The dividends of prosperity
Business View Magazine interviews Rick Davis, City Manager of Baytown, Texas, as part of our focus on best practices of American cities.
Baytown, Texas is a city within Harris County, and partially in Chambers County, in the Gulf Coast region of the Lonestar State. Located within the Houston–Sugar Land–Baytown metropolitan area, the city lies along both State Highway 146 and U.S. Interstate 10. The area which became Baytown began to be settled as early as 1822, but its real nature was formed in the early 1900s, when Texas started becoming awash in oil. In 1916, the Humble Oil and Refining Company, founded by one-time Texas governor, Ross S. Sterling and his associates, built the first offshore drilling operation in Texas, and the second in the United States, in the nearby Goose Creek Oil Field.
Today, the foremost driver of Baytown’s economy is the downstream portion of the oil and gas sector. Whereas the upstream sector focuses on the production of those two fossil fuels, downstream takes what is produced and manufactures plastics and other chemicals from the raw materials. Three main corporate anchors of Baytown are ExxonMobil, Chevron Phillips Chemical, and Covestro LLC. The ExxonMobil Baytown Complex, founded in 1919, is one of the world’s largest industrial complexes, and the Baytown Refinery located there is the largest in the United States. The Covestro manufacturing site is their largest in North and Central America, producing a variety of high-tech polymer materials, and the Cedar Bayou plant, in operation since 1963, is Chevron Phillips Chemical’s largest manufacturing site in the U.S.
Over the last several years, the availability of relatively cheap and plentiful natural gas has allowed several of those major manufacturing facilities to undergo multi-billion dollar expansions. “In the last five years, we’ve had more than $20 billion of industrial and corporate expansions and looking into the future, we have another $45-50 billion coming,” reports City Manger, Rick Davis. “That is a tremendous amount. The Houston area produces six to eight percent of the nation’s GDP, and it’s second in the world in GDP per capita. When you have that kind of thing happening in Baytown, the citizens need to reap some benefits from all of that, too.”
All of that growth prompted city officials to create a community-based strategic plan to find out what the citizens of Baytown wanted to accomplish with the additional tax revenue generated by the corporate expansions. So, it put together a program called “Imagine Baytown” and got input from over 4,000 of the city’s 77,000 residents who came out to community meetings or took online surveys. The results informed a five-year strategic plan that guided a lot of the city’s revitalization and infrastructure upgrade efforts.
One such effort was the San Jacinto Boulevard Project, whose aim was to create a parallel road to the west of Garth Road, Baytown’s major commercial corridor, which had become extremely congested. “Phase One has been completed and inaugurated, and it turned out beautifully,” Davis reports. “It is complete with a traffic circle at the intersection of Hunt Road and San Jacinto Blvd. So, there is, now, connectivity of a new, four-lane boulevard all the way from I-10 to just south of Santavy Blvd. At the traffic circle, we also inaugurated a huge statue of Sam Houston on horseback pointing toward the San Jacinto Monument, which is the marker of the last battle for Texas independence. We had a grand affair, including celebrating the artist who is famous for his sculptures in Texas. His name is David Adickes; he’s about 92 years old and this is one of his last works.”
“Phase Two is currently under construction, which will create the final link just south of Santavy, where Phase One leaves off, all the way to Bush Road,” Davis continues. “That will complete this very critical north/south link for us. At the same time, where that traffic circle intersects with Hunt Road, we are expanding Hunt Road to a four-lane boulevard, all the way from John Martin Blvd. to the west, and east to North Main Street. That will create a critical new arterial for us that is an east/west alternative. All that should be inaugurated by late summer or early fall, and then, we’ll be done with the project.”
In addition, the city is currently working with the Texas Department of Transportation (TEXDOT) to reverse two ramps off of I-10. “What was an on ramp will become an off ramp; what was an off ramp will become an on ramp,” Davis explains. “So, we’re just switching them on both sides of Garth Blvd. What this $5.5 million project, partially funded by the Department of Transportation, will do is orient I-10 traffic that wants to go to Baytown, to the new San Jacinto Blvd. So, they’ll get off right at San Jacinto Blvd.”
According to Davis, the purpose behind the ramp switch is to direct traffic to the repurposed San Jacinto Mall, which is currently being demolished. “They’re doing some interior demolition and some remediation of some materials inside the mall that you don’t want airborne,” Davis says. “That will take about eight weeks. Then the walls will come tumbling down on the old mall. That demolition will last all the way until October and then, after October, they will begin construction of the first phase of new retail. At this point, we have a retail development of about 1.2 million square feet, with about 80,000 square feet of Class-A office, and a green space area the size of two football fields where festivals and concerts can be held. It will be the home of 20 new restaurants and an entertainment component of some type that is yet to be announced. It’s going to be developed in three phases and that’s expected to be completed in its entirety by Christmas of 2022. So, the mall is going forward, and we’re getting a clearer picture of the future of some of the retailers.” Davis adds that the total expense for the Mall project is expected to be $100,000,000, with a $70,000,000 commitment from the city, the Texas Department of Transportation, Harris County, the developer, other property owners, and the Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone Authority for contiguous transportation improvements, including the reorientation of traffic off of I-10.
