Thursday, August 28, 2014

Houston Area Leadership Vacuum: Maybe leadership isn't what we need?

As the debate over the fate of the former 8th Wonder of the World devolves into comedy it pays to have the secretarial journalists at ChronBlog around to continue providing us with fresh new material.

Plan to convert Dome to indoor park will depend on details. Kiah Collier,

Baumgardner said he was excited and inspired by the concept Emmett proposed, but that "whatever this thing is," or turns out to be, should complement, rather than duplicate, amenities the city offers, such as pavilions, amphitheaters, exercise facilities and hike and bike trails.

Inspired? By a rough-draft plan with no details, no cost projections and no real idea what, if anything, it's going to be?  Perhaps Baumgardner is "inspired" by the amount of money his firm hopes to bring in from the government trough if this plan goes forward?  Perhaps his family is "inspired" by the vacation plans they're making?

One thing's for sure, he can't be 'inspired' by the actual plan because there isn't one.

"We live in Katy, but we could come if there was one … and even be willing to pay for use of facilities," Jessie Cheek, a mother of five, wrote in an email to the Houston Chronicle. "More greenery is very needed."

Why is it always Katy?

First off, this plan isn't going to be "green space" in the traditional sense of the words. If anything, the plan by the Texans/HLS&R was "green space" like the Katy resident is championing.  What this plan is going to be is a refurbished Dome sitting in a parking lot with some stuff inside of it. I'm guessing, although I'm not certain, that whatever "green" there is will be of the man-made type.  Possibly Astroturf. 

Emmett will meet next week with the Urban Land Institute, a nonprofit cities and counties hire to help determine how to approach urban land reuse projects.

"If you just have the local people fighting it out, you may never get an answer to a question like this," said Tom Eitler, the institute's vice president of advisory services.
Eitler said the institute has had panels on what to do with old stadiums, but he could not think of any that have been converted to another use.

"Ideally, we'd like to be a source of additional insight and practical approaches that could move all the Astrodome stakeholders closer to resolution by addressing each group's concerns, needs and aspirations," said Ann Taylor, executive director of the institute's local chapter. 

The take-away here is that what's been presented as a "plan" isn't really a "plan" at all.  What Emmett has proposed is merely a place-holder to try and stop the Texans/HLS&R plan from gaining traction.

As we move forward there's going to be more and more said about this issue and I'm afraid that little of it is going to make much sense at all. The issue of what to do with the Dome is more emotion than logic. Unfortunately, we need leaders who are able to deal in the latter while being stuck with those who are mired in the former.

As previously stated, this is not going to help things moving forward.

The worst-case scenario is that, in 2016 & 2017 when the NBA All-Star game and the NFL's big corporate, pimp-n-ho ball parties come to town that the rotting hulk of a building is still deteriorating in a sea of indecision.  For all the talk of trinkets and world-classiness, nothing says "we can't lead" like a deteriorating structure for homeless cats and rats blocking out the view of NRG stadium on national TV.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Texas LockStep Political Media: Fuzzy definitions.

When words don't mean anything, it's easy to make any old claim.....

A Sensible Idea. The New Mrs. White,

Additional paid parking is no reason to trash taxpayers' multi-million dollar investment in a one-of-a-kind building. While it has seen better days, this historic landmark can still serve its first purpose: a massive indoor park for outdoor sports. As he announced Tuesday afternoon, Emmett wants to return the Dome to that original vision.

First off, in no sensible definition of the word could the Astrodome be considered a "park".  This is silly season on the English language to promote doing anything to the old girl other than demolition. Also, the "original vision" thing that's being bandied around is quite simply untrue.

The "original vision" for the Astrodome was as a professional sports stadium. Period, end of story. Any attempts to say otherwise requires ignoring fact and making words mean what you want them to mean instead of what they actually mean.

The Astrodome was designed to be a "park" in the same sense as Fenway Park was. It was a ballpark, for professional teams. Never was it intended to be an indoor fitness facility, a 24 Hr Fitness on steroids.

If what we're going to get out of the Astrodome is a trinket designed to give Houston an air of world classiness then so be it.  But sell it to the voters for what it is, not what you would have it to be in the fantasyland of your imagination.

