Economic Vitality in Rural Texas

LonghornThis blog is primarily about the benefits of doing business in Texas, but from time to time I like to share information about what I do in the communities where I work. This is one of those times. 

Yesterday I was fortunate to co-host a meeting with the Center for Rural Studies at Sam Houston State University (SHSU) in Huntsville, TX, where we talked about the concept of regional economic development. Regionalism is not a new phenomenon in economic development, but in the past few years it’s become more popular as a way of pooling resources and promoting an entire area, rather than just a single community. This meeting was targeting stakeholders in the Central East Texas Region, loosely composed of the counties along the I-45 corridor north of Houston: Montgomery, Walker, Madison, San Jacinto, Houston, Trinity, Grimes, Polk, Liberty and Leon. It was a good meeting and a good discussion, and a great example of the need and the benefit of regional organizations.

This particular region is ripe for growth in the near future, thanks to new developments in The Woodlands just south of here, and also the Eagleford Shale Play in South Texas that is spurring economic development throughout the region. Since moving to Huntsville from La Porte, I have noticed that there is no support on a regional level in this area for the economic development work that is going on at the local level in individual communities. I have been impressed with the need for some sort of regional support, similar to what I enjoyed when I worked in the Houston Bay Area, and I thought this discussion might be a good place to start. The Center for Rural Studies does a great job of providing forums for exactly this kind of discussion. They were wonderful hosts and they attracted the stakeholders who would most benefit from this discussion.

The meeting attracted several representatives from State and Federal government offices, as well as elected officials, economic developers, and active community participants from various institutions and communities in the region. Representation included the City of Navasota in Grimes County, the City of Coldspring in San Jacinto County, the City of Huntsville in Walker County (the location of SHSU), the City of Conroe in Montgomery County, the City of Madisonville in Madison County, the City of Crockett in Houston County, and the City of Livingston in Polk County.

Our guest speaker for the event was David Terrell, who I mentioned in my highlights from  the TEDC meeting this past February. David, who until recently worked with the Office of  Lt. Governor Sue Ellspermann in Indiana, was recently appointed to the position of Director, Economic Development Policy at Ball State University. Mr. Terrell served on a panel in the morning session along with Bob Mitchell, President of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership and Chad Burke, President of  the Economic Alliance, Houston Port Region, two organizations that made my life a lot easier when I was Economic Developer for the City of La Porte.

The Panel Discussion was a great overview of how regionalism works, why it is necessary, how it helps the individual communities within a region, and why developers and site selectors welcome the regional approach. I moderated the discussion, and our panelists did a beautiful job of addressing the various issues that often arise when discussion a regional approach to economic vitality as a opposed to a solitary community approach. (NOTE: I used the word “vitality” in a nod to Roy Spence from GSD&M in Austin, a keynote speaker from that same TEDC conference). Some of the questions we covered were as follows:

How do these projects with a regional focus help stimulate economic growth on an individual level for the communities involved? Conversely, how does community development on an individual level affect economic development for a region?

There are some communities that are satisfied with where they are economically, and some people say that they don’t want any more growth. What is your advice for those communities?

You work with developers and site selectors quite often. What do they think about regional organizations (vs. individual communities)?

A question many community stakeholders ask when faced with the option of joining a regional organization is: Why do I even need these other communities? We have enough incentives by ourselves and we don’t want to be dragged down by these other smaller communities that don’t offer what we do. Can you address that?

All of the panelists were superb, and they drove home a solid message that regionalism  (a) is beneficial for all communities involved, (b) solves problems that don’t get solved otherwise, and (c) is an approach that has proven to be effective in other areas. The question and answer session immediately following the panel discussion was lively and thoughtful, and it seemed that the communities involved were interested in continuing the discussion about how to work together and possibly form a regional organization of some kind in this area.

The afternoon session was David Terrell’s overview of the community development programs in Indiana that he discussed at the TEDC meeting. I believe it was beneficial for this particular group of stakeholders to learn about how the economic development game is played in other states, and also to see the similarities between the rural communities there and the rural communities here in Texas.

All in all I thought it was a great discussion, and one that will hopefully lead to more discussions in the future. We’ll keep you posted.

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