Published News

Inside Houston Magazine - March 2003

Alicia Vongreisman
The Big Splash

...continued from Published News

Five o'clock on a Friday afternoon at most companies is a very quiet time. That's not the case at Landry's Restaurants, Inc. corporate offices. People are everywhere, buzzing around like diligent worker bees. But then, the way Tilman Fertitta runs his empire, nobody punches the clock - especially him.

As I wait for my appointment, I note that he might as well have revolving doors installed in his magnificent office because a steady stream of people flows in and out at a frantic pace. Everyone seems to need Fertitta.

With so many successful ventures under his belt, I probe into how he knows just when to launch his mighty endeavors. "It's a gut feeling," he says. "The number one factor is that things make sense. Let's start with Galveston…"

As he talks, I'm picturing Fertitta gazing out the window one sunny day onto the lovely beach. With the combination of good climate, warm water and a stream of tourists, the possibilities are endless. He envisions what's missing: the right entertainment, good restaurants and a quality hotel. He then supplies it: enter the luxurious San Luis Hotel, Spa and Conference Center.

After conquering Galveston, he follows his instincts to Clear Lake. He knows that people have been going to Kemah for over sixty years. This tiny village sits along the narrow channel connecting Clear Lake and Galveston Bay. Common sense and gut feeling strike again, or, perhaps, we should say uncommon sense. Only Fertitta sees what should be done. He has a vision and acts upon it by creating one of the newest tourist attractions in the state of Texas. Welcome to the Kemah Boardwalk.

With such monumental projects, you might think he gets a little nervous about them working out. Not Fertitta. His confidence is unwavering without slipping into self-importance. "When I do a major project, I feel comfortable and confident in my endeavor," he says.

He couldn't be more comfortable with the timing for Houston's downtown redevelopment. This market maker is serving a triple threat on his plate of coming attractions in downtown Houston. Fertitta sees the possibilities that our downtown has to offer, and, just like in Galveston, he is giving the people what they never knew they couldn't live without.

Fertitta delivers: A new steakhouse, a freestanding structure that he promises to be the most beautiful restaurant in Houston; the Inn at the Ballpark Hotel, which will house downtown visitors in baseball style; and the famed Aquarium, modeled after its predecessor in Kemah and the largest family entertainment venue in downtown Houston.

These projects prove Fertitta deeply believes in the downtown renaissance, but no man is an island. He's evangelical about the need for support, from everyone. "We have to continue to push people to develop in downtown," he says. "Downtown has been hatched; it's either going to thrive or it will fail."

He adds that the incoming mayor must urge and support development in downtown. The fledgling revitalization still needs nurturing to grow and mature. He cites Cleveland, Ohio as an example of revitalization without stamina. When that city decided to get their downtown area going again, they "hatched" it, but didn't follow through. Without constant nurturing, Cleveland's downtown revitalization failed to thrive.

Fertitta doesn't want that to happen in Houston. He feels that everything is in place now for our downtown not just to thrive but to boom. We have the ballpark and the arena. We're investing in parks, open areas, and the Cotswald walk. Light rail to facilitate easier access is nearly complete. New restaurants and bars are popping up everywhere. Fertitta and others have started building it, but will they come?

What we need, according to Fertitta, is a mayor who will push for people to do things in downtown and who will make it easy for developers to keep developing there. We need to create a downtown that people will want to visit. We have to do something to make downtown a special place. He says that without a thriving downtown, we'll never attract our fair share of tourism and conventioneers from all over the United States. The bottom line is if we want to compete with other towns for tourism, we have to have a special downtown.

Having probed Fertitta's business acumen, shrewdness and commitment, I wonder aloud, "For someone who has accomplished so much in a relatively short time, at what point will you feel you have made it?"

For the first time during the interview, there is a long pause before he answers. He replies graciously that he has been fortunate and, by all accounts, successful most of his life. At the ripe age of 26, he owned his first house in River Oaks. At that time his project was the Key Largo Hotel in Galveston. "I've been around for a long time," he says. "I've watched all my mentors in the 80s come and go, then the people in the 90s come and go, and thank God I'm still here."

His presence has been felt throughout the years. By the time Fertitta was 40 years old, he had garnered two championship rings with the Houston Rockets, hosted the President of the United States in his home twice and rung the bell at the New York Stock Exchange. All the while, earning an impressive fortune.

On the assumption that he has "made it," I asked him when he thinks he'll retire. "I won't," he says. "Business is my hobby. This is what I enjoy doing. I enjoy projects in the greater Houston area. It's a wonderful feeling to make things happen in your hometown."

"Houston is a wonderful town, and there's a great opportunity for people with ideas to make things happen," he says. "We don't have to go places all over the United States; we can have everything right here. Our city is at a real turning point right now to either become a major, thriving force, or not. This is why it is so important to create family-type entertainment and tourism in our city right now."

Clearly, Fertitta, family man, benefactor to many, local success story and leader, is heading the charge to do just that.

Dive into Downtown
By Jacqueline Le Mieux

Once again, downtown Houston is simply to place to be for wining and dining, clubbing and lounging, hanging around and stepping out. Downtown is the "spot" for, well, anything you want to do, but only after one serious, yearlong roller coaster ride.

The downtown renaissance hit its stride mid-2000, attracting the entire population of the city for dining, concerts, street festivals, bar hopping and dwelling. It was then dealt a few hobbling, but not crippling, blows. In addition to a slowing economy and Tropical Storm Allison's soggy visit in the summer of 2001, downtown streets were, well, ripped up. The sidewalks that had been teeming with diners and partiers were blocked by piles of dirt and broken pieces of former street, as the city updated its aging downtown utilities, put down the MetroRail, expanded the George R. Brown Convention Center and installed a new home for the Houston Rockets.

The roller coaster is nearly over, and downtown Houston is back - bigger, better and stronger than before. In fact, it's bionic.

…Gourmet dining has never been a problem in downtown Houston. It perhaps become a tad more difficult for a while, but some of downtown's best eateries are open and ready to turn on your taste buds…

The newest addition to the Landry's restaurant empire is the Downtown Aquarium. In fact, the Aquarium is such a massive project that it is as much a town in and of itself as it is an addition to downtown. Located along Buffalo Bayou, the Aquarium is a $38 million, aquatic-themed entertainment center accommodating up to 3,000 people, with a seafood restaurant, a 200,000-gallon shark tank, a ballroom, a 90-foot Ferris wheel and a train that will circle the five-acre area. Landry's president and CEO, Tilman Fertitta, is truly a visionary. His new Aquarium has changed the Houston skyline forever.

Two years ago, Houstonians turned downtown into the city's entertainment mecca. They were then driven away by bulldozers, street closures and traffic and have been adrift ever since, waiting to return and pick up where they left off. Well, it's official. You can go back now. Downtown Houston is not only open for business; it's chomping at the bit.

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