- The Washington Times - Monday, January 26, 2004

HOUSTON — When all eyes turn to Houston for the Super Bowl, locals hope the world sees past the city’s “Urban Cowboy” image and a landscape dotted with chemical plants and refineries.

Welcome to a cleaner, friendlier Houston — complete with smiling volunteers, new sports arenas, a huge new downtown hotel and the first working leg of a light rail mass transit system that, not coincidentally, links a reborn downtown entertainment district with the new football stadium seven miles away.

“It’s going to be a large party at the front door,” said Bob Eury, who heads Central Houston, a city business-civic booster group.

Chuck Watson, chairman of the Super Bowl host committee, uses an advertising word stolen from the cattle industry — branding — to describe what Sunday’s game and its related weeklong events should accomplish.

“We’ve taken a few hits the last few years,” he said. “Think about on Monday morning [after the game]. You’re on the front page of every newspaper in the world. It’s about putting Houston in a positive light.”

Shiny new amenities notwithstanding, Houston must contend with a reputation for grit and occasional scandal.

The last presidential campaign portrayed Houston as America’s most air polluted city. Tropical Storm Allison left the city under water in 2001. And Enron Corp., once Houston’s highest-ranked company on the Fortune 500 list, collapsed in an embarrassing financial scandal.

If that weren’t enough, mention of Houston recalls some spectacular recent crimes — like the mom who drowned her five kids or the woman who used her car to run over and kill her cheating husband. Then there was the tawdry legal battle of a former Houston stripper, Anna Nicole Smith, trying to claim the millions of her oilman husband, who died at 90.

The last big media event here was the Republican National Convention in 1992, where native son George Bush was nominated for a second term in the White House.

He lost.

“My sense is Houston has struggled with one image or another over the years,” Eury said. “It’s kind of like the little kid growing up, sprawling, not so neat and pretty and frankly not very urban.”

It doesn’t have a French Quarter like New Orleans, a South Beach like Miami or the gorgeous scenery of California, all past Super Bowl hosts.

What some of the 72,000 football fans climbing into the upper levels of the palatial $449million Reliant Stadium on Sunday can see is a glimpse of the Erector-set-like collection of chemical plants and refineries that dot the otherwise flat horizon and helped make Houston the energy capital of the world and the nation’s fourth-largest city.

That gritty feel worked its way into the popular 1980 movie “Urban Cowboy,” filmed in Houston and adjacent Pasadena. It played on the city’s cliche as a haven for honky-tonks, mechanical bulls, 10-gallon hats and refinery worker rowdiness.

It was in that era that the NFL brought its big show to town for the first time, holding the 1974 Super Bowl at Rice Stadium — a 1950s-generation bowl where 71,882 sat in the open air on wooden bleachers. It’s only a couple miles from new Reliant Stadium, but comparing the two is a bit like comparing a horse-pulled wagon to a loaded Hummer.

This time, Houston and Texas are spending millions to help make the city shine.

For weeks, work crews and volunteers have painted, cleaned and mowed. More than 20,000 trees were planted along highway routes leading into the center of town. More than 20 tons of trash and debris and 1,300 illegally dumped tires have been removed since October in Super Bowl-inspired neighborhood cleanups. Even mold thriving in the humid climate and atop the new baseball stadium’s roof was cleared.

The city also put out the call for 10,000 volunteers to do things like greet visitors at the airports and staff information booths at hotels. Just last week, Mayor Bill White began an advertising campaign — “Put your smile on. Company’s coming!” — to urge the city’s 2million residents to welcome the estimated 120,000 Super Bowl visitors.

But while some are energized by the chance to shine, the man who runs the shoeshine bench at the hotel where the Carolina Panthers will stay, for one, expressed trepidation.

“I am kind of nervous,” said Frisby, who goes by the single name. “If we don’t do good, we’re going to be overlooked when another one of these events comes along. … I just hope their stay here goes off without a hitch.”

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