Monday June 5th, 2006

Astroworld site sold…Allstate settles class-action lawsuit alleging higher prices for minorities…Coast Guard works to contain oil spill in Nassau Bay near Clear Lake… Real estate firm Angel/McIver Interests has finalized the purchase of 104 acres of land where Six Flags Astroworld used to operate on the South Loop near Reliant Stadium. New York-based Six Flags […]

Astroworld site sold…Allstate settles class-action lawsuit alleging higher prices for minorities…Coast Guard works to contain oil spill in Nassau Bay near Clear Lake…

Real estate firm Angel/McIver Interests has finalized the purchase of 104 acres of land where Six Flags Astroworld used to operate on the South Loop near Reliant Stadium. New York-based Six Flags announced in May that a buyer was paying $77 million for the site. Plans for the site have not yet been disclosed.

Allstate has settled a class-action lawsuit over allegations it charged blacks and Hispanics higher rates for auto and homeowner insurance by basing prices on information from credit reports. Customers who were overcharged will be able to seek payment. Allstate agreed to disclose and change some of its pricing formulas and tell minority customers how to improve their credit ratings. A spokesman for Allstate, the second-largest U.S. personal-lines insurer, says the company didn’t discriminate based on race. Allstate says it can’t yet estimate the cost of the settlement, but it won’t be significant. A federal district court judge in San Antonio gave his preliminary approval to the deal today. The case was filed in 2001 on behalf of seven customers who said their civil rights were violated because Allstate charged them higher premiums by using information from their credit reports.

The Coast Guard and other agencies have been working to contain and clean up an oil spill in Nassau Bay near Clear Lake. A tug boat owned by Payne Brothers sank Sunday night while connected to a work barge. The partially-submerged tug has leaked about 75 gallons of waste oil into the water, and was still leaking a small amount of oil Monday. To prevent the oil from spreading, containment and absorbent booms have been set up around the tug and barge. Three hundred feet of marsh across from the tug has been affected by the spill. Other responding agencies include Harris county Pollution Control, Nassau Bay Volunteer Fire Department, Kemah Fire Department and Texas General Land Office.

Experts say substantial improvement has been made over the past month in oil and natural gas output in the hurricane-damaged Gulf of Mexico. Output was interrupted when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita damaged production platforms. Katrina slammed the Gulf Coast in late August. Rita made landfall in southeast Texas on September 24th. The Minerals Management Service reports just over 15 percent of the normal daily oil production in the region is still blocked from market by platform shutdowns. That compared with nearly 22 percent down on May 3rd. Katrina and Rita destroyed 113 production platforms in the Gulf and damaged 457 pipelines. Analysts say interruption of the Gulf supply has played a role in higher U.S. oil and gasoline prices.

College Station-based CorInnova has been chosen to receive a $500,000 grant from the Texas Emerging Technology Fund. CorInnova is a medical device company developing heart assist technologies that lead to heart recovery rather than heart replacement. CardioSpectra of San Antonio received $1.35 million for the commercialization of its Optical Coherence Tomography Diagnostic Catheter; Xilas Medical of San Antonio was awarded $1 million for commercialization of three medical devices to aid in the early detection of neuropathies, foot stress and inflammation; and Molecular Imprints of Austin, which got $3 million for commercialization of technology for fabricating nano-scale devices and components. The Texas Emerging Technology Fund was created in June to allocate $200 million to assist small to mid-sized technology firms to expedite the commercialization of new life-changing inventions.

The nation’s purchasing managers report the services sector of the economy expanded in May, but at a slower pace. The Institute for Supply Management Business Index is reported at 60.1 percent, in line with expectations. The index is down nearly three points from the previous month. Any number above 50 indicates growth. Prices and employment measures were rising at a faster pace. Among the best-performing industries seeing growth last month were agriculture, communications, utilities and health services.

The Women’s Business Enterprise Alliance 2006 Business Expo is set for Wednesday and Thursday at Reliant Center. Some 1,100 women business owners and corporate leaders are expected to attend workshops at this year’s event, called “Connections 2006.”

