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Nancy Sarnoff
Landry's chief sets sail on host of new ventures

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Pinning down Tilman Fertitta these days is tricky.

The head of the Houston-based restaurants empire Landry's Restaurants, Inc. has so many real estate projects in the works that when he’s not out visiting one of the construction sites, he’s in his private helicopter flying to one.

Galveston is taking up much of the Island native’s time lately. Last month, the city of Galveston accepted Fertitta’s bid to buy the Flagship Hotel for $500,000. The bid required a $7.5 million letter of credit.

Fertitta was the only bidder for the timeworn property, which sits on a pier over the Gulf of Mexico.

Fertitta’s plans for the project – dubbed Galveston’s Historic Pleasure Pier & Hotel – include a turnaround renovation of the hotel, the development of several restaurants, retail shops and new meeting facilities, as well as a roller coaster, merry-go-round and Ferris wheel. It will be a four-star hotel like the Grand Floridian Hotel in Walt Disney World, says Fertitta.

The Timetable for the project is still unclear, as the hotel’s current owner has a contract to lease the city-owned property for two more years. Fertitta will likely try to buy out the lease. In addition to the Flagship, the Houston businessman has the following projects under construction:

* Fertitta is spending $30 million converting downtown Houston’s World Trade Center into a boutique called Inn at the Ballpark. The city of Houston approved a 10-year tax abatement deal beginning in January 2004 for the 202-room property located at 1520 Texas Ave., across from Minute Maid Park.

Local architecture firm Kirksey is designing the renovations to play off a baseball theme. The project will include a new full-service restaurant, although Fertitta was mum on details about the concept or cuisine. He previously had announced that it would be a high-end steakhouse, but he now says that could change.

* Later this year, Landry’s will open the $30 million Downtown Aquarium, a family-oriented dining and entertainment mecca featuring a public aquarium. The six-acre project has been highly publicized since Landry’s won the bid from the city of Houston to redevelop the old fire stations and waterworks building.

Some of the lesser-known features include the Marina Matinee Café, where patrons will dine in replicas of sea-faring vessels surrounded by screens projecting vintage aquatic-themed television programs and films like Jaws. Fertitta says the idea is based on the Sci-Fi Café restaurant at Disney.

In addition, the project will have several Disneyesque aquarium exhibits, with themes such as the Louisiana Swamp, Sunken Temple, Amazon River, Caribbean Reef and South Seas Ship Wreck.

The downtown development has come under fire recently from quality-of-life activists raising debate over a 90-foot Ferris wheel and a 200-foot observation tower called The Periscope that are part of the project. Fertitta counters the criticism by citing the 2 million visitors the aquarium is expected to draw and the redevelopment of a blighted property.

“Who else could take an old building and come up with a concept for it,” he says about the derelict waterworks building that’s being developed as part of the Aquarium. “I brought it back to its historical nature. None of the quality of life people are giving us credit for that.”

* Fertitta recently unveiled a master plan for the redevelopment of six blocks on Galveston’s Seawall Boulevard.

Along with a new convention center, Fertitta will open a Rainforest Café as part of the development. In addition to the eatery, the facility will include the Rainforest Lost River Ride, a tribute to the Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean. “This development project will take tourism to a new level in Galveston…” he says. “This plan will enable Seawall Boulevard to regain its stature as one of the greatest boulevards along the Gulf of Mexico.”

Landry’s also owns a number of hospitality facilities, including the Boardwalk Inn and retail development in Kemah, The San Luis Resort, Spa & Conference Center and the Hilton Resort Beachfront on Galveston Island.

The company operates such well-known eateries as Landry’s Seafood House, Joe’s Crab Shack, Willie G’s and Rainforest Café.

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