Business View Magazine interviews representatives from 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 of approximately 85,000 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 it’s 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 material. 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; 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 United States.
According to Mayor Stephen DonCarlos, the availability of relatively cheap natural gas over the last several years has allowed several of those major manufacturing facilities to undergo multi-billion dollar expansions. “The petrochemical complexes are taking advantage of cheap natural gas prices to expand their plastics-making facilities,” he reports. “It’s led to over 20,000 construction jobs over the last three years, and, based on the companies’ estimates, somewhere around five to ten thousand permanent jobs in our city. And that has led to substantial growth in our logistics area. We’ve had an influx of companies building millions of square feet of warehousing to both package and ship containers full of these plastic pellets that are being manufactured. They’re being sent out by rail and through the Port of Houston – some, overseas, and some to manufacturing facilities here in the United States, to turn into all sorts of plastic products.”
According to Nick Woolery, Baytown’s Director of Strategy & Innovation, the city administrators were careful in deciding how to best invest the accumulating tax revenue as a result of the construction boom. “When we saw all this growth happening, we knew there was going to be some pretty significant opportunities for us to make improvements in the community,” he recounts. “So we endeavored to do our first, real, true community-based strategic plan. Instead of just getting all this new revenue in and sitting in a room with City Council and staff and deciding where to spend the money, we went out and engaged the community to find out what they wanted to see. We did a program called Imagine Baytown. We had over 4,000 residents that came out to community meetings, or took online surveys, and it turned into a great five-year strategic plan for us. And that’s guided a lot of our efforts.”
DonCarlos talks about some of the city’s recent infrastructure projects that are part of the strategic plan: “We have a major commercial corridor in Baytown called Garth Road, and it’s been the hub of our commercial activity for many years,” he begins. “It is, right now, a five-lane thoroughfare and it has around a six to eight mile length in which most of the city’s commercial and retail areas are located. The problem that we have faced is that it’s extremely congested. So, what we are constructing is a parallel boulevard, named San Jacinto Boulevard, to the west of Garth Road that will tie in the western portion of our city to the shopping area. We’re connecting Garth Road to San Jacinto Boulevard with several other new boulevards that will intersect them all the way from North Main Street, which parallels Garth Road to the east and John Martin Road, which parallels Garth Road, far to the west. So, we’re creating, basically, a grid of boulevards to move people in and out of our high traffic, retail areas in order to relieve the congestion. The first phase of the San Jacinto project is nearly complete and the second phase will be complete sometime next year.”
Another project is the San Jacinto Mall. “We have an old mall, San Jacinto Mall, which has been in existence since 1981,” DonCarlos continues. “It’s one of those malls that went through an unfortunate series of owners, never had any upgrades, and was, frankly, a failing mall. We managed to get the mall sold from its then current owner to Fidelis Realty out of Houston, which is a redevelopment company. They have worked up a master plan to completely change our mall from an indoor mall to an outdoor shopping area with plazas, fountains, green spaces, and a lot of amenities for our citizens. It’s a beautiful design. We’re finalizing negotiations with the major anchors to have them sign on and approve the redevelopment project, and we hope that that is going to start about mid-year.”
City Manager, Rick 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 Interstate 10, to make sure that most of it comes to the new San Jacinto Boulevard.
“It’s a very exciting project,” says Davis. “An interesting part of it is that, at the intersection of Hunt Road and the new San Jacinto Boulevard, we are placing a large roundabout with a sixteen-foot statue of Sam Houston, pointing toward the San Jacinto Monument. That was the decisive battle for Texas independence. So, we’re proud to highlight that. We also will have very unique landscaping along San Jacinto that will make it a showpiece for the city.”
Another major project is the planned 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. “This will be a 208-key, hotel with a full-service conference center,” Davis reveals. “We think it’s a game changer for our community and it’s also a very important investment in the south end of our city, which is where we have targeted revitalization. Our frontier is to our north, our older section of town is to the south, and so it would be quite easy for us just to continue to build new stuff to the north – that’s where the mall is and some new residential development. But we felt that it was very important to revitalize the southern part of our city. The hotel/conference center is integral to accomplishing that. We believe that it will be in construction this summer and that it will be completed by December of 2019.”
Another example of revitalization in the city’s older, southern part 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. “Baytown is the product of three communities coming together – Goose Creek, Pelly, and Baytown,” says Davis. “So we have, from way back in the day, certain Main Street corridors that have not been invested in to the degree that probably they should have been. They represent not only opportunity to us, but also our past and our heritage. And our citizens, through our strategic planning efforts, have identified the preservation of our historic areas as being one of the top priorities for them.