Kroger is unveiling its first fuel station in Houston to offer ethanol-based E85 fuel at Highway 6 North, according to the Houston business Journal–the first of 18 planned outlets offering E85 in Dallas and Houston. E85 ethanol is an alternative fuel to gasoline that is a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. Ethanol is typically produced from corn and other grain products.

Houston-based El Paso Corporation has closed the sale of its stake in the Araucaria power plant in Brazil to Companhia Paranaense de Energia, according to the Houston Business Journal. El Paso received $190 million for its 60 percent ownership of the 484-megawatt, natural gas-fired power plant.

Houston-based Marathon Oil has sold its Russian oil exploration and production businesses in the Khanty-Mansiysk region of western Siberia to Lukoil through its subsidiary Lukoil-Western Siberia, according to the Houston Business Journal. Lukoil paid Marathon $787 million for these businesses, plus preliminary working capital and other closing adjustments of approximately $66 million, for a total transaction of $853 million.

Television seems to be everywhere these days. At the supermarket, the mall–and now at the gas pump, thanks to a Michigan-based startup company. This fall, the suburban Detroit company plans to expand the program to a total of 100 gas stations in Houston, Dallas and Atlanta. Gas Station TV has been testing its service for several months in Dallas with TV monitors installed above gas pumps. They show short clips of news, weather and traffic–and of course, advertising. All are owned by Murphy Oil USA, which runs filling stations at Wal-Mart stores. ABC will sell ads for the screens and also provide local news, weather and other programming for the screens–mainly from ABC’s locally-owned or affiliated television stations.

Rules proposed by an Austin task force would restrict the size of new homes. It’s a city response to complaints from residents who say huge new homes are imposing on their neighborhoods. The city-appointed task force has proposed a limit defined as the greater of 2,300 square feet or a square footage no bigger than 40 percent of the lot size. The Austin Planning Commission and city council are each scheduled to hear public comment and vote on the new rules this week. The rules would apply to new or remodeled single-family homes and duplexes in 48 neighborhoods closest to downtown. The square footage limits would not include spaces such as basements, attics and first-floor porches. Critics say the proposed rules are too restrictive and will discourage building. The rules would take effect August 15th.

The new kid on the tarmac at Denver International Airport is about to get a lot busier. Dallas-based Southwest Airlines announced today that it’s adding 12 new non-stop flights to and from Denver, and adding or expanding service elsewhere. Southwest now flies between Denver and Baltimore, Chicago, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Salt Lake City. The airline will begin service to Houston on July 17th, while adding flights to Baltimore, Chicago, Phoenix, and from Houston to Tampa. Southwest will launch service from DIA to Kansas City, Orlando and Nashville on August 4th, while adding flights to Las Vegas and Houston. A new non-stop from Baltimore to Oakland, and an extra flight from Boise, Idaho to Oakland, will begin August 17th.

Oklahoma city-based Chesapeake Energy announced plans to buy 67,000 acres in Texas as it expands its natural gas resources. Chesapeake will buy 39,000 acres from Four Sevens Oil and Sinclair in a $930 million deal. About 26,000 acres of that acreage are in Johnson and Tarrant counties of north Texas, where Chesapeake has identified 500 potential drill sites. And the company will pay $87 million for another 28,000 acres from other sellers. Chesapeake says both deals are expected to close by July 31st.

It seems a no-brainer that the movie “Dallas” would be filmed in the same city where the long-running television series was set. But Dallas is just one of several locations battling to lure the major motion picture. Industry officials say that illustrates Texas’ disadvantages in the growing competition to attract movie productions. Texas Film Commission Director Bob Hudgins says so many other states compete with broad-based incentives for film shoots that Texas isn’t competing. Canada, Eastern Europe and other states like New Mexico and Louisiana offer tax credits and incentives that can amount to millions of dollars. But such savings for studios aren’t offered in Texas–the site of blockbusters such as “Friday Night Lights” and “The Alamo.” As a result, many in the Texas film industry are now mostly working on corporate productions or commercials.