Where innovation thrives
Business View interviews Howdy Lisenbee, City Manager of Commerce, Texas, for our focus on Economic Development in U.S. Cities
Located in Hunt County, Texas, the City of Commerce has a storied past. Originally known as Cow Hill, due to the herds of cattle ranging through the area, the community was incorporated in 1885 and in 1887 the St. Louis Southwestern Railroad was completed, bringing growth and prosperity. Today, Commerce is a proud community of 9,000, known for its rural charm, yet only an hour away from the big city amenities of Dallas.
City Manager, Howdy Lisenbee, recounts, “In the late 1800s, there were some very innovative and courageous families that started commercial ventures in what became Commerce. If they hadn’t had the courage to resource the agriculture that was going on, I don’t know that Commerce would be where it is today. From the very beginning, our community has been created and supported by people that weren’t afraid to be innovative, that had the courage to do hard things, and that placed a high priority on education. We still try to maintain a lot of that character to this day.”
Home to Texas A&M University-Commerce, a public research university with an enrollment of over 12,000, the population of the city swells during the school year with an additional 5000 student residents. The university plays a major role in the community, providing valuable workforce development, employment, and public amenities.
Cecilia Gassner, Texas A & M Vice President of Research & Economic Development, shares, “We are one of only a few universities in the country with a planetarium on the campus, and that is open to the public. We just recently built a new Nursing and Health Sciences building, which houses some labs for our different faculty who are doing research.” The nursing program is critical for the State of Texas, during a time when nurses are in short supply. Training is done in the new state-of-the-art building, complete with a simulation lab for hands-on experience. Currently the program receives 350 applications per year, with capacity for 70 students due to student/faculty ratio requirements. “We also just received permission from the state to spend $43 million in a tuition revenue bond on a new Agriculture Expo and center,” adds Gassner.” That is going to be a really big deal for the area. We will be able to host our rodeos there, and a variety of different agriculture competitions at the complex, as well as increase our research labs and create a real presence in Commerce and Hunt County.”
The university is a valued partner to both Commerce and Hunt County, working with companies like L3 Harris, a major defense contractor, to provide a skilled workforce. Gassner explains, “We work directly with L3 Harris to make sure we provide them with the engineering and computer science talent that they need. We also work with the different health facilities around the area to make sure they have the employees that they need.”
The university also offers programs to local businesses, with opportunities for students to step in and put their developing skills to use. “As small business owners, they don’t always have time, they are too busy trying to literally keep the lights on, keep their customers happy,” says Gassner. “We have opportunities for our students to dig in there with student projects and give the local businesses some assistance as well.” Texas A&M also partners with the local community college, Paris Junior College, creating transfer pathways that will benefit employers in the area.
With a 12.5% growth in population over the last decade, and no new developments during that time, Commerce does not currently have a robust housing inventory. Lisenbee reports that this is an obstacle the city is working to overcome, sharing that a major developer, Bloomfield Homes, is bringing a 270-home development to the community, while another 60-home subdivision, by Countryside Development, is also in the works. He acknowledges, “With the projects we have on the ground right now, we’ll be adding 320 to 330 homes in the next couple years, which will be a major benefit. I’ve got two commercial developers that build apartments that are both aggressively looking at our community, to take on apartment complexes. That will help solve some of the housing challenges in our city as it grows.”
Development is also underway in the city’s downtown, where a mixed-use strategy is already being implemented in several commercial buildings. “I’ve got a million dollar project that I’m in the middle of right now to just improve some of the public spaces that facilitate events,” says Lisenbee. “We are actively trying to renovate the infrastructure for our downtown. The business climate started growing a couple of years ago, so it’s definitely coming alive in a very real and tangible way.”
