Real Estate Round-up
Play Ball: Hitting home runs in Houston real estate
Remember the advertising jingle: "Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and real estate"?
Of course you don’t remember...because the ad was about Chevrolet instead of real estate.
It is interesting to note, though, how many real estate stories have some kind of baseball tie-in. And with Lance Berkman and the boys going through spring training camp, it’s time for a quick look at baseball’s impact on the Houston real estate scene.
FIRST BASE: Finger Furniture Reopens
After being out of business for about a year, Finger Furniture has just reopened its historic flagship location on the Gulf Freeway near the University of Houston. The massive store stands on the site of the old Buffalo Stadium, which was where Houston’s minor league baseball team played.
Finger’s gives quite a nod to baseball history at the store with displays of museum-quality artifacts, such as pitcher Dizzy Dean’s old baseball glove. The historic home plate from Buff Stadium is another highlight.
But the main thing at Finger’s, of course, is furniture: 200,000 square feet of showroom space, a 50,000-square-foot clearance center and a 250,000-square-foot warehouse. The latest reincarnation of Finger’s is led by Rodney Finger, a young member of the Finger clan, which has been selling furniture since 1927.
Full disclosure: Before Finger’s was built, I went to kid’s baseball clinic at Buff Stadium. I was thrilled to get fielding tips from the great Bill Mazeroski of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
SECOND BASE: New Sugar Land Stadium
Minor league baseball works in suburban Austin, so why won’t it work in suburban Houston?
The Sugar Land City Council wants to find out.
Sugar Land city officials have signed an exploratory agreement with Opening Day Partners LLC, a group that develops minor league stadiums. Brooks Robinson, the famous third baseman who played for the Baltimore Orioles, is part of the development group.
If all goes as planned, by 2012 a minor league stadium will be constructed and the new team will be playing at the intersection of U.S. Highway 59 and University Boulevard—near the University of Houston’s Sugar Land campus. A new hotel and a convention center would also be part of the package, which Sugar Land has designated as its Cultural/Entertainment District.
And there will be the question, what shall we name the team?
You might call the team “Sugarland Express,” which was the name of a 1974 Steven Spielberg movie starring Goldie Hawn. Or the Smart Growthers might suggest naming the team the "Sugar Land Sprawlers" in recognition of the fact that the stadium will be located—let’s phrase this nicely—a little bit outside the loop.
The minor league ballparks aren’t huge—typically less than 10,000 seats. But the Dell Diamond minor league park in the Austin suburb of Round Rock and the Dr. Pepper Ballpark in Frisco (a suburb of Dallas) seem to be good additions to their communities.
Full Disclosure: During the infamous major league baseball strike of 1981, when I was a young newsman, I covered a minor league baseball game in San Antonio where the San Antonio Missions played.
THIRD BASE: My introduction to Kenneth Schnitzer
Kenneth Schnitzer was a prolific developer who left his mark on Houston. He was also a baseball fan.
Kenneth developed the 71-story Wells Fargo Plaza in downtown, Mexican resort property in Los Cabos and Greenway Plaza, the huge office park near the intersection of Buffalo Speedway and the Southwest Freeway. For years, I covered real estate for a Houston newspaper, so knowing him was important to me.
And baseball gave me an early introduction to Kenneth. I had played baseball on the same team with his son.
So Kenneth was good to me. He gave me tips about news stories and always took my phone calls. Playing baseball with a Schnitzer gave me something the other reporters didn’t have and I was grateful for it.
Taking a reporter’s phone calls wasn’t always easy for Kenneth in the 1980s when the real estate market was in shambles and the Schnitzer empire was under financial pressure. Schnitzer’s S&L—the BancPlus Savings Association—was taken into conservatorship by federal banking regulators and I was always calling Kenneth about it, asking more questions.
One morning, after I had written another brutal BancPlus story that led the newspaper’s business section, Kenneth called me at my desk in the newsroom.
“You’d better call the cops,” he barked.
It was kind of an unusual greeting, and I was surprised to hear Kenneth sounding so gruff, angry — and threatening. "Kenneth, is that you?"
"You’d better call HPD right now because I’ve got my shotgun and I am coming down there to get you,” he said.
It was the first time a major developer had threatened to blow my head off, but I had to laugh. Then Kenneth started laughing, too.
He always took my calls, even on the day he was convicted by a federal jury on bank fraud charges. It was a great interview—he was open and authentic. And happily for Kenneth, the conviction was later thrown out by a federal judge and Kenneth was acquitted.
In his office, there was a framed photo of Kenneth in his high school baseball uniform stepping on home plate.
Kenneth was a great news source for me as a reporter. Without our baseball connection, it wouldn’t have been the same.
Full Disclosure: Kenneth Schnitzer’s son was a lousy baseball player.
Ralph Bivins, former president of the National Association of Real Estate Editors, is editor-in-chief of realtynewsreport.com.