Crime is on the rise, as you might expect in a boom town; air quality still doesn't meet federal standards; and planning is atrocious. "The Public Works Department is our de facto planning agency," says Marion Sanford, vice-chairman of the Houston Chamber of Commerce's governmental relations committee. "We don't tell a guy he can't put in a high-rise, we just tell him he can't connect it to the sewer." But the clogged freeways that slice across sprawling Houston are more worrisome to local citizens than any other issue.
"Mobility heads up most people's lists of why they are skeptical of the future of our city," says Mayor Kathy Whitmire, a 35-year-old onetime Coopers & Lybrand CPA who was elected last November on a pledge to rationalize city management and to improve basic services. And former Watergate prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, counsel to Fulbright & Jaworski, one of Houston's Big Three law firms, points out that in the last couple of years, the travel time for the 17-mile commute from his downtown office to Houston Intercontinental Airport has virtually doubled to almost an hour -- even in the middle of the day.
One Houston entrepreneur, faced with this lemon, made lemonade. Buck Ballas, 28, says that when his father, investor George C. Ballas Sr., opened the Westchase Hilton Hotel in southwest Houston, "one of the big negatives was that it was so far from the airport." So in January 1981, with one four-passenger Bell Jet Ranger III helicopter, Buck launched Armadillo Airways to shuttle passengers between the hotel and Houston Intercontinental Airport. Subsequently, Buck Ballas expanded the service, which costs $45 one way and $65 round trip. Today six helicopters ferry air travelers, and three routes have been added. The operation was financed, Ballas says, with an initial investment of $1 million.
Most of Armadillo Airways customers are executives of big corporations who have substantial expense accounts. Ballas so far has seen no slow-down in business because of the oil glut or recession. And as Houston's traffic problems get worse, Ballas expects his business to get better.
"Right now Houston's traffic is so bad that you're taking a chance every time you drive to the airport that you may not get there in time," he notes cheerfully. "And even if you do get there in time," he adds, "the airport is so overcrowded that you may miss your flight because you can't find a place to park."
Because of its low-tax, low-spend, low-services philosophy, Houston has plenty of other problems -- and plenty of other entrepreneurs eager to make a buck by responding to them. A number of them will doubtless succeed.