Another project is the construction of a $56 million hotel/conference center at the base of the Fred Hartman Bridge, which links Baytown to the City of La Porte, across the Houston Ship Channel. “Our hotel/conference center is moving along nicely in that the design is more than 50 percent complete,” Davis recounts. “The final financing plan will be executed in May, and we hope, by June or July, to be breaking ground for an 18-month construction. We have Marriott’s Sheraton brand as our flagship hotel – a 208-key hotel with 22,000 square feet of meeting area in the conference center. We’re just finalizing some of the largest agreements, including the operator’s agreement, the owner’s agreement, and the franchise agreement. Interstate is the company that is going to service the hotel; they’re also the operators of the conference center. They have a lot of experience doing these things, and they’ve worked with Marriott, quite a bit. Citygroup is our financial partner; Marriott is our hospitality partner; and Garfield is our development partner. This is a true public/private partnership. We’ve had three feasibility studies on the conference center and hotel, and all three of them show this project as very viable. That’s what is drawing all the players to the table, and what a game changer it is for us.”
An example of revitalization in the city’s older, southern section is Baytown’s Arts, Culture, and Entertainment (ACE) District, where the city has already invested $3.5 million in a Main Street project, building a town square in the old community of Goose Creek, one of the city’s original neighborhoods. It is also in the final stages of reconstructing the Brunson Theater, a defunct, 1949 movie house, that will become the new Baytown Welcome Center, hosting the city’s Tourism Department, as well as a business incubator.
“The incubator program that we’re going to be kicking off will allow professionals looking to build a clientele to have some office space and business address here in Baytown,” Davis avers. The refurbished theater will feature a conference room with glass windows on each end, solar tubes to provide natural light inside, cubicles with screens that can move in different ways, and an exit out the back that goes through an open air courtyard space. “We have an old bank right next door to that movie theater that we’re also planning to renovate, as well,” Davis adds. “And we’re investigating the feasibility of beginning a restaurant incubator right next to the Brunson Theater.”
Several new housing projects are also gearing up in Baytown. “Trinity Oaks has broken ground,” says Davis. “They’re starting to go vertical on some of their houses. I think it’s going to be a very beautiful development. In the meantime, Friendswood Development Company, on the north side of town has initiated construction on a 1,500 unit, 500-acre, master-planned community. So, Trinity Oaks is on the south and Friendswood, like a bookend, is on the north. This development will have trails and clubhouses and water features and unique signage. It will be a truly exceptional environment. We’ve also been approached by two other planned-unit developments on the Chambers County side of our city that want to go in on the Grand Parkway, which is a massive loop freeway project that TEXDOT is pursuing. Grand Parkway in Baytown, by the way, will be complete within the next year and a half. We’re kind of at the end of the Grand Parkway; it actually comes together not very far from the new conference center/hotel and the Fred Hartman Bridge.”
Davis also has a wish list for some future projects. One is a new Nature Center, for which the city has applied for some penalty funds from BP as a result of the 2010, Deep Horizon oil spill. “We’ll find out if we get that money,” Davis remarks. “But whether we do it through that grant or some other way, we’re very committed to begin that project within the next five years. More immediately, we are going to pursue a new Public Safety building for our Police and Fire Departments. We have the best Fire and Police Departments in the nation. And we put a lot of resources into public safety in Baytown; that is job one, every day. So, this is a $65 million building that will be located just east of the existing facility. Finally, we have concluded a feasibility study, using a lot of public input, into a new Baytown Recreation Center. And I hope, if it isn’t this year, then next year, it will be in design. All three of these are ambitions right now, but that’s how they always start. These facilities are dividends to our citizens from the prosperity that our city has enjoyed.”
“In addition, we have a huge, 100-acre park on the north side of town called Russell Park, and I’d like to begin the development of that,” Davis adds. “We’re probably going to be looking to the county as a partner in developing that park, because it really is a regional park. It will host athletic fields and probably an indoor athletic facility, pavilions, and even an equestrian trail will be out there. If I’m able to see even Phase One of Russell Park, and get these other three buildings built in the remaining portion of my career here in Baytown, I’ll feel very satisfied.”
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AT A GLANCE
WHO: Baytown, Texas
WHAT: A city of 85,000
WHERE: The Gulf Coast region, 26 miles east of Houston
Houston Methodist Baytown Hospital – www.houstonmethodist.org/baytown
Houston Methodist Baytown has provided Houston with quality medical care since 1948. The hospital has grown with the community, providing comprehensive care for everyone. As a health care leader, the hospital has an integrated residency program focused on educating future practitioners. Houston Methodist Baytown provides the most advanced procedures while never losing focus on compassionate and patient-centered care.