December 21, 2003
Right idea, wrong analogy

In the first paragraph of this article on a rift between the City of Houston and the president of the foundation that runs the popular International Festival, reporter Rachel Graves uses the following framing device:

At the heart of the impending divorce after 32 years between the city of Houston and the Houston International Festival is, as in many marriages, money.

Fair enough. Let's see about that.

City Council members say they resent picking up after the festival as its president and his wife reap the profits.

The president, Jim Austin, counters that the festival brings the city enough money to cover the cost of closing streets, providing security and cleaning up. And Austin, who is also chief operating officer of the nonprofit foundation that runs the festival, says his $127,000 salary, plus bonuses and benefits -- and the $100,000-a-year contract with his wife, Kathi Austin -- are the cost of having a premier festival.


Austin seems befuddled by the feud as he cites the festival's benefits to Houston. [...] "Maybe we haven't been as thorough as we should have been in going to City Council," Austin said. "Maybe there's a misunderstanding."


"A lot of people want to say it's this big, huge loss for the city, and I just don't see it," City Councilman Mark Ellis said. "It's not like we've lost the Super Bowl."


Council members are also bothered by the marketing contract that pays Kathi Austin as much as $116,000 a year.

"That didn't sit well," [City Council member Carol] Alvarado said. "He has a responsibility to say, `Wait a minute, this doesn't look right. Maybe we should look for somebody else.' "

Austin and board members Sakowitz and Charles Foster said Austin did discourage the contract, but board members pressed to keep Kathi Austin because they liked her work.

And lastly, council members questioned what Ellis called Jim Austin's "extravagant trips."

Austin recently returned from a 10-day voyage to Thailand to scout talent and make arrangements with officials for the 2004 festival, which will spotlight that country. He also traveled to Washington this year to meet with the Thai and Indian ambassadors and took a couple of trips to Mexico last year. But he said the trips are largely paid for by host countries and are anything but extravagant.

"I am frugal Freddie," Austin said. "I'm kind of ashamed to say that I have McDonald's receipts from Paris, but I do."

Is it just me, or does anyone else get the feeling that the real issue here, as again in many marriages, is communication? It's all a bunch of he-said/she-said. Like Kevin, I'm sorry to see all this backbiting drain energy from a great festival. I'd rather see it stay downtown (if for no other reason than it's close to where I live), but at least it wouldn't be moving to Tennessee or something.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on December 21, 2003 to Elsewhere in Houston | TrackBack

I read this article and decided the basic problem is the HIF is basically free entertainment for the hoi poloi.

Get uniforms, adopt a mascot, raise the prices to the point of pain, franchise the thing and the city will be falling over itself to throw money at it.

Sarcasm aside, a quarter mil or so for what they give the area is cheap. As to Ellis' comment, I must live in the dumbest part of Houston.

Posted by: Charles M on December 21, 2003 7:14 PM

I hope they can resolve their differences. When I lived in Houston I use to really enjoy this festival as well as the one along lower Westheimer.

Posted by: bill on December 21, 2003 8:50 PM

A lot of people want to say it's this big, huge loss for the city, and I just don't see it," City Councilman Mark Ellis said. "It's not like we've lost the Super Bowl."

Oh expletive. I knew Ellis was a piece of work, but... OK. By all means, let's prioritize a one-time event that may or may not ever come our way ever again, an event that admittedly draws people with gobs of money to spend on a single event lasting a couple or three hours surrounded by a week of hype, over a festival that has drawn large crowds for many years, entertained a lot of Houstonians for cheap, supported artists, craftspeople and performers and made our city look good to someone other than the football crowd. (Full disclosure: a long, long time ago, I performed exactly once in a musical group at an early HIF, so technically I guess I am not a disinterested party; I may have made sixty bucks off it.)

What's wrong with me? do I hate professional sports? No! though I prefer basketball to football, and I've gone to Rockets and Comets games... both times that I could afford to do so. One of my colleagues, an IT professional with wife and two kids, complains he can't really afford to attend games with his family, either. Yet somehow these expensive contests are focal, and festivals like HIF, which serve vastly more people, are at most in the peripheral vision of city officials like Ellis.

I don't know about the Austins and their alleged extravagances in their expenses. I just know that I like the HIF, always attend and always enjoy it... and I don't have to take out a loan to pay admission. Let Ellis go to the Superbowl wherever it happens next year... I mean, it's not as if we'd be losing the HIF or anything.

Posted by: Steve Bates on December 23, 2003 2:49 AM