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Monday December 12th, 2005

Mistrial declared in Houston Vioxx trial…Purchasing managers see great strides in Houston economy…Local companies begin filing applications for second funding round for Texas Emerging Technology Fund… A judge in Houston today declared a mistrial in the first federal trial of a lawsuit over the once-popular painkiller Vioxx. Eighteen hours of deliberations by a Houston jury […]

Mistrial declared in Houston Vioxx trial…Purchasing managers see great strides in Houston economy…Local companies begin filing applications for second funding round for Texas Emerging Technology Fund…

A judge in Houston today declared a mistrial in the first federal trial of a lawsuit over the once-popular painkiller Vioxx. Eighteen hours of deliberations by a Houston jury failed to deliver a verdict in the civil trial of Vioxx-maker Merck and Company. The panel couldn’t decide whether Merck was liable for “Dicky” Irvin’s fatal 2001 heart attack–nor whether the company failed to issue safety warnings that the drug could cause serious heart problems. The judge will meet with attorneys next week to discuss a retrial date. Company attorney Phil Beck says the retrial will likely be in February in New Orleans. The trial was moved from to Houston because of Hurricane Katrina damage.

The outcome leaves Merck with a one-and-one record in state trials and no decision in the first of four scheduled federal trials. Merck faces about 7,000 pending state and federal lawsuits. In the first case, a Brazoria County jury returned a $253 million verdict against Merck for negligence and failure to warn in the 2001 death of a North Texas man. Then, a jury in Merck’s home state of New Jersey absolved the company in the case of an Idaho man who survived a heart attack after taking the drug intermittently for two months.

The Houston economy is making strides, with the Purchasing Managers Index going from 59.2 to 63.9 in a month. The National Association of Purchasing Managers says that makes November one of only half a dozen months to reach that level in the past ten years. The Houston PMI has been over 60 for 20 of the past 23 months. A reading above 50 indicates the economy is generally expanding. The index is based on a monthly survey of some 80 purchasing executives in oil and gas exploration and production, manufacturing, engineering and construction, chemicals, distribution, business and financial services and healthcare. Components include sales, production, employment, purchases, prices paid and inventory levels.

There’s a tentative deal on a new contract between AT&T and its biggest unions representing more than 11,000 workers. The proposed contract would run through April 4th, 2009, and increase wages 11.2 percent over that period. The Communication Workers of America and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers also say the agreement makes improvements in job security and pensions. The agreement must still be ratified by the union membership. The negotiations affected technicians and customer service representatives who were part of the old AT&T. San Antonio-based SBC Communications purchased AT&T Corporation and has renamed the merged company AT&T Incorporated. The $16 billion deal was announced in January and completed last month.

Shares of oil and gas producer Burlington Resources climbed sharply today on reports the company’s in advanced talks to be bought by Houston-based ConocoPhillips. The Wall Street Journal reports the nation’s third-biggest oil company is negotiating to buy Houston-based Burlington for more than $30 billion. The Journal reports sources close to the situation say the talks are still fluid and could fall apart. But they add that if they stay on track, an announcement could come this week. The New York Times said it would be worth more than $31 billion. A takeover would be the largest oil-field deal in several years. J.P. Morgan analyst Jennifer Rowland said in a note to clients that the transaction, if completed, would nearly double ConocoPhillips’ global natural gas production. Natural gas is a particularly hot commodity as futures prices hit an intraday record last week on a cold snap that hit the Midwest and East Coast.

Local companies can file applications for the second round of funding for the Texas Emerging Technology Fund beginning today. The Gulf Coast Regional Center of Innovation and Commercialization is accepting applications through December 22nd. Proposals must be in collaboration with at least one public or private Texas university. Companies must be legally formed and have some prior scientific/technical validation, such as protected intellectual property or prior grant funding. The Texas Emerging Technology Fund was created by Governor Rick Perry last June to assist small to mid-size technology firms to launch sooner and expedite commercialization, as well as improve research at Texas universities.

