Houston Turns Bullish on Its Upcoming Summit : Economics: A city battered so long by the oil bust is trying to use the July 9-11 meeting of world leaders there as a catapault to a better image.


There, in the rear of the furniture factory, sat the table.

Not just any table, though. This was the Summit Table, where the leaders of the industrialized nations will sit when they convene in Houston July 9 for their yearly economic discussions.

Lovingly crafted of light maple and cherry wood, it looked much like the deck of a handsome sloop. And for less than its estimated value--$175,000--a nice house in the Houston suburbs could be had.

Uppermost in the minds of those assembled to unveil the table to the press was that the 40-foot-long table was made in Houston, a city searching for recognition from any quarter. And if that includes fabricating furniture, so be it. Houston Built, Houston Proud.

This city, battered for so long by the oil bust, is trying to use the three-day economic summit to put the spotlight squarely on Houston, to show that those bad old days are good and gone. But like the insecure young girl going out on a first date, Houston may be putting on too much makeup.

It has taken an event that is over in the relative blink of an eye and bet millions of dollars that the national and international media exposure will somehow catapult Houston into the ranks of world-class cities. The city's civic leaders are ballyhooing the importance of the summit and Houston is according it coverage never seen here before.

This, in the fourth-largest city in the United States, a place that should not have to try so hard or appear so desperate. Houston may have all the trappings of a world-class city, but it continues to suffer an inferiority complex brought on by years of financial trouble and by the inability of Houston's leaders to lure anything as prestigious as a national political convention here.

Those who are bullish on the summit say that it has unified Houston's leadership like no time in the recent past.

"Our point is that this will give Houston more international exposure than probably any time since the Apollo mission to the moon in 1969," said summit official Ray Viator.

But the more cynical view was expressed in the local alternative weekly, the Houston Press, which recently asked: "Why is it that whenever a mega-event comes to town, Houston's civic leaders strap on the booster rockets, check their brains at the door and fly straight into lunacy orbit?"

In fairness, Houston is not the first place to practice excess in anticipation of an economic summit meeting. For the Versailles summit in 1982, France's then-new Socialist government spent millions of francs re-guilding the palace of Louis XIV, as well as replacing the old damask wall covering. In large measure, economic summits have been more of a pain than a boon. The prevailing mood in Toronto after its 1988 summit was one of anger because it ground traffic to a standstill in some parts of the city. A spokesman for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation said the benefits of the 1983 summit as a tourist draw were only fleeting. In fact, the hotels and restaurants lost $1 million because they had to close to other visitors during the summit.

"I would stop short of saying it was an economic boom," said Albert Louer, the foundation spokesman, in a bit of understatement.

Further dulling the luster of the Houston gathering will be the fact that almost all the participants will have met several days earlier at a gathering of the NATO allies in London.

Nonetheless, Houston is on a promotional roll, trying to put the best possible light on this morsel that has been tossed its way by President Bush, a quasi-Texan who has long claimed a suite of rooms in a Houston hotel as his permanent residence.

On the day of the announcement, George Strake, a former Texas Republican Party chairman and co-chairman of the summit, likened it to the 1928 Democratic Convention that was held here and to the opening of the Johnson Space Center. With that as a start, Houston has been rushing headlong ever since.

To mitigate the fact that Houston will be at its steamy worst during the summit, the city now has a new slogan: "Houston's Hot."

"The spirit of the city is bursting into flame. Houston's hot, hot and getting hotter," goes the jingle that is part of the campaign to promote the city as hot for everything from world trade to meetings.

Houston, meanwhile, has been sweltering through one of its worst summers in recent memory, with temperatures hovering close to 100 for weeks. But a summit press guide boasts that Houston is the "air-conditioning capital of the world."

The Houston Chronicle, Texas' largest daily newspaper, dispatched teams to all the nations represented at the summit. For weeks now, profiles of the summit countries have appeared each Sunday. A 96-page special supplement is being prepared to run next Sunday before the summit begins, making it the largest edition ever published by that newspaper. The less-monied Houston Post has been running a series of stories about the city's ethnic communities whose countries of origin will be represented at the summit.

Houston citizens have responded willingly to their leaders' call. Told that this was an event that could make or break the city, an estimated 10,000 people have volunteered their services to prepare for the summit, about half of those working on a cleanup campaign.

About 2 million pounds of trash and debris have already been picked up by the cleanup crews.

"It has coalesced this city," said Ben Love, a prominent Houstonian and one of the summit organizers. "There is such a visible enthusiasm to ensure that those guests are treated hospitably and receive a good impression."

Or, as Houston economist Barton Smith put it: "It has taken a summit to clean up the city."

Thousands of begonias and other flowers are being planted along the route the heads of state will use and city officials have called on residents to make sure their yards are mowed and sidewalks edged in preparation for the meeting.

There has already been a Houston Summit Sprint and a Summit Goodie Bag is being readied for the media, complete with Texas Trail Mix and a packet of bluebonnet seeds. Those attending the summit will have their very own rodeo and barbecue, not to mention a performance by Nashville's Grand Ole Opry.

A suggestion was made, but quickly pushed aside, to suspend the trials of all those charged with heinous crimes until after the summit was complete.

The Harris County Sheriff's Department has received permission to buy more than $35,000 in riot gear in anticipation of the summit, causing some critics to speculate that the department is using the event as an excuse to "stock up." The Houston Police Department also purchased $20,000 worth of riot equipment. Dozens of groups are expected to demonstrate during the summit at a park close to Rice University, where the summit talks will be held.

Food will be served round the clock at the Houston Convention Center, where the press will be headquartered. A Japanese restaurant will be serving dinners in the middle of the night at the convention center to accommodate the difference in time zones.

And at Rice University, the pace increases with each passing day. Plans include planting as many as 10,000 flowers and laying about 40,000 square feet of sod, in addition to building 25 new walls and raising a floor in university buildings to accommodate the leaders and their entourages. George Rupp, the university's president, has had his office moved to a school dormitory during the summit renovation.

Rupp said it was all worth it to "showcase Houston not only for the nation, but also the world."

But he is also enough of a realist to know that there is a danger in believing the summit will be Houston's salvation. "Anytime a community has high expectations, there is a danger of disappointment," Rupp said. "The kingdom of heaven will not have arrived when the summit comes."

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