Rising from the Devastation of Hurricane Harvey

City of Wharton, TX
Written by Nate Hendley

Wharton, Texas, a small city in Wharton County, is thriving again following the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. This recovery is a testament to the resilience of residents and retailers alike, determined not to let a natural disaster diminish their community spirit.
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Wharton features a “slightly slower pace of life,” but a tremendous potential for business and residential development, says Chad Odom, executive director of the Wharton Economic Development Corporation (WEDC).

The city’s advantages to companies include a highly strategic location and business-friendly local government. For families, it offers sunshine, a friendly atmosphere, clean air, a low-cost of living, and plenty of community events.

“The labor market for Houston is available to your business. The cost of land is low; we’re an attainment area for air quality, and we have a junior college campus that has more than 5,000 students,” states Odom, who adds that customized workforce development training is available for interested companies.

Roughly 9,048 people call the City of Wharton home, according to a report released last year by research firm the Retail Coach. The document pegs the average age of residents at 38.7 years and the average 2017 household income at $46,781. Some 32.69 percent of the workforce is classified as blue collar, 39.97 percent is white collar, and 27.34 percent are in service or farm jobs.

The city is situated fifty-six miles from Houston, 142 miles from Austin and 173 miles from San Antonio. The city is near I-69, which is part of the NAFTA Superhighway system that connects the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. Other highways include Interstate-10, U.S. 59, Texas State Highway 60, Farm to Market Road 102 (FM 102), and FM 1301. It also has access to several ports and Wharton Regional Airport, which offers an asphalt runway capable of handling business jets.

The Wharton Independent School District (ISD), Nan Ya Plastics, Wharton County Junior College, Wharton County Foods, and Walmart are the largest employers in the city according to a community profile released by the WEDC. JM Eagle, the biggest plastic pipe manufacturer in the world, maintains a manufacturing facility here.

Agriculture is also a mainstay of the local economy, and the area is well-known for its cotton, rice, and cattle operations.

While Wharton retains a small-town ambiance, nearby Houston has 2.3 million people and is the largest city in the state, so local companies can tap into Houston’s enormous labor pool and markets.

The city government offers expedited plan reviewing and permitting and works with companies to take advantage of state and federal incentives such as tax credits for creating jobs.

Officials also aim to secure government resources to reduce infrastructure costs for companies. “That’s where we like to focus our incentives – bring in water, sewer, roads, even help with some of the electrical. We go after state and federal grants,” explains Odom.

Then, there is the issue of land. The city has lots of it, all ripe for development. The Wharton Megasite, for example, features 1,700 acres of space for companies plus easy access to U.S. 59, less than 65 miles away from downtown Houston. A second location, called the Hungerford Industrial Site, is north of the Megasite and offers 878 acres with access to U.S. 59 and I-69.

On top of this, there are “about 1,000 acres in-between the industrial sites, available for commercial and residential development,” says Odom.

Businesses can also benefit from abundant electricity. Exelon Generation’s Colorado River power plant, which serves the region, recently saw a $700 million upgrade. Thanks to this upgrade, the power plant has been able to add an additional 1,000 megawatts of clean, cheap power to the area’s electrical grid.

This is an educated community. Wharton County Junior College has been ranked number one in the state by the Bestcolleges.com website. There are also over a dozen other major colleges and universities close to the city, including Rice, Baylor, and Texas Southern University.

A well-trained workforce is another lure for companies. Several customized workforce development programs are available, some of them offered in tandem with the local junior college and backed with government grant money.

As for the type of companies the city would like to attract, Odom says, “We’re targeting logistics and any manufacturing.”

The area has a long history. In pre-European times, it was a popular location for native Indian communities which were attracted by the area’s waterways, plentiful game, and beautiful landscapes. It was named Wharton after a pair of brothers who took part in the Texas fight for independence in the nineteenth century. Over the decades, it thrived as a railway and agricultural hub with a wide variety of settlers.

Its population was recorded in the U.S. Census at 1,505 in 1910, rising to 2,346 in 1920. By 1980, over 9,000 people called the city home, rising to 9,237 in 2000. Some of the city’s earlier architecture has been preserved, in the form of the Wharton County Courthouse and other historic buildings.

Hurricane Harvey, which ravaged Texas last summer, was one of the destructive natural disasters ever to hit Wharton. “We were severely affected. We had over 1,100 homes flooded. That’s in a city of [9,000 people]. So you can do the math. It’s about a third of our housing stock that took on water,” states Odom. Similarly, the hurricane brutalized many local businesses, destroying property and inventory.

Wharton residents and business owners alike are resilient, however, says Odom, and they have faced up to the storm damage with a combination of grit and long-range planning. The city might become the beneficiary of a federal hazard mitigation program that would see berms and levees built to protect flood-prone areas. There are other plans to build parks and recreation facilities “on top of and adjacent to the flood protection infrastructure,” says Odom.

Another initiative might see the demolition of flooded-out structures and new construction efforts aimed at producing more storm-resistant buildings and homes. There was also a partnership established with a community bank to offer zero percent loans to local business owners to rebuild and restock.

“Most [local businesses] got back up and running. Some scaled back. Some retailers lost inventory. Then, you’ve got people who expanded, who were younger. They took a look at their books, took a look at what they were trying to do with their business and saw an opportunity to get some resources to their business,” he adds.

This sense of community pride is only one of several reasons families have been attracted to the city. Consistently warm weather is another motivation to move here. The average annual temperature in town is 69 degrees Fahrenheit, with an average high of 45 degrees in January and 93 degrees in July, according to the WEDC community profile. Snowfall is nearly non-existent.

In addition to boasting an average of three hundred days of sunshine a year, Wharton offers families quaint neighborhoods and a small-town vibe. “Everybody’s friendly. You don’t always get that experience in other places these days. We’ve got walkable, manageable street patterns for walking, biking, and driving.”

As Odom mentioned, Wharton is an attainment area, meaning its air quality is cleaner than the standard, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The city has several parks and recreational facilities, is a popular destination for bird-watchers, and is an inexpensive place to live. Housing costs are less than half of what they are in Houston, as the median value of a home in 2017 was $93,881, states the Retail Coach report.

Wharton features plenty of community events as well. “We have an annual Christmas parade. It attracts a crowd in our beautiful downtown square. We have a wine fair that happens every year in fall. We bring in Texas wineries and other wineries to come in and set up,” states Odom. The Plaza Theatre, meanwhile, puts on five productions annually. “It’s impressive. They’re good,” says Odom, of the performers.

Other downtown attractions include a farm to table restaurant, an excellent Mexican restaurant, and a coffee shop that features live music from both local and out of town musicians.

The Retail Coach profile predicted that Wharton’s population will rise to 9,248 people in 2022, but Odom believes the city could go beyond that. “I think we could triple in size. If we develop right, it’ll still have the same feel and same quality that make it an attractive place at 9,000 people. I can easily see three to five times as many people sharing the same space with me, and it wouldn’t be crowded,” he states.

“Five years from now, I’d like to see us having new industries attracted to town, with thousands of new jobs to offer to thousands of new people,” Odom continues. “[We want to give them] an opportunity to work, live and play, and enjoy the quality of life of a small town that’s growing,” he says.

“We’re a unique community within the Houston Metro corridor. We want people to come, take a look at the opportunities for businesses, residents, retailers. If they call us, I’m happy to give them an overview and a tour and see where they fit in.”

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