“So, we’ve not only built this town square, but we’re also in the process of renovating a 1949 movie theater that had become abandoned and turning that into a visitors center on Texas Avenue – that’s the heart of the Arts, Culture, and Entertainment area.” The redeveloped Brunson Theater will serve as the city’s tourist center, as well as a business incubator, “for entrepreneurs who want to start a business and domicile themselves here in Baytown,” says Davis. “That project is already underway and we expect to cut the ribbon on that in December of this year. And we continue to target other areas in our ACE District for renovation.”
DonCarlos mentions that the investments in the town square, which hosts concerts, food trucks, and even ice skating in the winter, and Texas Avenue, have spawned the founding of a few small craft beer establishments and restaurants, nearby. “The old movie theater that we’re refurbishing is the next block down from the town square and we think that it will spur more development down there, too” he adds. “We have noticed some local businesses have moved their operations down Texas Avenue, which gives it more daytime traffic.”
Other downtown developments include more residential housing. “The city has given some incentives to a developer,” says DonCarlos. “He had already refurbished an old car dealership and put in eight or ten apartments that cater to students going to Lee College, which is our local college, less than a quarter mile from the Texas Avenue area. And the same developer is putting in another housing development that will have 34 units. He’s taken an old, two-story furniture store and he has gutted it and is turning it into apartments. There’s an old hotel down in this area that a couple is gutting and refurbishing to turn into apartments on the top with retail on the bottom. So, we’re starting to see some of that growth. Our thought is, the more people that we get down there, the more Millennials, and young engineers, and young school teachers, and such, the more it will spawn additional retail in that area.”
Finally, the city recently acquired a property that used to be part of the old Evergreen Golf Course. “We were able to purchase the old club house, the driving range, the putting green, and about 117 acres of open space,” says Davis. “We’re operating that park, right now, and renovating the club house that’s on the southern part of the course to the tune of about a million dollars. We have an urban fishery, there; we have a disc golf course; we still have some of our previous golf amenities; and our clubhouse will serve as a public reception center for our citizens and our service clubs. The northern part is going to host a new, planned development called Trinity Oaks. That’s going to be an exceptional residential development for us with trail connectivity and other amenities that blend in to what we have been able to sustain and build on the southern part of the course.”
Speaking of sustainability, Davis states that Baytown is the only community in the area that has both a nature center and a wetlands center, making it a hub for environmental education in the region: “We took an old subdivision that had been wiped out by a hurricane and we turned it into a nature center; we turned another old building – an old bowling alley on Market Street, close to where City Hall is located – into a wetlands education center. We are the beneficiaries of the generosity of some of our corporate partners, allowing us to present educational programs, year round.” In addition, the city is currently applying for an $11-million grant, part of the BP Deep Horizon Oil Spill settlement monies, to combine the nature and wetlands centers into a new, state-of-the-art, 27,000-square-foot facility that will offer a wide range of educational and environmental programs along with new recreational and eco-tourism opportunities.
Baytown’s residents also take sustainability to heart, keeping pace with the city’s commitment to maintain its growing reputation as a leader in environmental education. “We have a program where volunteers can help us remediate trash,” Davis says. “Last year, we had 23,000-plus volunteer hours spent in cleaning up the community. We collected over 8,100 bags of refuse; we also got rid of 90 junk cars and 2,668 tires. And we cleaned over 1,054 of our streets.”
When asked to encapsulate Baytown’s virtues, Mayor DonCarlos touts the city’s solid and growing economy as a reason to look to the future with great optimism. “The fact is that, even in an international downturn, our major employers did not have any layoffs,” he states. “It’s a very stable economy in the worst of times and a really dynamic, growing economy in the best of times, like now. “
“We are a vibrant example of how industry and a high quality of life can co-exist,” Davis adds in summation. “We are host to some of the largest petrochemical plants in the world, but we also enjoy an exceptional high quality of life – something that people don’t automatically marry together.”
AT A GLANCE
WHO: Baytown, Texas
WHAT: A city of 85,000
WHERE: The Gulf Coast region, 26 miles east of Houston
Houston Methodist San Jacinto Hospital – A full-service, acute care hospital serving communities in Harris, Chambers, Liberty, and Montgomery counties. Since opening its doors in 1948, Houston Methodist San Jacinto has provided high-quality, compassionate, medical care and services, including cancer care, heart and vascular, neurosciences, gastroenterology, orthopedics & sports medicine, surgery services and women’s health. – www.houstonmethodist.org/locations/san-jacinto-baytown