Check-out time has been extended for Hurricane Katrina evacuees. The Federal Emergency Management Agency had wanted to move all of them out of hotel rooms by early next month. But a federal judge in New Orleans today ruled that they must be allowed to stay until February 7th. The temporary restraining order came in a lawsuit filed by advocates for hurricane victims. Attorneys for those victims say FEMA hasn’t provided aid for many people who are eligible. And they say information on the aid hasn’t quickly reached the people who need it the most. FEMA continues to pick up the tab for an estimated 41,000 hotel rooms in Texas, 46 other states and the District of Columbia. The estimated cost so far is about $350 million.

Families and individuals who suffered damage from Hurricane Rita have received more than $562 million in assistance from state, federal, local and voluntary agencies. As of December 9th, 476,923 individuals had registered for individual assistance, with %549 million approved through the Individuals and Household Program. FEMA has provided more than $486 million in individual assistance and $62 million in other assistance. The Small Business Administration has approved $13 million in loans.

The Joint Hurricane Housing Task Force has reinstituted its FEMA-backed furniture supply program for the interim housing needs of hurricane evacuees. Eligible evacuees can obtain furniture for their voucher-supported apartments or houses by calling the Furniture Request Call Center at 713-715-4100. FEMA recently authorized $51 million to pay for furniture for evacuees with city vouchers.

Overall state and local sales tax revenues are up significantly, according to Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, despite declines in sales tax revenue in some Southeast Texas communities as a result of Hurricane Rita. Strayhorn says the state collected nearly $16 billion in sales tax revenue in November–a 9.4 percent jump compared to the same month in 2004. In the Beaumont-Port Arthur area, local sales tax allocation dropped nine percent in November, but its December sales tax is soaring by 43 percent so far, compared to December 2004.

Houston and a chemical manufacturer have signed a contract that requires the company to reduce emissions of a toxic gas used to make synthetic rubber. The five-year deal with Texas Petrochemicals was announced by Mayor Bill White. Texas Petrochemical Senior Vice President John Yoars says they’re pleased to be looked upon as a company that’s leading the way. Houston can sue Texas Petrochemicals if it doesn’t reduce certain butadiene emissions from its plant on the east side of the Bayou City. The chemical has been classified as a probable carcinogen by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The rise in Texas home prices has outpaced inflation, but the pace is still behind the national rate of housing price increases, according to the Houston Business Journal. The Real Estate Center at Texas A&M says Texas home prices increased 6.3 percent from the third quarter of 2004 through the same time this year. The consumer price index increased by 4.5 percent in the same period. The national housing appreciation rate is 14.7 percent, according to the National Association of Realtors.

California-based Clean Energy has acquired the Willis Liquified Natural Gas Plant from Amarillo-based Applied LNG Technologies USA in a $14 million transaction. The plant about 60 miles north of Houston receives natural gas from pipelines, chills it to liquified form, and stores it for delivery to public and private customers.

Houston-based Concord Bank, which targets customers in the Asian community, is being purchased by Summit National Bank in a $23.7 million deal. Atlanta-based Summit also focuses on the Asian community in Atlanta and northern California. Concord will operate a division of the Summit National Bank under Concord’s existing brand name.

Houston-based Tribble & Stephens has been selected as general contractor for construction on the South Waller County Airport, according to the Houston Business Journal. Preparatory work has begun, and the airport is expected to open in January 2007, mainly for business aviation.

The Greater Houston Builders Association is unveiling its Green Building Initiative. It’s a program designed to encourage more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly homes by providing a baseline for builders. The guidelines are based on minimizing solar heat gain, maximizing natural light and ventilation, creating a cool shell, reducing utility costs with efficient heating and air conditioning, efficient appliances and utilizing “green” materials in construction.

You’ve seen them–the kiosks and carts that dot the aisles of big shopping malls, selling everything from candles to computers. Those freestanding merchants are tremendously popular. Tillie Martinez sometimes has customers lining up ten-to-12 deep to buy her personalized Christmas ornaments at Stonebriar Centre in Frisco, near Dallas. Martinez says the fun part is getting the repeat business, from someone who last year bought something for their baby’s first Christmas. Industry analyst say carts and kiosks are a thriving industry, bringing in an estimated $10 billion in annual sales for the merchants and landlords. Marshal Cohen with the market research company NPD Group says kiosks are changing mall dynamics. He says kiosks are a huge opportunity for the mall, the entrepreneur and the individual consumer. The kiosk concept relies on nostalgia–allowing shoppers to revisit long-gone marketplaces where push cart merchants sold their wares.

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