Local debt climbs as Texas cities deal with growth. Aman Batheja, Texas Tribune

Over the last decade, local government debt has grown around the country, but Texas, with an economic performance in recent years that has outpaced the rest of the country, is a special case. Of the 10 largest states, Texas has the second-highest local debt per capita as cities and school districts have gone on a borrowing spree to maintain or expand amenities while not raising taxes.

In a vacuum, this paragraph makes sense. When the context of other spending is considered then it falls flat on its face. When you also consider that this article is a part of the Tribune's "Passed by the Miracle" series it makes no sense at all.

Local public debt, whether good or bad, is not symbolic of how communities are missing out on good economic times but are reflective of political choices made by municipalities and counties in order to get projects through without having to perform the messy business of selling them.

Local debt is rising not because cities are missing the boom but because feckless leaders are trying to sell the gormless voter on the concept of public expenditures being free. Of course, nothing is truly free, not even things that are free. There is always a cost at some level and, in many cases, elected officials find it much better to assure voters that those costs will be paid either through tourism usage fees or by those making just a little bit more.  The former theory is favored by moderates who want trinkets to define their legacy, the latter is favored by progressive politicians who want to consolidate power.

Neither plan is either desirable or sustainable in the long term.

At some point, Texas governments at all levels need to have a serious conversation about budgets and priorities. While a city like Houston is doing a Chicken Little in regards to its financial future the current administration is spending money hand over fist on projects that cater only to a relatively small portion of the population to the exclusion of everyone else.

It's OK that the Parker administration wants to prioritize bike-lanes at the expense of road repair. The problem is they are not being honest about doing so.  Such is the case with cities and counties throughout the state.

Things really started to fall apart when (perennial candidate) Chris Bell forwarded the idea that budgets are moral documents. This is probably the most toxic legacy that he will leave. This idea severed the budgeting process from the practical (public works) to the benefit of the ideological (green programs).  What this meant is that, for the first time, trinket governance designed to make people feel good was placed above the nuts-and-bolts workings that make communities run.

It also change the language and the definition of what budgeting was and has come to be.  For the worse.

As a quick aside there are rumors Chris Bell is planning a return to politics by running for Houston Mayor. Given his ideology and lack of understanding of basic financial principles this would be a disaster for the City.  A City that's already doing it's level best to squander away the largesse created by the oil and gas boom.

Therein lies the rub.  The Texas Tribune is doing it's level best to convince Texans that those missing out on the economic boom are doing so because the Government is not spending enough money. In truth, the governments are spending more money than needed. However, it's very clear when you look deeply that they are intentionally spending it on the wrong things.

This should be the focus of the Texas Lockstep Political media. It won't be however because they like the trinkets that are being built. Supporting said trinkets requires changing some basic definitions however.

They seem to have no qualms in doing that.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Houston Area Leadership Vacuum: The New Astrodome Experience On to Plan B....

Oh boy....

Emmett proposes Dome become world's largest indoor park. Kiah Collier,

Among potential attractions Emmett said he could envision at the domed stadium were a large open green for festivals and other community gatherings, general exercise facilities, an amphitheater, a pavilion for music and other events, and special educational facilities for children, even museums. The Dome also could house permanent or temporary sports facilities, such as an archery range or horseshoe pits, he said.

This on the heels of Emmett's strong criticism of the Texans/HLS&R proposal to turn the Dome-space into a large outdoor park as "a silly plan" . Apparently "silly" is defined by whether or not the walls and roof are still in place to provide 24/7 air-conditioning? Or maybe "silly" is more identified with who signs the ultimate demolition order?

This entire process has now devolved into full-on tragi-comedy as it is becoming increasingly evident that the vision of the Texans/HLS&R are at odds with the visions of the current batch of elected County officials.

It's also very clear that Emmett doesn't reserve the same standards for his plans as he does others. It has been Emmett acting as the loudest critic of plans that were presented without funding proposals along side them. It's been stated that the County doesn't have the funds to repurpose the Dome currently, so I'm guessing this is going to mean that Emmett is going to propose a tax increase on the citizens of Harris County (eventually) to fund the thing.  One supposes it will be a sufficient distance away from the rumored tax increase to fund pre-K eduction. And that both tax-increase proposals will be situated far enough from his re-election campaign as to allow him to run (again) as a "fiscal conservative who gets things done."

