, either. Again, we’ll see how big and how comprehensive the Houston First people’s thinking is when they release their plan.

The Midtown arts deal

I have three things to say about this.

A nonprofit group plans to build a community arts complex in Midtown with the help of up to $6 million in reimbursements from the city.

The Houston City Council this week approved a tax reimbursement deal and the $2.5 million sale of 3400 Main, currently a parking lot, to the Independent Arts Collaborative, a group created to run the facility.

The 90,000-square-foot facility will include a performance theater, rehearsal spaces, offices and classrooms, as well as make it easier for various arts groups to work together, said Emily Todd, a board member of the collaborative.

[…]

The Independent Arts Collaborative has raised $250,000 for a down payment and has financed the rest through the International Bank of Commerce. Ensemble/HCC Partners, a partnership that owns two adjacent blocks and of which developer Bob Schultz is a managing partner, is guaranteeing the loan.

The collaborative must now raise the estimated $22 million it will cost to build the project, on the block bounded by Francis, Travis, Holman and Main.

The group’s deal with the city, also known as a 380 agreement, requires the collaborative to raise at least $10 million for design and construction of the project. At least 25 full-time workers must also be employed by the building’s tenants.

[…]

The collaborative intends to deed the finished building to the city. It would then be maintained by the collaborative and managed by Houston First — recently created by the merger of the city’s Convention and Entertainment Facilities Department and the existing government corporation that runs the city-owned Hilton Americas.

According to the agreement, the city believes the project, along with new retail and parking garages on two adjacent blocks, will attract tourism and more development to the area.

Bob Schultz, who developed some of 3600 Main and the site of four businesses on 3700 Main, plans to build office space, retail and some residential units on 3500 Main and the rest of the 3600 block of Main.

1. Now this is what I call a good use of a 380 agreement. It’s helping to facilitate a deal that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, in a location where the development in question will fit with and benefit existing and future neighbors. More like this, please.

2. Clearly, Houston First is going to be about more than just managing the Convention Center. I wonder where else it will turn up. I also wonder if it was essential to this deal, or if it could have happened with the old setup.

3. Revenue from the sale of 3400 Main was part of the fiscal year 2011 budget. Good to see they got it done before the June 30 deadline. Swamplot has more.

Council approves deal to spin off Convention Center

Meet Houston First, which merges the city’s Convention and Entertainment Facilities Department and the Houston Convention Center Hotel Corporation, which runs the Hilton Americas.

The corporation will not have to come to the council to get expenses approved. The unionized work force of the city department will become private-sector employees of the corporation. The corporation is free to take chances by, for example, launching new trade shows without worrying that taxpayers are on the hook if the event is a bust.

Houston First will rent the GRB, Jones Hall and the Wortham Center from the city.

[…]

The concept has been talked about for a decade, but the plan approved on a 14-1 vote by City Council on Wednesday came together in recent months as Mayor Annise Parker’s administration looked for ways to close a $75 million budget gap without raising taxes.

The budget proposal she released last month banked on council approval of the merger and the $10 million in rent and fees the corporation will pay the city in the fiscal year that begins on July 1.

See here for some background. The story notes that the Mayor’s office overcame some initial skepticism from various Council members, including CM James Rodriguez in whose district the Convention Center is and who was unhappy about not being briefed before the plan came to light. If the end results are similar to those of the Houston Zoo, which was spun off in 2002, then this should work out fine.

More on the city’s convention center spinoff proposal

This press release from the Mayor’s office about the proposed spinoff of the city’s convention business hit my inbox this afternoon:

Mayor Annise Parker today recommended consolidation of the city’s Convention & Entertainment Facilities Department (CEFD) into the Houston Convention Center Hotel Corporation (HCCHC). The proposal, if approved by City Council, would provide the city an extra $10 million in the next fiscal year, thus helping to avoid some planned layoffs.