Collaborating with Streetlight Data, a data analytics company specializing in urban planning, Commerce has analyzed pedestrian and vehicle traffic within the community, which is much higher than the resident population. This information will be used to direct infrastructure investment decisions and attract commercial and residential development. Lisenbee shares, “They were able to produce some very powerful data for us, to show where the pedestrian traffic happens and where the bicycle traffic happens. So that when we invest in infrastructure, we’re not building sidewalks to nowhere. We are responding to where the people are walking, to where the bicycles are going, and putting our investment in those locations.” He adds that although the street network has been under resourced for several years, that issue is currently being improved. As the city renovates and improves streets, pedestrian and bike pathways are being updated and introduced, creating a much more active transportation system for the community.
With more residents making the move to electric vehicles, EV charging stations are also on the agenda for the city. The university is also actively planning to add EV chargers to their campus. According to Gassner, “We have submitted a grant application that would be at least a portion of the cost to install some EV chargers on campus. We know that, like in every other part of the world, EV vehicles are coming. We really want to make sure that we are prepared, and we will probably try to get at least the first chargers installed on campus within the next two years. As we start to build other facilities such as the agriculture complex, those kinds of EV chargers will be built in with the new facilities.”
Water infrastructure upgrades are another area of focus in Commerce. As Lisenbee attests, “The State of Texas is very forward thinking in how we manage our water resources. If we look at the population projections for our city and our county, in the next 20/30 years populations could double or triple as migration continues to come into Texas. We are at the front edge of planning water resources and water projects. We have access to the water to meet that population growth. We have to invest in the infrastructure to produce that water and get it ready for when the people show up. We are very actively working on water projects right now.”
On the commercial side, Commerce is home to a variety of retail establishments and restaurants. The city also has a growing manufacturing sector. Nexus 1, a subsidiary of Canadian company, Nexii, is opening a plant in Commerce, bringing with it 200 new jobs. Lisenbee recounts, “Nexii is looking to open five manufacturing facilities in the US. We are the second location. Their entire approach to construction and construction management is a green, very low carbon footprint process. It is pretty innovative, which is another reason why we like it so much.” The city has other available industrial property, much of which is accessible by railroad, an important advantage for major industrial operations.
With growth on the horizon, Lisenbee offers his thoughts on what the future looks like for Commerce, describing, “In the next three to five years, I think we are going to see a very real impact from population growth. We have to be ready, but we have to manage it in a way that it doesn’t compromise our character as a rural community. It requires infrastructure to support that population, and we are going to be ready for it. Also, the innovative use of technology is something we can’t be afraid of. We have a great partnership with the university to explore and evaluate new ways to do and solve old problems in a way that is effective for our community and the community of the future.”
With continued focus on innovation, education, and courage, the City of Commerce has much to look forward to, as they “Honor the Past, Preserve the Present, and Prepare for the Future”.
AT A GLANCE
What: A growing community of 9,000, home to Texas A&M University–Commerce
Where: Hunt County, Texas
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Texas A&M University Commerce – tamuc.edu
Partners in Progress
The partnership between Texas A&M University-Commerce and the city of Commerce was born in 1894 when the university moved to town and established a stellar reputation as a teachers’ college. Today, A&M-Commerce has grown to serve 10,966 students, provide more than 130 academic degrees, and claim its place as the third-largest university in The Texas A&M University System.
A&M-Commerce is proud to serve its hometown. Plans are underway to construct a multi-million-dollar agricultural complex at the university, which will boost the economy as a dynamic hub for ag education in East Texas.
The university also works closely with the local school system to support children’s education. Among several collaborations, the ASPIRE program provides enrichment and college readiness activities for K-16 students, and a dual-credit partnership allows local high school students to jump-start their college education at A&M-Commerce, free of charge.
As A&M-Commerce designs in-demand programs to prepare career-ready graduates, the local business sector provides volunteer, work study and internship opportunities to give graduates an edge in the job market.
A&M-Commerce looks forward to adding another productive year to its historic partnership with the city in 2022. Together, they are strengthening the community they serve.