The Woodlands, Texas is a master-planned community located about 35 miles north of Houston. Initially serving as a bedroom community in the 1970s, The Woodlands has evolved into a regional employment center in Greater Houston, and The Woodlands Area Economic Development Partnership (EDP) has played an instrumental role in this transition.
Gil Staley serves as CEO of The Woodlands Area EDP. Mr. Staley spoke to Business in Focus about what The Woodlands EDP does to attract businesses to the area and what makes the area a great place to both work and live.
“We feel that we are at a competitive advantage to recruit companies,” Staley says. “The Woodlands offers the quality of life that companies seek out for their employees and families. The Woodlands has prime Class A office development – the high-end luxury office space that can accommodate professional jobs as well as diversity in housing selection that can accommodate everyone from the executive team to administrative support.”
The Woodlands Area EDP was established in 1997 to promote job growth and economic vitality in the area by recruiting new businesses and supporting existing businesses for job retention and expansion. As more businesses relocate to the suburbs, The Woodlands has benefited from this trend, and thanks to the business-friendly climate the area offers, The Woodlands has attracted a number of companies. The local Chamber of Commerce launched the organization to address the growth of The Woodlands and how it would evolve as a master planned community.
“A feeling back then was that once the developer sold the land to the company, what would happen as it matured?” Staley explains. “We started out as a business retention organization, giving attention to companies to make sure they didn’t move when their leases expired. We morphed over the years as a true economic development organization.”
The Woodlands Area Economic Development Partnership now specializes in not only retaining companies, but recruiting new companies to establish themselves in the area. “Our niche market is corporate headquarters,” Staley shares. “We have seen an influx of more companies wanting to relocate to the suburbs; our quality of life and the amenities of our planned neighborhoods, bike trails [more than 200 miles in the community], restaurants, shopping, medical facilities, and our education system, both public and private, are very well regarded. Once we get these companies’ attention, we talk about incentives.”
Some of these incentives include tax abatement. Montgomery County (where The Woodlands is located) and The Woodlands Township, as well as the cities of Oak Ridge North and Shenandoah, offer abatement of property taxes on improvements for companies that meet qualifications. The taxes can be abated for up to 10 years, depending on the number of jobs created and the amount of investment. “We have a very pro-business government at the county and community levels that support our efforts in attracting these companies,” Staley says.
These efforts have paid off handsomely for The Woodlands. The community is home to three Fortune 500 companies – Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, Huntsman Petrochemical Corporation, and engineering company CB&I. “To have that many companies headquartered in a suburban market is rather unique,” Staley says.
The Woodlands is also home to numerous regional offices. Management company Aon Hewitt has major operations in The Woodlands. Repsol is a company based in Spain, but with significant operations in Texas for oil exploration and production. Other companies with regional operations in The Woodlands include Chevron Phillips Chemical Company, Baker Hughes, Huntsman Petrochemical Corporation, Maersk Line, McKesson Specialty Health, Talisman Energy USA and Waste Connections, Inc. Exxon-Mobil, which has its headquarters in the Dallas suburb of Irving, Texas, is constructing major operations that will employ 1500 people in The Woodlands.
“The Woodlands has evolved as a regional corporate center as far as the type of jobs that it has attracted,” says Staley. “They’re well-paying jobs with well-educated employees.”
Over 5,000 of The Woodlands’ 28,000 acres is dedicated to commercial development in several distinct areas. The Woodlands Town Center, for instance, offers more than 1,500 acres of office space, retail establishments (including the 1.3 million square foot The Woodlands Mall), residential and entertainment facilities. The Research Forest features a more secluded environment separated by natural forest vegetation and ponds, providing tranquil campus-like settings for companies. The College Park area contains the campuses of Lone Star College and Sam Houston State University, shopping plazas and the Trade Center, a warehousing and distribution business park. Hughes Landing is a 66-acre mixed-use development that includes Class A office space, high density residential living, a restaurant row and gourmet grocer on a lakeside setting. And finally, the Research Forest Lakeside area is a 77-acre corporate campus that includes convenience retail overlooking Lake Woodlands.
Not only does The Woodlands EDP serve the community itself, but the nearby cities of Shenandoah and Oak Ridge North as well. Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport is located just 15 miles south of the area, making it a convenient location for business travelers. The Lone Star Executive Airport in nearby Conroe recently opened a Fixed Base Operator (FBO) terminal to accommodate business travelers to Montgomery County who fly by private aircraft. The 45,000 square foot Galaxy FBO terminal has 100,000 square feet of hangar space.
The Greater Houston area has faced criticism for unchecked development and sprawl and a haphazardly planned environment. The Woodlands is an exception to this stereotype due to the covenants and homeowners associations in the community. Each area is carefully designated for residential or retail space. This has helped attract a highly educated and high-earning demographic to the area. The median income for an area household is around $85,000 and the average home prices are among the highest in the state, around $279,764.
“Master-planned communities are primarily developed by a single developer and that keeps a unified vision for The Woodlands,” Staley explains. “Most developments are developed with different sections with different visions of what they want to accomplish. A single developer has a unified look, feel, and standards. The Woodlands has a very well-defined standard of what can be done or not to a building or home, which keeps a really uniform, pleasant look throughout the area.”
As a result, The Woodlands is one of the fastest-growing communities in Texas. From just 8,000 residents in the 1970s, the community is home to around 107,000 people today.
While The Woodlands Area EDP is not involved in retail development, Staley says that its efforts in attracting business are beneficial in attracting restaurants and retail to the area. “We’re more about job creation and capital investment; we focus on what we identify as primary job creation. Our board feels that if we bring primary jobs to the area, retail will follow and that has proven to be very correct because restaurants and shops benefit from the businesses that come here. Our daytime population doubles every day, which supports restaurants and retail.”
Additional amenities include two regional hospitals – Memorial Hermann and St. Luke’s Woodlands Hospital. Texas Children’s Hospital and Houston Methodist are also constructing facilities, scheduled for completion in 2017. Higher education opportunities are available in The Woodlands as well, as Lone Star College System has its headquarters and a campus there. Lone Star is the largest community college system in the Houston area, with 92,000 students. Other higher education opportunities include campuses of various colleges at The University Center where attendees can obtain their Bachelors and Masters without leaving The Woodlands. The University of Houston also offers an MBA program at The University Center.
From its humble beginnings in the forests north of Houston, The Woodlands has become one of the most dynamic master-planned communities in the country thanks to its appeal to residents and businesses alike. Under the leadership of The Woodlands Area Economic Development Partnership, it has become a major center of employment in the area.
“We have very good incentives for businesses to come here,” Staley says. “With tax abatements on Ad valorem taxes including county and local governments plus the help of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, we can be aggressive with enterprises looking to relocate to the Woodlands. We are a pro-growth, pro-business environment in which they can thrive and grow.”