Houston Scrubs, Polishes To Put On Its Best Face As GOP Convention Host

FROM top to bottom, Houston is preparing for the nation's attention during next month's Republican National Convention.

"If you want to summarize our goal, it is to make Houston look good," says Kenneth Lay, whose hardwood and marble office suite atop the Enron Building overlooks Buffalo Bayou. The chairman of Enron, a corporation involved in the sale and transmission of natural gas and oil, heads the Houston Host Committee, which is tending to every detail from weed-whacking vacant lots to arranging an exhibition of Salvadore Dali paintings never shown before in the United States.

Fifty floors down, a dozen blocks over, and several tax brackets awafy, Joseph Dixon sprawls in a chair at the Texas Department of Human Services. The unemployed tile-setter is seeking food stamps, but many others crammed into the drab, air-conditioned waiting room "are just trying to get out of the heat," he explains.

Mr. Dixon says he usually cashes $40 of his food-stamp allotment illegally "to put a little change in my pocket."

His immediate need is a new shirt; his was stolen a few nights ago through the open window of a car in which he was sleeping, and the clothing bank that lent him another slit it up the back so Dixon wouldn't be tempted to keep it.

The Republican convention, Dixon hopes, will scare up a few weeks of work, perhaps cleaning the Astrodome, site of the Aug. 17-20 gathering.

Mr. Lay's expectations for the city are somewhat grander: a $115 million direct impact from the 50,000 convention-related visitors, amounting to a 10-to-1 return on local businesses' contributions in cash and kind to the convention's $22.8 million budget.

The hospitality industry will capture much of the anticipated spending of $238 per day per visitor. Hotel space during convention week is scarcer than prayers in a schoolroom.

Restaurants are making plans to grab double helpings from conventioneers' wallets. Cafe Annie, celebrated for "new American Southwest cuisine," will extend the hours it serves dishes like grilled quail with red chili almond dressing. However, the chic eatery turned down solicitations to advertise in convention guides. "Word of mouth will be good enough," a manager says.

Unpretentious Otto's Barbecue, whose pork ribs are craved by President Bush, will stay open an extra two hours during convention week, manager June Sofka says. Bush usually sends an aide to pick up his order, but Ms. Sofka thinks the commander-in-chief himself will drop in "since he's running this far behind in the polls. He will need to talk with the common people - us poor laborers."

Planning for the convention began with the selection of Houston 18 months ago. The first staff people arrived last November to work out logistics, including a touch that pop artist Christo could appreciate: a 100-foot-tall blue curtain that will stretch 570 feet across the Astrodome, slicing the number of seats from 70,000 to 36,000.

Seats on the floor will be filled by 2,210 delegates and an equal number of alternates; the grandstand will hold up to 15,000 journalists, including 1,200 from overseas.

Foreign observers will include consular and embassy officials, Cabinet-level officials from "developing democracies," and rising stars in politics and the press selected by the US Information Agency.

The convention staff numbers a relatively small 120, but "a lot of slack is picked up by volunteers," says Kyle Simmons, deputy press secretary for the convention.

Thousands have spent sweltering weekends replacing litter with red hibiscus plants in the most visible areas of the Rhode Island-sized metropolitan area. More than 10,000 others will answer telephones, translate, drive, and provide whatever else the convention needs.

Many volunteers will be non-Anglos, thanks to the Los Angeles riots. Minority leaders in Houston, where whites, blacks, and Hispanics are each a third of the population, acted to prevent any copycat violence during the crisis.

Afterward, 75 leaders from Houston's black community met with Lay to confirm their support for the convention and discuss boosting minority volunteer participation.

"I will say categorically that we have many of the same problems as every other city," Lay says.

Metro, the city bus line, will deliver delegates and media members from 52 hotels to the Astrodome. Private buses will be used as necessary so that Metro's regular service will continue.

Security will be provided by Houston's and other law enforcement agencies. The city will confine demonstrators to land it rented just west of the main entrance to the Astrodome.

"The better we do our job, the easier it is to make the Republicans look good," Lay says.

But he adds, "Inside the dome, they're on their own."

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