The Tri-County Economic Development Forum: The Recap

The West Houston Association hosted a virtual Economic Development Forum on March 25, with three area experts weighing in on issues as varied as racial equity, infrastructure, and international trade.

Susan Davenport of Greater Houston Partnership moderated the 90-minute discussion with Pamela Chan of the new Harris County Office of Economic Equity and Opportunity, Jeff Wiley of the Fort Bend Economic Development Council, and Vince Yokom of the Waller County Economic Development Partnership.

Chan is the newcomer on the local economic development scene and her office opened just weeks ago. Once up and running, she will be looking at areas of economic disparity between the diverse racial and ethnic communities within Harris County and how to build more equity between and within those communities.

In Fort Bend County, Wiley said they are digging in to creating the infrastructure needed to support its rapidly growing population and business base. His focus is on major roads projects like the Grand Parkway and the 36A connector, which would not only relieve some commuters woes, it will increase the flow of goods in and out of Port Freeport.

Wiley also voiced concerns over a potential change to the structure of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) that could have a major impact on the Houston area. When it comes up for its periodic reauthorization in Washington later this year, the NFIP could include the implementation of a new “rating system” proposed by FEMA, the details of which are unknown.

Wiley worries that, if imposed, the new system could make flood insurance less affordable and force changes to flood mitigation plans going forward.

Yokom said Waller County was trying to learn from more developed countries how best to grow — and what pitfalls to avoid. Waller has decided to build its economic base around “a niche within a niche,” focusing heavily on drawing international businesses to Waller. They have been successful in attracting MAN Energy Solutions from Germany and Grundfos from Denmark, and have opened an office in Berlin to further promote the county as a US base for German manufacturing. At the same time, Yokom said, they are working to keep some of Waller’s rural character intact.

Despite the diversity of these issues — building economic equity for communities of color in Harris County, creating infrastructure through Fort Bend County, bringing global businesses to Waller County — it was clear that there was considerable overlap between them all.

“Our full economic potential does depend on making sure we have consistency of opportunity across all communities,” said Chan. Affordable housing, jobs growth and job training programs, good schools, and quality infrastructure are the basis on which equity can be built.

Wiley said Fort Bend County was going to include equity issues into their strategic plan. “We’re about building a world-class community that is rich in diversity, family-focused, with quality communities to live in,” he said.

All three guests said they felt prepared for the post-pandemic world, with both Wiley and Yokom pointing to encouraging signs of economic growth since the start of the year that could help mitigate the job and business losses of 2020.

“I feel optimistic with the future,” Davenport said at the end of the session. “We know we’ve got work to do, but we’re looking forward to some great outcomes.”