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Turning up the heat on Olympic foes

If strutting by economic developers were an Olympic event, Houston deserves this week's gold medal.

For the past few days, the Texas city best known for sprawl and smog hosted officials of the U.S. Olympic Committee. They are currently touring the eight U.S. cities _ the Tampa Bay area included _ that are competing to host the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Take heed, Tampa Bay. U.S. cities with bigger sports facilities, more influential corporations, greater worldwide visibility and more sophisticated global selling experience will do all they can to win what may become a nasty game of Olympic King of the Hill.

Houston's pulling out all the stops. They flattered USOC officials with visits to NASA Mission Control at Johnson Space Center and presentations by such corporate heavyweights (and pals of President George W. Bush) as Enron chairman Kenneth Lay. Plans for a light rail and bus system also were detailed.

But amid a visit marked by heat, humidity and thunderstorms, what was Houston's best pitch? It is the only city in the 2012 race able to offer three domed, dry and air-conditioned sports stadiums for the Olympic games.

Houston organizers plan to turn the 36-year-old Astrodome into a 400-meter track and field stadium if the nation's fourth-largest city is awarded the games. Olympic track and field events have never been held indoors, but USOC's site evaluation team seem intrigued at the idea of eliminating the headaches of wind and rain.

Via such salesmanship, Houston is striving to differentiate itself from the other seven competing cities _ including such Sun Belt contenders as Dallas and Tampa Bay.

The USOC tour began last month with Washington/Baltimore and Dallas. After Houston, officials will visit Cincinnati, then Tampa Bay/Orlando (Aug. 2-5), then New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

By early 2002, the top three or four cities will be chosen. The U.S. winner is expected to be named in late 2002, then compete against foreign cities. Odds that a U.S. city will be chosen for 2012 have improved in recent days since the USOC chose Beijing, rather than North America's Toronto, to host the 2008 Olympics.

Houston's temperatures hit the mid-90s during the USOC visit. Rather than downplay such dreadful weather (are you listening Tampa Bay?), Houston wants to sell a solution.

"Tampa is hot. Dallas is hot. Washington is hot. New York is hot," Houston consultant Jack Kelly, a veteran Olympic organizer and former president of the Goodwill Games, told the Houston Chronicle. "But they don't have the ability to cope with it like we do."

That's a lot of hot air about hot air for games that are still 11 years down the road. By Olympic standards, the hard selling has only just begun.

After three-plus years in the Sunshine State, Ohio's Huntington Bancshares admitted defeat last week when it revealed plans to sell its Florida operations. That's 139 branches, $4.5-billion in deposits, 1,500 employees and thousands of customers _ mostly in the Tampa Bay and Orlando markets _ up for grabs to the highest bidder.

So what kind of Huntington ads are running locally after such a stunning retreat? Maybe a We tried! letter of explanation to customers? Or a We'll find you a good bank to replace us note?

No, Huntington's decided to run ads offering . . . free checking . . . and the slogan "The better the offer, the simpler the ad."

The bank ad gives no hint that Huntington will bail out of this state as soon as a reasonable bid arrives. Nor does it indicate _ even in small type _ that there's no guarantee that the free checking promoted today will be honored by any successor institution.

Among Huntington's bean counters, an offer of free checking makes sense. It's a quick-hit way to attract more customers, which in turn makes the Ohio bank's Florida operations appear more prosperous.

But to Floridians in the know, the Huntington deal sounds more like the empty romantic promises of the traveling Midwest salesman on the eve of his last trip out of town.

Short takes

CEO MEANS "CHIEFS EXIT OFTEN': At midyear, CEO replacements nationwide are running more than 55 percent ahead of last year's pace, says executive recruiters Christian & Timbers. Turnover among Tampa Bay area CEOs is contributing its fair share. At Largo-based Eckerd Drug, Wayne Harris arrived last fall to take the place of departed CEO Frank Newman. At Danka Business Systems, P. Lang Lowrey III took over early this year, succeeding former CEO Larry Switzer. Don DeFosset has led Walter Industries since November after the company ran through a string of CEOs. John Sykes returned to the helm of his Sykes Enterprises last fall after CEO David Grimes departed. And Tampa tech company Enporion recently named George Gordon to take over from Joe Zelechoski. No sign the pace will slacken any time soon . . .

WHAT WERE THEY THINKING? Got to give credit to the bizarre view of the world offered up by officials at Philip Morris Cos. In the Czech Republic, the tobacco company's distributed an economic analysis concluding that cigarette consumption isn't a drag on the Czech budget, in part because smokers' early deaths help offset medical expenses. Wow! Think of the possibilities to cure social ills if we adopt such thinking. Jaywalking declines thanks to pedestrians hit by cars. Or this: Sinkholes just the ticket to rejuvenate construction industry. Or perhaps: Paving all of Florida cuts fumes from lawn mowers . . .

FROM BROADBAND TO BURGERS? Is private investor Texas Pacific Group turning sour on technology after watching its shrinking stake in Largo-based telecommunications manufacturer Paradyne Networks? Word is Miami-based Burger King, a unit of Diageo, may be spun off and Texas Pacific is interested . . .

_ Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigauxsptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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