Houston eyes Super Bowl to spruce up image

Updated: November 1, 2003, 1:27 AM ET

HOUSTON -- The Super Bowl isn't just about the money to the Houstonians planning for the big game in three months.

They anticipate a boon to local businesses, a nice bump to the tax base and an economic impact in the nine-figure range. But all those rewards won't amount to much more than a blip in a city the size of Houston.

It's the intangibles -- exposure, publicity and image -- that are exciting to Super Bowl host committee chairman Chuck Watson.

"I think the real impact for Houston, Texas, is branding," he said. "We've taken a few hits the last few years. 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."

It's been a long time since Houston took its turn as America's "in" place. In the late 1970s, urban cowboy culture was the rage, the oil boom sent thousands of Rust Belt refugees flocking south and the Texas port city became one of the nation's largest.

Then the oil industry soured. In the 1980s, Houston was at the center of the savings and loan scandals. More recently, Enron Corp. has become synonymous with corporate malfeasance. In between the scandals was the 2000 presidential election, where Democrats made Houston's smoggy summer air an issue against former Gov. George W. Bush.

Watson, who ran Dynegy Inc. until he resigned in May 2002, said Houston's history of success has made it ripe for attacks.

"Other cities are going to get jealous and they're going to pile on if they see the slightest chance," Watson said. "You know what? This city's pretty resilient. We've come back before and we're coming back now, and when the people come for the Super Bowl they're going to see an incredible Houston. They're going to want to come back, and I think it's going to help our image around the world dramatically."

To that end, the committee isn't leaving much to chance. For instance, Watson said he expects road construction that has snarled downtown streets for years to be cleared up by January.

And the expected 100,000 visitors before the Feb. 1 game will be funneled to and through the most eye-pleasing parts of town. Massive cleanup projects already have begun, again focusing on areas most apt to be seen by visitors. Watson said 38 communities will be cleaned by volunteers before Jan. 1, then another major sweep will take place just before game week.

"The master plan for all of Houston is, we want our guests to see everything that's great about Houston and hopefully we'll avoid some areas that may not showcase as well as we'd like," Watson said.

A visitor's guide also will highlight a list businesses owned by minorities and women in hopes of giving them a boost during the big week and beyond.

"We're thinking it will be a really big opportunity to introduce our business to more people in our city," said Denise Taylor, owner of Cayenne's Hot Wings and Bayou Cafe who hopes to open a second location near Reliant Stadium this year.

Organizers believe Houston's trump card could be food. Houston's broad mix of cultures, combined with the fact that a survey has found Houstonians eat out more than residents of any other city, has produced a variety of restaurants.

"The culinary capability in this town is very underestimated," Watson said.

Watson believes visitors will spend more than $300 million in restaurants, hotels, clubs, stores and elsewhere.

But the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority, which will use hotel and rental car taxes to pay down $1 billion debt on the city's three new sports venues, isn't doing cartwheels despite what promises to be a big weekend.

"The Super Bowl and the (2004 baseball) All-Star Game are nice, and our projections get a bump from those," said Oliver Luck, chief executive officer of the sports authority. "But we live and die with conventions and regular business travel."

That's the kind of repeat business they hope to generate through the Super Bowl, which Watson said will attract the top echelon at several major U.S. companies who might consider Houston for meetings, vacations or even relocation.

"This is a world-class platform on which Houston can capitalize, with all these important people who are coming and make the rest of the world say, `I've got to get to Houston, Texas."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index

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