Under the proposal presented to City Council’s Fiscal Affairs Committee today, the newly renamed organization, called Houston First Corporation, would lease CEFD properties from the city for an $8.6 million pre-payment of rent, payable in the next fiscal year, which starts July 1. In addition, an annual lease payment of $1.4 million would also begin in FY12. Future increases in the lease payments would be tied to the Consumer Price Index.

CEFD properties include the George R. Brown Convention Center, Wortham Theater Center, Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, Jones Plaza, Miller Outdoor Theatre, Sesquicentennial Park, Root Memorial Square and several other smaller park and performing arts facilities.

“This is somewhat different from 2002 when the city created a non-profit organization to manage the Houston Zoo because this time the city will receive annual revenue from leasing these facilities.” Mayor Parker said. “Those monies will help the city’s bottom line and, in turn, reduce the number of hard-working employees we have to layoff.”

“Our facilities bring in revenues, but their primary purposes are to serve as economic generators for the city by increasing the levels of convention and tourism business,” said CEFD Director Dawn Ullrich, who would serve as president of Houston First. “We could operate more efficiently as part of Houston First, which would enable us to generate more revenues to the city through increased bookings in the long run. The increased revenues will also allow us to continue to maintain all of our facilities in first-class condition.”

“With consolidation, we create a single entity that’s focused on the operation as a whole for the long term,” said HCCHC Chairman Ric Campo, who would chair the board of Houston First. “We can develop a unified, campus-like approach to soliciting convention business for both the convention center and the Hilton Americas.”

The city is working with the HOPE Union on arrangements for the CEFD employees who will become employees of Houston First Corporation.

The Mayor would appoint and City Council would confirm Houston First’s nine board members. The Mayor recently appointed or reappointed current members of the HCCHC board, who would simply remain in place for the duration of their terms.

The city created the HCCHC in 2000 to govern the construction and operation of the Hilton Americas-Houston.

City Council approval of the merger is tentatively scheduled for May 18.

That addresses some of the concerns raised by Hair Balls and Nonsequiteuse, though not all. I am certain that this will get tagged by someone on Council on the 18th, so there will at least be some time to discuss the remaining issues. If the city really is working with HOPE and they are agreeable to the plan, that will cover a lot of it for me. We’ll see what happens in Council.

UPDATE: Hair Balls reports on Council’s reaction.

Spinning off the convention business

The city is looking to get out of the convention and entertainment business and maybe make a few bucks in the process.

The city’s Convention and Entertainment Facilities department currently runs the George R. Brown Convention Center and other city-owned venues downtown. A plan on its way to City Council next week would make the department a separate corporation that does not need council approval for its purchases. About 120 people who work for the department no longer would be city employees and would lose their union protections under the plan.

A summary of the plan obtained by the Houston Chronicle outlines the creation of Houston First, a merger of the city department with the Houston Convention Center Hotel Corporation, a city-created nonprofit that runs the Hilton Americas hotel adjacent to the convention center. Houston First would have its own board of directors and lease the convention center and other buildings from the city for $2 million a year. It would pay the first five years’ rent up front during the fiscal year that starts on July 1.

That cash infusion would bring down next fiscal year’s projected budget gap to $75 million, a shortfall that had been as high as $130 million but has steadily shrunk as the city lays off employees, consolidates operations and finds other savings.

[…]

The new corporation also would run the Wortham Center, Jones Hall and the Miller Outdoor Theatre.

I’m generally not a fan of privatization – Lord knows, the track record of it in this state sucks – but this doesn’t seem unreasonable to me. Unlike handling food stamps and other state benefits, running these facilities doesn’t strike me as a core function of government, and there’s no reason why a private non-profit couldn’t do a perfectly good job. As the story notes, the city spun off the zoo in a similar fashion in 2002, and I daresay it’s none the worse for wear. I’d like to know what happens at the end of the 15-year lease – do the terms get renegotiated, or does the non-profit get the businesses free and clear? – but otherwise I’m not particularly alarmed. What do you think? Nonsequiteuse has more.