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Houston is hoping Super Bowl will bring infusion of respect

HOUSTON -- Super Bowl XXXVIII will be resolved here Sunday between teams drawn from New England and the Carolinas. But to residents of football-crazed Houston, the opponents might as well be from another planet.

What residents of the nation's fourth-largest city really want, other than a Super Bowl berth for their Houston Texans, is a little respect.

Houstonians are still smarting from the collapse of Enron and are thirsty for the stature routinely denied them by those who consider the metropolis to be a massive backwater. That Texas-sized pride is exactly what businessman Robert C. McNair tapped when he spent $700 million of his own fortune four years ago to buy the Texans. The deal concluding the purchase of the team, which replaced the departed Houston Oilers, included becoming host for the 2004 Super Bowl.

"I just felt like Houston was being forgotten," McNair said in an interview, clad in a sweat shirt and shorts with the logo of the Texans. "If people aren't talking about you, they soon forget about you. And if you're not in the NFL -- and it looked as though we might lose baseball and basketball as well -- it's easy to be forgotten and thought of as a second-tier city."

The city will also host professional baseball's All-Star Game in July.

That is the story of Houston, a sprawling metroplex crisscrossed by ribbons of interlocking freeways that has something of an inferiority complex. It is a city of 2 million people used to playing second fiddle to its detested, flashier rival, Dallas (which, for the record, has a mere 1.1 million people). So as an estimated 100,000 Super Bowl tourists flock to town, city leaders and even ordinary Houstonians are eager to show off the thriving arts scene; the glitzy, redeveloped downtown; and the folksy friendliness.

"Every opportunity that we think we might press upon people why Houston is so great, we're going to take advantage of that -- using the Super Bowl as the tool," said Gerard J. "Jordy" Tollett, president of the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Tollett and other city boosters rattle off a stream of statistics about the city's renaissance since the glum late-1980s, when plummeting oil prices wrecked the economy and downtown after 5 p.m. resembled a graveyard.

More than $2 billion in public and private money has enlivened downtown with loft apartments and nightclubs, and a 7.5-mile light-rail line has debuted -- even though Houston drivers, unaccustomed to coexisting with such modes of public transportation, keep colliding with the trains.

Still, city leaders are counting on the publicity machine to crank into high gear, not through hot nightspots or swanky hotels, but through their own city dwellers. Last week, officials unveiled an advertising campaign aimed at capitalizing on the hospitality of Houstonians by reminding everyone to be nice. It was called, "Put Your Smile On. Company's Coming!"

Such a down-home slogan might trigger sneers in uptown places like Boston. But it fits Houston's easygoing temperament, said Betsy Gelb, a professor of marketing and entrepreneurship at the University of Houston's Bauer College of Business.

"What Houston is trying to offer as charm is the folks who live here, not the old historic buildings or the -- well, it's pretty hard to finish the sentence, isn't it?" Gelb said. "What else have you got? So you play up your strengths."

They reside in a city of 633 square miles, about 15 times the size of Boston. Defined by its freeways, including one beastly 14-lane stretch on the southwest side, Houston at its widest point is 48.5 miles. That is roughly the distance from Boston to Worcester.

Between is a hodgepodge of development spurred by lax zoning laws: brash, shiny skyscrapers; miles of strip malls and chain restaurants; and billboards.

The Space City is known as an arts mecca because of its full-time companies in ballet, orchestra, theater, and opera. It is also known as the country's fattest city, labeled such in 2001 by Men's Journal. Few here walk, after all; they drive. A select number blast off, thanks to NASA, which is headquartered south of the city.

At The Tavern on Gray, a sports bar billing itself as the official headquarters for Patriots fans, Houstonians interviewed one evening seemed eager for the spotlight.

"It'll be good for the economy as far as bringing more people that would like to move here and see what we're all about," said Andrew Rocha Jr., 32, a Houston native who works for Wells Fargo. "It seems like we never get publicity. It's always Dallas that gets it all."

Amid all the tree-planting, the back-patting, and the party-planning that has consumed Houston, it is easy to forget that the city landed the big game partly because of a bitter, Astrodome-sized breakup.

Like a bored spouse, the Houston Oilers in 1997 dumped their home city of 37 years and moved to Tennessee after officials rejected demands for a new stadium to replace the aging Astrodome.

Into the void stepped McNair, who became a billionaire in the energy business. He paid $700 million for the Texans, a price that included an extra $50 million at the request of NFL owners for the right to be the host for the Super Bowl.

Estimates vary on the economic impact of the Feb. 1 game, Houston's second Super Bowl. The Super Bowl XXXVIII host committee pegs it at $300 million. Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn thinks the Houston area will reap $165.5 million out of the $336 million that will benefit the entire Lone Star State. University of Houston economist Barton Smith, who compiles twice-yearly economic forecasts for the city, guesses that about $200 million will flow to Greater Houston.

That will not repair the city's slowly recovering economy, but it will help, Smith said. In the last 30 years, Houston has felt the sting of a crash in the '80s and, in between, booms in the '70s and 1990s.

"One of the things people don't talk about is -- how important is a $200 million impact? The answer is, not superimportant," Smith said. "It is a nice little blip."

But as prominent Houstonians such as McNair see it, it is not all about the money.

"The Super Bowl will give Houston a platform, and a platform on which it can stand and be judged," said McNair, 67. "And I think it will be judged very favorably. We get a bad rap because of the weather. My gosh, how's the weather in Boston? Here I am in workout clothes and shorts."

McNair's Texans ended their season at 5-11, but the team's presence cheered a city still smarting from the snub by the Oilers. And the Texans got what the Oilers did not -- a $449 million new stadium, the first in the NFL with a retractable roof, partly paid with taxpayer money.

"When people see Reliant Stadium, that will speak volumes itself that this city is committed to big-time sports," said Larry Jaycox, 53, a patron at The Tavern on Gray. "And we have the will to back it up."

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