Fort Bend County is quickly becoming one of the economic powerhouses of the greater Houston region, a group of panelists agreed at an event hosted by the Greater Houston Partnership at the Sugar Land Mariott Hotel last week.
The Greater Houston Partnership serves as the regional chamber of commerce. Bob Harvey, the organization's soon-to-retire president and CEO, moderated the event, only the second regional program in its history. Last year, it held a similar event in Montgomery County, which with Harris and Fort Bend comprise the largest population centers in the region. During Harvey's 11-year tenure, the partnership's area expanded from 10 to 12 counties.
In his opening remarks, Harvey said the nearly 900-square-mile Fort Bend County "leads the region in affordability, quality of life, educational attainment, and population diversity." As one of the fastest-growing counties in both Texas and the nation, almost 30 percent of its population is foreign-born, he noted.
"This county's strategic location, only 15 to 20 miles southwest of downtown Houton, make it an attractive destination for business," he said. "Sugar Land in particular is emerging as a magnet for entrepreneurs and industry leaders alike."
Over the last decade has seen "an astonishing surge" in the number of businesses from 8,600 to 15,000, Harvey said, quoting data from the Fort Bend County Economic Development Council. Even Rosenberg is getting into the act with the recent expansion of the Frito-Lay facility, he said.
Harvey posed a series of questions to a panel comprised of a cross-section of leadership in the county: Missouri City Mayor Robin Elackatt, Elizabeth Huff, director of the Sugar Land Office of Economic Development, Lamar Consolidated Independent School District Superintendent Roosevelt Nivens, and Malisha Patel, senior Vice President and CEO of Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital and Memorial Hermann Sugar Land Hosptial.
Harvey asked the panelists what in particular about Fort Bend County is driving such growth.
Huff noted the county's diversity, with no single racial group comprising a majority. which she said is attractive to business leaders. "Not only are we diverse, but we are highly educated," she said, at a level that is higher than any other single area in the greater Houston region.
Elackatt answered Huff's remarks with a bit of municipal competitiveness.
"I take great pride in saying that when it comes to diversity, we're number one in the county," he said. He cited the city's schools, quality of life, and its relative closeness to Houston as other drivers that make Missouri City attractive to businesses and homebuyers alike.
Elackatt took some exception to Harvey's remarks that Missouri City had long been regarded as a "bedroom community" to Houston.
"I'm here to tell you, we're here to play," he said. He added that since he was elected in 2020, the city has instituted "a great senior leadership team" who have instituted a program of innovation throughout the city's departments. That, in turn, has helped attract new development, he said. Missouri City leadership has also been focusing on redeveloping older parts of the city, he said.
Patel noted that Memorial Hermann many years ago moved from a smaller facility in Fort Bend County to the massive campus it now occupies off the Southwest Freeway in Sugar Land. Now a 179-bed hospital, the campus has expanded its number of specialty programs to serve the needs of a fast-growing population, she said.
Nivens, of Lamar CISD, said that public education is a critical aspect of ensuring Fort Bend County's economic prosperity by helping create a fully productive citizen.
"I was that kid growing up where education saved my life," said Nivens, a native of rural Oklahoma. "I became a superintendent so I could become a micromanager on how we teach our kids."
Nivens said school districts like his have to create a support system that will help children navigate not only the challenge of passing tests, but also the societal challenges they face in becoming good citizens who will want to contribute to the community.
Nivens said that his philosophy is that all children deserve the chance to receive a quality education.
"It really gets under my skin when people talk about 'those kids.' Your ZIP code does not determine your destiny,'" he said. "I don't care where you're coming from, if your child wants to learn, you're going to learn."
Huff discussed the moves Sugar Land leadership has been making of late to expand its economic base and revitalize its building stock, as it tries to avoid the stagnation that city officials fear might be the city's future if it doesn't make those changes, even as those moves meet resistance from some of the city's longstanding residents.
"We're in this really interesting dynamic, but there's just so much opportunity," she said.
Harvey pressed Huff on the "tension" the city might have experienced with its new growth model.
"Are you talking about apartments?" Huff joked. The number of new apartments the city might allow in some areas has been a strong bone of contention in recent months.
Huff acknowledged the controversy but said that the life cycle of cities is "either you grow or you die." She noted the City Council has embraced the staff's moves toward revitalizing the city's housing stock and increasing density within the city. She said the city is working to foster conversations with residents about why its growth model is necessary for the city's future.
Touching on Huff's remarks, Ecklatt said that Missouri City is not yet at the stage of being nearly built-out that Sugar Land faces now.
"But we're going to be in the position that they are ten 10 years down the road," he said. Missouri City is watching Sugar Land to see how it can prepare for that level of growth, he said. While residents may not be enthusiastic about apartments, he said, many understand that increased population density is necessary to attract new retail establishments and therefore economic growth into the city, he said.
Ecklatt said the city has worked hard in recent years to overcome its reputation as being "tough to do business with" in terms of getting approvals and permits and the like.