Path to sustainable growth a focus at Woodlands Economic Outlook Conference

February 8, 2019 GMT

One thing is evident in the strong financial position, local business uptick and vision for the future: Montgomery County and The Woodlands have been experiencing growth and it doesn’t seem to be stopping.

That was one of the messages transmitted to hundreds of attendees on Friday at the 33rd Economic Outlook Conference at The Woodlands Waterway Marriott Hotel and Convention Center. The event attracted hundreds of business and community leaders who filled the center in anticipation of a day filled with speeches and seminars detailing the sustainable growth in the community, region and state.

After a welcome from officials with The Woodlands Area Chamber of Commerce, who created and produced the event, and recognition of the event’s presenting underwriters — Stibbs & Co. Attorneys and Petroleum Wholesale — the attendees took their seats and the speakers jumped right in.

State Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, discussed the current legislative session and detailed both the advantages and challenges facing the region and state this year.

If Texas were a nation, Creighton said, it would be ranked in the top 10 economies in the world. For 14 years in a row, Texas has been the best state in which to start a business. Texas is leading in technology and innovation, but is also the top state for industries such as cattle, cotton and sheep, Creighton added.

“We want to lead, we don’t want to follow,” Creighton said.

That growth and success is balanced by the challenge of protecting the residents’ economic freedoms while determining the way forward in tax reform, legislation regarding government spending and recovery from Hurricane Harvey, he explained.

“I welcome your opinions; I welcome your requests. Let me tell you, it makes a difference. We want to make sure we have the policies in place that you expect, and we’re listening,” Creighton said, noting that it is important to plan well, work together and lean on each other for support to navigate differences during this process.

U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, then joined the conference by video stream to address attendees.

While first touching on his hope that both parties can come to an agreement before another possible partial government shutdown at the end of next week, Brady zeroed in on economy issues, such as building the workforce.

“Our economy is being held back because we don’t have the size of workforce and we don’t have the match of skills of workforce,” Brady said, which he added is an issue throughout the country.

While experts predict growth in investments returning to the country, they also predict that the economy will slow down in the years to come because of a lack of workers.

“We need to dramatically scale up all the workforce training programs we have today if we’re going to create the workforce we need for the future,” Brady said, citing the training being done in this area at Conroe Independent School District, the Education for Tomorrow Alliance, the John Cooper School, The Woodlands Christian Academy and the Lone Star College System.

Brady said immigration policy and welfare system reform were also important to build the workforce for the future as he works as the top Republican on the influential House Ways and Means Committee.

“We are going to work very hard to stop bad ideas, but we’re going to work equally hard to find common ground…to address the economy, our workers, our trade, our customers and our health care,” Brady said.

Local impacts: growth in the township

Hyper-local issues were discussed by Gordy Bunch, chairman of The Woodlands Township Board of Directors, who shared with the crowd what achievements and initiatives the township accomplished in 2018, including bring swan boats to The Woodlands Waterway, the conveyance of the Band Shell and Boardwalk at Hughes Landing from the Howard Hughes Corp. to township ownership, renovations at Bear Branch Park and the construction of Texas Treeventures, a high-trees, adventure-style ropes course being constructed in Rob Fleming Park.

With a taxable value around $20 billion, a comparably low tax rate of 22.73 cents per $100 of valuation and a 23 percent growth of the hotel occupancy tax in the last five years, Bunch said the combination of factors gives the township a strong financial position.

“We still maintain excellent ratings, and more importantly we maintain excellent reserves,” Bunch said, which includes reducing the township’s debt simultaneously.

Looking ahead to 2019, Bunch focused on the township’s ongoing incorporation study. He said township officials have a lot left to do in regard to incorporation, such as further planning and community meetings to understand the pros and cons, but that there’s no rush to get a proposition on the ballot.

“It’s a complicated issue that takes a lot of interaction with our community,” Bunch said.

Bunch then touched on the tourism initiatives spearheaded by Visit The Woodlands that are intended to bring more visitors to the area, as well as how attendees at the half-day-long event can stay informed on township activities.

Laura Lea Palmer, the vice president of business retention and expansion for The Woodlands Area Economic Development Partnership, continued the discussion, focusing on the upward trends in the area’s job growth.

Palmer shared a 15-year comparison of the business sectors found in The Woodlands, Shenandoah and Oak Ridge North. In 2004, there were 47 companies who provided about 17,200 jobs with the largest percentage comprised of professional services and energy sectors.

Jumping ahead to 2019, there are now 73 companies allotting for about 38,000 jobs with health care jumping on the board alongside energy as the largest sectors.

“This shows you what sustainable growth looks like in our community. We will see that growth continue into the future,” Palmer said.