ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT NOTEBOOK: Economic projections solid despite oil slump

By Michael Sudhalter
msudhalter@fortbendstar.com

JEFF WILEY

JEFF WILEY

Uncertainty has become a fact of life in the Greater Houston area, including Fort Bend County, with the drop in oil prices.

But not all of the news is bad, according to Jeff Wiley, Director of the Fort Bend Economic Development Council.

“I think we’ll have a strong year economically,” Wiley said. “Upstream has really been hurt with the cause of that being geopolitical in nature. Downstream is growing rapidly.”

The Fort Bend EDC was started in the wake of the 1980s Oil Bust, so that Fort Bend County wouldn’t be solely dependent on Houston’s Energy Industry.

Fort Bend, like its larger neighbor to the north has economic diversification now.

“The economy won’t get hit like we did in the 1980s,” Wiley said. “There will be job growth in 2016, but not at the levels we had in recent years.”

Office buildings in Fort Bend won’t likely be constructed unless the owners can pre-lease them.

Wiley expects sales for homes above $500,000 to slow down, but he said the slowing of the real estate market may have more to do with the recent boom in sales.

“We had five developments in the Top 20 for the past decades, but some of them have no more to sell,” Wiley said.

SCHLUMBERGER WORLD HEADQUARTERS, A WIN-WIN FOR SUGAR LAND

Schlumberger, the world’s largest oilfield services company, announced late last year that it was relocating its world headquarters from Houston to Sugar Land with a $200 million investment for new offices and a conference center on 200 acres.

Although Schlumberger has announced layoffs due to market conditions worldwide, the move is expected to bring new executive jobs to Sugar Land.

Some people in the community have criticized the fact that Sugar Land gave Schlumberger a 10-year tax abatement on its new development as an incentive to relocate.

But Sugar Land City Manager Allen Bogard said bringing in Schlumberger’s world headquarters was a major accomplishment for the city.

“Schlumberger is already Sugar Land’s highest-paying taxpayer,” Bogard said. “They will continue to be the top taxpayer in the city, and they will be paying taxes to Fort Bend ISD (on their expansion) from Day 1. There’s no tax abatement with FBISD. We didn’t abate the everything ‚Äì only the new value.”

The move will solidify Sugar Land as an economic center and possibly attract some of Schlumberger’s vendors to open offices in the city. It will also fill hotel rooms of those vendors.

“There’s no downside to it,” said Bogard, who expects that Schlumberger to be a permanent fixture in the community.

A REGIONAL LOGISTICS HUB IN FORT BEND

The Fort Bend Economic Development Council, County Commissioner Andy Meyers and other local/regional leaders are working with the private sector to develop an option that could make Rosenberg a logistics hub for the region.

If a rail line is built between Rosenberg and the Port of Freeport, it could open up the possibility for goods to be shipped through the Panama Canal, which is in the process of expanding.

“It would transform western Fort Bend County into a logistics hub and bring jobs and economic development to the Rosenberg area,” Wiley said.

LOOKING TOWARD THE FUTURE

With the Grand Parkway providing a north-south route in and out of Fort Bend County, it may be a while until a similar route is needed.

But given the growth in the Fulshear area ‚Äì west of the Grand Parkway ‚Äì the need could come sooner than many think, and it’s never too early to begin planning.

The Highway 36-A Coalition is a group of local business and political leaders who would like to build a highway between Prairie View to Freeport, with it running through far western Fort Bend County.

“When it comes to infrastructure, the longer you wait, the fewer options you have and the more expensive it gets to build roads,” Wiley said.

Wiley said most of U.S. 59 will gradually become Interstate 69 over the next few years, which means it will then take on a higher priority in the federal highway system.

The highway is also expected to have a total of 10 lines, all the way to the Wharton County line, by the end of 2018.

“We’re trying to get ahead of these things before the quality of life gets impacted,” Wiley said.

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