In some ways, it's even sadder that the proposal for "saving the Dome" involves plans for horseshoe pits (hey, why not a corn-hole range?) and archery ranges. From the (temporarily) 8th Wonder of the World to a very big room where Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo attendees can drink beer and toss horseshoes until they puke the decline of the rotting hulk has been a sad one.

If that's the best we can come up with I would suggest that it's possibly time for the good people of Harris County to consider electing some Commissioners who can do better.  Alas, this won't happen. There are no safer seats in politics than on the Harris County Commissioner's Court.

My question is this:  If plan "A" was the horrendous "New Astrodome Experience" and plan "B" is this piece of light comedy, how bad are things going to look when we get to plans "W", "X", "Y" or "Z"? All of which we would seemingly reach before any current members of the Commissioner's Court might want to think about, possibly, conducting a feasibility study surrounding tearing the damn thing down?  We could get to the point where we're seriously considering an indoor movie studio again.

Or maybe we just let the thing fall away like the Roman Coliseum?

Hell, we're already trying to copy San Francisco and Montreal with this mess of a plan so why not?  At least Rome is a proper World Class City right?

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Texas Politics: It's the Republicans, who run on supposed fiscal conservatism, who are leading the charge for the Governor's slush funds.

In discussions and many blogs regarding Texas fiscal state one issue that always comes to the fore is the pros/cons of the two economic development funds controlled by the Office of the Governor.  On various incarnations of this blog these funds have been opposed and categorized as "slush funds" which promote crony capitalism in it's worse form.

From an ideological perspective there is no difference between Solyndra and American Stem Cell, the latter of which is the subject of this pay-walled article:

Lawmakers seek better return on Emerging Tech Fund Investments. Lauren McGaughy, ($)

You might think, taking the lead from the head of their National party, that the main drivers behind the "make it better" movement would be Democrats. After all, they view themselves as a group of intellectual betters existing only to make life bearable for the gormless and dim. You would not be wrong to think that Texas Democrats want to keep these programs, in fact, Demographic darling Van de Putte has suggested they need to be expanded, but you might be surprised to find that your so-called fiscally conservative Republicans are leading this fight as well....

Why the Texas Enterprise Fund is Worth it. Jason Villalaba (R-Dallas)

Fortunately, Republican gubernatorial nominee Greg Abbott has come out against the existence of both of these funds.  What should be concerning to Texas Republican voters is that their elected representatives in Texas lower chamber seem to have caught a case of good-governmentitis.

When Dan Patrick first ran for State Senator he was fond of suggesting on his radio show that his first thought would be 'to get government out of the way'.  After his first term in office this mantra was replaced with "we have to see what WE can do to fix the problem". This is a problem with many politicians who suddenly, upon election, feel themselves to be experts in any and all fields for which they've been convinced by lobbyists that they are suddenly authorities.

We're constantly warned (by those of a Republican persuasion) that, should Texas turn Blue, the United States of America as we know it is headed down a progressive pit of financial and moral ruin. As more and more Republicans start acting in financially irresponsible ways it's more likely that the Nation is going to spiral downward regardless.

Even more surprising is that ending/keeping crony capitalism is now an ideological issue.  If your political ideology supports the government picking and choosing winners and losers then you've already lost the plot.  IF both Texas Republicans and Democrats coalesce behind this issue then it's Texas citizens who will lose.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Travel: How long is the Board of Directors going to continue to let United circle the drain?

Given a recent business flight to Tulsa I can empathize with this:

How United Airlines Lost my Family's Business. Mary Tyler Mom

We learned fairly early on that our flight was delayed due to mechanical issues.  No worries.  They would be fixing the plane on site with updates every 30 minutes.  The updates did come every 30 minutes, but grew less encouraging as the time passed.  We heard that the adjacent gate's flight had been cancelled, also for mechanical reasons, but not to worry, all flyers would be accommodated in a Honolulu hotel until they can catch the next flight to Maui.

Go read the entire article to see why the author is so angry.

I've gone through the same circles of United Hell, my problem was weather related and not due to a mechanical issue so we were even worse off, and the problem is not usually the real-problem. The real problem is United's response to whatever problem has caused people's travel problems.

The truth of the matter is this:  When things go pear shaped for United they don't seem to have a plan for responding in a customer friendly manner. 

