In the 1970s, Houston was the undisputed oil capital of the world and with that went “attitude.” Bob Harvey, president of the Greater Houston Partnership, is keen to separate the new Houston — the one that he’s working to improve – from the old Houston, all the while recognizing that oil built the city and the fracking revolution gave it a great boost.
Harvey is a dynamic Houstonian and a 17-year veteran of McKinsey & Company, the global management consulting firm. The Greater Houston Partnership is a 1989 amalgam of what was once the Houston Chamber of Commerce (founded in 1840), the Houston Economic Development Council, and the Houston World Trade Association.
Once, Houstonians were people who regarded themselves as tough, raw-boned go-getters, Harvey says. What they had gone and got for decades with great success was oil and gas.
Fracking was so successful and important to Houston, Harvey says, that it distracted the city, causing it to miss out on the digital revolution that was affecting other cities like Austin and Dallas in Texas and Boston, Washington, and San Francisco.
Spur To Change
When Amazon began searching for a new headquarters in 2016, Houston, the fourth-largest city in the United States, wasn’t even on the list. Says Harvey, “That was the turning point.”
Now Houston is looking to be as successful as Austin and Dallas in attracting the information technology industry and knowledge workers. No more oil myopia.
Digital innovation is a Houston priority. In fact, innovation of all kinds is what the city wants to be known for going forward.
While oil is still king in Houston, it is a monarchy that is becoming constitutional, no longer absolute. The city’s new rule is innovation concomitant with cleaner energy.
Neither Harvey nor Bobby Tudor, the energy financier and philanthropist who chairs the Greater Houston Partnership, shy away from mentioning clean energy or climate change. They want Houston to be a global innovator there. “We can put our scientific, academic, and commercial brains to work to address these problems,” Tudor says.
Through its dominance in oil and gas, Houston reaches into every nook of the global economy. “It is big. It is complicated. It sits at the intersection of science and technology, economics and geopolitics,” Tudor says.
And it is changing: Its economic base, demographics, and attitudes are changing. While oil and money were the prizes Houstonians eyed, they now value things like parks, walkability, and livability.
Harvey says Houston is becoming more user friendly with improved public transportation, including bus rapid transit and expanded light rail. It has developed 380 parks and 500 miles of bike paths. In fact, it leads the nation in city green space.
Life Sciences Behemoth
Deservedly, Houston is proud of its medicine and its universities and these will be showcased in future. The Texas Medical Center, with 106,000 employees, 61 institutions, thousands of volunteers and over 160,000 patient visits a day, is the largest life sciences destination in the world. Houston can boast that it is “where the world comes for treatment.”
With the formation of TMC Innovation several years ago, and building on over $1 billion per year in sponsored research across member institutions, the Texas Medical Center is positioning itself as a leader of life science commercialization.
Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research gives this snapshot of Houston today, and how attitudes are changing. Stephen L. Klineberg, the institute’s founding director, says the two biggest attitudinal changes in his 38 years of studying Houston’s economic outlooks, demographic patterns, experiences and beliefs of locals are “residents’ increasingly positive attitudes toward diversity and immigration and support for gay rights.”
In his studies, Klineberg found there has been a dramatic rise in the number of Houston’s Anglos who are in favor of granting illegal immigrants a path to U.S. citizenship if they speak English and have no criminal record, from 55 percent in 2010 to 71 percent last year. He also found the number of the city’s Anglos who see gay marriage morally acceptable climbed from 21 percent in 1997 to 58 percent last year.
Mayor Sylvester Turner, while acknowledging that Houston has been hit hard by Covid-19, has a cheery view of the city’s future and its ability to reposition itself.
Turner, an African American, points out that Houston wasn’t wracked by violent demonstrations after the death of George Floyd. He says, “Houston is a city that continues to transform, to innovate, and to be an example to the rest of the country on how to be diverse, welcoming and inclusive.”
Innovation and inclusion is the new Houston narrative its city fathers want to promote.