Back in 2000, in better financial times, the city of Houston passed a referendum to fund a new downtown basketball arena. A similar referendum had been defeated before, thanks in large part to well-funded opposition from conservatives (not to mention some personal animus between Houston Rockets owner Les Alexander and Houston Aeros owner Chuck Watson - see here for background on both). The measure passed this time with the support of black voters, who were persuaded to vote for the measure in return for promises from the Rockets that 30% of arena contracts would go to minority-owned businesses.
It hasn't quite worked out the way they expected, and now some local minority groups have filed a lawsuit to halt construction of the arena until this is settled to their satisfaction.
Representatives of the Baptist Ministers Association, NAACP and the Houston Area Urban League told District Judge John Coselli that Alexander had met with them in September 2000 to solicit their support for an upcoming referendum on the arena's construction. In exchange, they said, Alexander guaranteed that minorities would get 30 percent of the arena contracts.
Rockets attorney Mike Goldberg said today that the goal will be met -- but not necessarily the way the minority groups might like.
Goldberg called the request for a temporary restraining order "extortion," saying the plaintiffs want to pick the minority contractors.
Former city attorney Benjamin Hall, who represents the minority groups, said one major contract already has been awarded to a Chicago company with no minority participation, but Goldberg countered that the next contract will have minority representation of 60 percent to 70 percent.
The arena is still under construction but is scheduled to open in September.
About 20 prominent members of the black and Latino communities appeared at today's hearing, including state Rep. Ron Wilson, the Rev. William Lawson, former LULAC director Johnny Mata, Urban League president Sylvia Brooks and former Houston councilwoman Gracie Saenz.