In some cases, if you're a savvy traveler, this is OK. I've handled many a problems through either my phone's application or through a quick call to the Premier help-line.  That customer service is usually pretty good and can get you out of a lot of jams.

After this year however, I'm not going to have my United status in my pocket any longer* (I've been mostly clearing out my miles accounts this year), so I'm going to lose access to whatever tricks allowed me to react successfully to changes.  In a case of bad timing, I've decided to do this when United (who controls the IAH domestic market) is spiraling downward with no plans on returning to the top.

I think it's the last article that's the most depressing. Instead of having a plan to be the best domestic airline Jeff Smisek and company seem to be throwing in the warm-towel and settling for 2nd tier. These feels to me like an admission that they don't think they can fully solve the problems facing them so they're going to settle.  And settling is never a good business strategy.

There are a lot of times when airlines just can't win. United will always have a sub-set of Houstonians, for example, who will always say "I miss Continental" (ignoring that it's Continental's management team in charge) and will knee-jerk suggest that they will "never fly United again". (Wait until they get a full-on dose of the Southwest experience today, that might change their minds.) Houstonians are an odd lot who seem to enjoy waiting in lines and griping that Houston isn't just like that European city they may (or may not) have visited once upon a time a long time ago. You can't win with people who have decided they want to live in a dream world.

In the real world, when flying out of Houston, United still has a flight network that's hard to beat in terms of global access. They have more direct flights to more destinations than anyone else and they have better departure/arrival times than most (excepting Southwest for regional flights, in which the two are about the same in price and schedule). Because of this many of us are going to continue hopping on United metal whether we have status or not. I know that I will, especially for business trips.

The question now becomes just how long the United Board of Directors and share-holders are going to continue to allow Jeff Smisek to pilot a sinking ship?  Granted, they've had some bad luck, announcing the direct to Atlantic City flight right before the city went belly-up is an example, severe weather is another, but the preponderance of mechanical issues, their computer system working with all of the efficiency of a Commodore 64 and their lack of professional, courteous customer service on a consistent level is all on management.

What's worse, now, they don't seem to have any idea or impetus to try and make it better.

*Yes, I do realize that this is a problem I have brought on myself.  However, given the changes to United's MileagePlus program I just don't see the value in paying more for flights in order to receive a service level that they're seemingly trying to roll into credit cards going forward.

Looking to November: The Lite Guv Debate.

Breaking news yesterday that the collective IQ of Texas voters is about to be reduced by 10 points....

Patrick and Van de Putte agree on Sept. 24 debate. David Saleh Rauf,

This is going to be hailed endlessly as good news for "Texas voters" and as a wonderful example of the political process at work.

In truth, what we're getting is an on-stage snark-fest between Texas number one demagogue and a politician with a fundamental misunderstanding of most key issues moderated by the Ego-in-Chief of the news-ish Texas Tribune.

Hopefully we'll only be subjected to one of these displays. Unless you're living under a rock you know that Van de Putte is going to decry Patrick as "out of touch" with Texas voters and trying to execute a 'war on women' by disallowing them subsidized female hygiene products (meanwhile, ISIS in Iraq is executing a real war on women which makes the Davis/Van de Putte histrionics look silly and petty by comparison) while Patrick is going to seek to paint Van de Putte as a "tax and spend liberal" who is trying to burn every copy of the Bible and outlaw Patrick's The Second Most Important Book You Will Ever Read using both to build shelters and provide heat for disease-ridden illegal immigrants.

One only hopes that Patrick's outsized sense of importance can be reigned in long enough to allow his staff to ignore Van de Putte's request for FOUR ADDITIONAL DEBATES.

I'm not really sure the State of Texas needs to see this.  Instead of our best and brightest the Lite Guv race is shining a light on everything that's wrong with Texas politics. The collapse of the Democrats have led to Republican incumbents not being held accountable which has led to a group of squishy incumbents in leadership roles. The moderation, and downright unlikeable nature, of David Dewhurst allowed Dan Patrick to win in the primary while the lack of bench strength for the Democrats has allowed a candidate with a name that fits the "demographics is destiny" meme to get the nod despite very little evidence of competency, a basic understanding of good governance or any semblance of knowledge regarding what it is the State actually does.

Sept 24th is going to provide Texans with a showdown between a demagogue and a demographic darling.

The Ego in Chief is going to have a field day with this.