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The lack of game nights at Toyota Center has put a big dent in businesses near the stadium.
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Restaurants, businesses in Houston feeling lockout's pinch

Posted Nov 10 2011 11:49AM - Updated Nov 12 2011 7:27PM

HOUSTON -- During a regular lunch hour, the air is still filled with the conversation of hungry diners and the aroma of Szechuan chicken, won ton soup or assorted other items on the menu.

But these days the atmosphere at the China Garden and many other restaurants and businesses near Toyota Center is heavy with frustration as the NBA lockout continues.

While the haggling concerns of the players and owners has grabbed the headlines, the truth is the effects of the labor dispute have been felt more already in Houston and other NBA cities by folks who'll never make a 3-point shot or throw down a slam dunk.

"It's maddening," said Carol Jue Churchill, whose family has spent the past 42 years operating the China Garden, located one block from Toyota Center. "At a time when the economy is already the way it is, we have billionaires fighting millionaires.

"I understand that the players have a talent and to compare them to people like us who work for a living is apples and oranges. But I think players should be grateful that they are in the top 1or 2 percent of income in the country. They're not the ones taking the risk in running a business. And, well, they're playing basketball."

With the restaurant established since 1968, Churchill said there is no fear of going out of business if the lockout were to wipe out the entire season. But it would cut significantly into the lives of the owners and employees.

"We're talking thousands and thousands of dollars," she said. "The property taxes alone are in the $70,000 to $90,000 a year range and that is based on that building, the Toyota Center, being open for business. If this keeps up, I'm probably going to go and protest our taxes for the year. Everybody here is tightening their belts. I've already told my kids it's going to be a mild Christmas. The money is down."

Mike Neri, general manager of Mia Bella Trattoria and Andalucia Tapas Restaurant and Bar, about two blocks north of Toyota Center, shook his head in frustration.

"On game nights, Rockets and NBA fans represent about 60 to 70 percent of our sales," he said. "I think my emotion is disappointed. We have a lot of families who are depending on that income. Some have to take a pay cut. Some have to get another job."

On Rockets game nights, Neri said he usually increases his wait staff at the pair of side-by-side restaurants from eight to 16 servers and bumps up his bartenders from two to six.

"With people stopping in here before and after the games, a bartender can walk out of here with about $250 in a night," Neri said. "Now it's maybe $50 to $60 a shift. That's a significant cut. It's similar for the waitstaff. A lot of my people have had to get another job, because they just don't have the hours. And right now, we're just at the early part of the season."

So far, the Rockets have lost just four home dates: three preseason games and one regular season game. But there were six more home games on the original schedule in November, including the defending champion Dallas Mavericks and in-state rival San Antonio Spurs. Then the first three home games in December were supposed to be against the high-profile L.A. Lakers, Chicago Bulls and Oklahoma City Thunder.

"We rely on business from the convention center and concerts and other events in the area," Neri said. "But let's face it, what goes on over there in that building with the NBA is a big part of our bread and butter."

The effect of the lockout on the city of Houston is not believed to be significant. The Rockets' lease at Toyota Center requires two payments of $4.25 million a year, one on Aug. 1 and another on Feb. 1.

"It's that indirect effect that has a greater impact," said Greg Ortale, the president and CEO of the Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It's the revenue that is lost to the businesses and then to those employees, as well as the part-time workers at the Toyota Center. For a lot of those people, it's a necessary second job, maybe a third job and they need that income."

Behind the counter at Front Row Tickets, a broker 1 and 1/2 blocks from Toyota Center, salesman Slim Johnson lifts his palms up and shrugs.

"No games, no tickets, no money," he said. "It's pretty simple."

Johnson said Front Row will usually have a minimum of 10 to 20 tickets for resale on an average game and that figure will rise dramatically for the Lakers, Celtics or Heat. But these days he's just looking out the front window toward Toyota Center and getting frustrated.

"I want to slap somebody," he said. "All this money and you can't get it together? Is greed that big a deal? We are the little people over here and we're dying and they're fighting over millions. Reality doesn't set in on these guys. I think we need to put them all in a Prius and make them live in one room and find out what it's like for the rest of the world.

"Look at all of the ticket takers, the concession stand workers, the guys who run the parking lots and all these restaurants downtown. Listen in here. The phone ain't ringing now. All we've had are one or two calls from people asking if the NBA is going to play at all."

Mike Raymond is the co-owner of Reserve 101, an upscale bar near the arena, and he believes both sides in the lockout are getting dangerously close to doing permanent damage to the product.

"Look, this is not the NFL," he said. "I haven't heard much of a public outcry at all. I know we have 3,000 friends on our Facebook page and so far, I've seen exactly one post about the NBA.

"The NBA is in trouble. This might be like the NHL, where they went a whole year without playing and people didn't miss it. I think it's a very scary situation, maybe more for them than for us.

"I think we'll survive in the long run. I'd like to say we're not dependent on these games. But that said, 16,000 coming to a game? You want it. If you got the Lakers on a Friday night, you know you're gonna be busy. People are gonna be excited. Everybody's gonna be happy. Hopefully they figure it out for everybody's sake."

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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