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Houston First Tightens Belt To Pay Off Harvey Damage

The corporation in charge of Houston’s arts and entertainment venues has drained its reserves to rebuild the flooded theater district. CFO Frank Wilson estimates it will take at least five years for the organization to recover financially.

Wortham Center Flood Damage
Ventilation machines remove moisture from the Wortham Theater Center, which flooded during Hurricane Harvey. The venue is home to numerous performing arts groups, such as the Houston Ballet.

More than a year after Harvey, the corporation that manages Houston’s arts, entertainment, and convention complexes is making steady progress repairing the city’s flooded theater district. But Houston First won’t recover from the economic hit until well into the next decade, according to its latest presentation to Houston City Council’s Budget and Fiscal Affairs Committee.

Chief financial officer Frank Wilson said “Harvey will continue to provide [a] fiscal challenge for the next five to seven years,” as the organization completes the repairs and pays down its debts. The organization repaired enough of the Wortham Center to reopen it in time for the 2018-2019 season, but renovations are still underway. In addition, work on downtown parking garages is only about half done.

Houston First will finish 2018 with a balanced budget, and it’s projecting another in 2019. But president and CEO Brenda Bazan says getting there was no easy task, as damage estimates from Harvey rose throughout the year.

“Today that estimate is $153 million for the facilities that we manage,” Bazan said. “To put that in perspective, the total operating budget for all of our facilities for 2019 is $95 million.” Closing the gap used up almost all of Houston First’s reserves. “We must accept the reality that Houston First’s ability to make significant investments in the foreseeable future has been severely curtailed.”

Curtailed, but not shut off. The corporation is still drawing healthy income from hotel occupancy taxes and strong convention bookings. It’s set to spend $37 million for renovations at the Hilton Americas.

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Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media’s coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas delegations in the U.S. House and Senate, as well as the Texas governorship, the state legislature, and county and city governments. Before taking up his current post, Andrew...

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