- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 6, 2002

HOUSTON As the lunch-hour crowd shuffles by, Dave Glessner, a chemical engineer at Enron Corp., stands alone across the street from the company's glitzy headquarters. A box of his personal work belongings rests at his feet.
He has bittersweet feelings about the energy trader that recently filed the largest bankruptcy petition in U.S. history. "It was a great job, great company, great people," said Mr. Glessner, dressed casually in a short-sleeve shirt and olive-colored pants. He has worked at Enron for almost 11 years and will be dismissed in about a month.
"I just hope, if there was some criminal intent, that the people who caused this feel some real pain," referring to the legal punishment top management may receive for questionable accounting methods.
The collapse of Enron's stock price it's now selling for 65 cents a share, after it lost 99 percent of its value in the past year has wiped out the savings of many retirees and investors.
For example, Mr. Glessner's 401(k) company retirement plan has declined in value from $1 million to $5,000, but the pain for him and his colleagues runs deeper.
"People's lives were disrupted," the unassuming 52-year-old said. "It's everything from relationships to anxiety. People are feeling depressed."
Enron's release of 4,500 Houston employees, or 60 percent of its local work force, is just one event that has contributed to the insecure mood.
A couple of other Houston-based public companies have had similar woes. Compaq Computer, hurt by sluggish PC sales, already has laid off at least 1,500 workers here and may fire more if Hewlett-Packard acquires the firm. Continental Airlines announced thousands of local job cuts after the September 11 terrorist attacks because of reduced air travel and increased security costs.
Natural disaster struck, too, as flooding from Tropical Storm Allison caused $5 billion in damage and killed 22 persons in early June.
Yet Houston remains cocky, even with a nationwide recession. The city has been adding about 50,000 jobs annually in recent years, though leaders expect 2002 employment growth will be about half of that number.
"There is a quality in Houston of bravado, of risk taking, of dreaming big dreams and being prepared to fall on your face if they don't come true," said Stephen Klineberg, a sociology professor at Rice University. "In some paradoxical sense, Enron falling on its face is a confirmation of that entrepreneurial spirit."
Mr. Glessner, the Enron engineer, said the company already had taught him to be prepared always to reinvent yourself. Not married, he intends to stay in Houston and is pursuing job leads in the natural gas business.
"Change is a constant, and you have to keep current," he acknowledged. "That's what I'm doing."
Oil once dominated Houston, with four out of five jobs tied directly or indirectly to the industry. When oil prices fell in the mid-1980s, the city unraveled. Work evaporated, downtown office space went vacant, and banks locked their doors for good.
Houston diversified some in the 1990s and added jobs in such areas as technology, manufacturing and trade. Houston now also is home to a renowned medical center, the second-busiest port in the country, NASA's Johnson Space Center and a 17-block cultural district, replete with modern art centers, a theater hall and a Holocaust museum.
But regardless, the nation's fourth-largest city still runs on energy, said John Young, a wildcatter who drills for oil and natural gas in central Texas and the onshore Gulf Coast region. "It really is the world energy capital," he said.
In this city known for its traffic jams and air pollution, energy firms even now compose 50 percent of the economy. Enron, formed by Chairman Ken Lay in 1985 as a gas pipeline business, sought to be a pioneer. The company expanded into energy trading in the 1990s, as it bought and sold natural gas and electric power in wholesale markets.
Enron then branched out further and attempted to sell all sorts of goods on the Internet, from paper products to fiber-optic bandwidth. The company said it had sales of more than $100 billion in 2000, making it the seventh-largest U.S. company.
At the tony Galleria Mall, shoppers are buying more cautiously after Enron's demise. "It's all anyone's talking about at the Christmas parties," said Gayl Carlberg, who co-owns an advertising agency with her husband.
Holding a small, red Neiman Marcus bag, she said her firm has had a record year in winning new business, though existing clients have cut back. As a result, the mother of two said she plans to spend less on holiday gifts this year than last year.
Nevertheless, she's confident the city will bounce back. "That's the thing about Houston and Texas. You can't knock us down," Mrs. Carlberg said.
Mr. Young agreed, calling the Enron collapse just a "speed bump" for the home of 2 million residents and 21 Fortune 500 companies.
Houston's swagger may have been "downsized" a bit, but the city remains upbeat, local Salomon Smith Barney stockbroker David Harris said. He didn't recommend Enron stock to his clients because it was overvalued, though he had no inkling about Enron's ruin.
A Michigan native, Mr. Harris predicts Houston may face a fall in some residential real estate prices, and entertainment spending may decrease. The fiscal effects haven't filtered down yet, he said, though it might be like a "Chinese water torture" over the next several months.
"We've learned a lot from the boom and subsequent bust of the '80s," said Mr. Harris, 45, who moved to Houston 16 years ago. "The boom this time was far more subdued, and therefore, any downside will be much more modest."
The collapse of Enron has left other ripples in its wake. Enron had been a major benefactor to local charities, and city officials say the money will not be easily replaced.
"It was profoundly philanthropic," said Peter Marzio, the director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Enron's collapse "will certainly have a short-term effect."
Of the $35.5 million corporations contributed to the museum from 1995 to 2000, about $1.7 million, or 5 percent, came from Enron, he said.
Another Enron effect is the name of the 2-year-old downtown stadium where the Houston Astros baseball team plays. Enron agreed to pay the team $100 million over 30 years for the naming rights, though the future of the stadium's name is uncertain.


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