(Editor’s note: This is the third installment of a three-part story about the history of Sugar Land. The first part looked at early settlement to the rise of the company town in 1907. Part two covered the company town years from 1907 to 1959. This third part looks at the city from incorporation to current times. This is part of a series appearing quarterly in the Fort Bend Star called Those Were the Days. The series runs in each month with a fifth Wednesday.)
The old company town was no more.
In its place was the incorporated City of Sugar Land. The switch was made in 1959 and T.E. Harman was elected the first mayor. Although Sugar Land can trace its roots to the first plantations built here as far back as 1828, incorporation didn’t happen until late in 1959. Like any new municipality, the city had its share of growing pains over the last 59 years.
According to the book “Images of America: Sugar Land,” the first election for mayor and city aldermen was held Dec. 15, 1959, with the new leaders sworn in on Dec. 29. The first city council meeting took place Jan. 19, 1960. At the time, Sugar Land was four square miles with a population of 2,500.
“The brand new city had no staff, no equipment, no permanent home, and no money,” the book says.
Joining Mayor Harmon were aldermen Melvin Pomikal, Bill Little, Minnie Ulrich, Jess Pirtle and C.E. McFadden.
Imperial Sugar – which started the city on the path to incorporation – continued to aid in the transition and provided an old shoe store on Kempner Street to serve as a city hall.
In his book “Sugar Land, Texas and the Imperial Sugar Company” author R.M. Armstrong details the line of succession of the Kempner family in its control of Imperial Sugar and Sugarland Industries. Along the way Armstrong describes the family’s commitment to helping Sugar Land grow as a quality community.
“When, in the late1960s, the Southwest Freeway reached toward the center of the Sugarland Industries farm lands and across the edge of Sugar Land itself, the process accelerated. The Kempners, led by Harris and Denny, anticipating even more explosive activity from the growing Houston economy, made plans to control the quality for the impending growth in residential and commercial development of the Sugarland Industries remaining 8,700 acres of farm lands,” he wrote.
Impressed by Jake Kamin’s development of Nassau Bay to serve the new NASA space center, they struck a deal with him to help develop 1,200 acres of land into Sugar Creek, including a 27-hole golf course.
With Sugar Creek becoming wildly successful and the rest of Sugar Land slowly upgrading housing and businesses, the last vestiges of the company town gave way to master planned communities and rapid growth.
“In early 1972 the Kempners made the decision to enter into a program of complete and final liquidation of the Sugarland Industries within 12 months,” Armstrong wrote.
The family put the remaining 7,500 acres up for bids and sold to Gerald Hines Interests. The $43 million sale was at the time the largest land sale in state history.
Hines overcame obstacles of flood control and drainage and eventually built the Sweetwater Country Club (then home to the Ladies Professional Golf Association) and in 1978 began First Colony and its various subdivisions.
The growth of the city meant changes in city government. According to the City of Sugar Land’s website, “Sugar Land was incorporated in 1959 as a ‘General Law’ city and remained such from 1959 until Jan. 17, 1981, at which time a special city election was held for the purpose of establishing a home rule municipal government. Voters approved the adoption of a home rule charter in accordance with the constitution and statutes of the state of Texas. The type of municipal government provided by this charter was known as ‘mayor-council government,’ and all powers of the city were invested in a council composed of a mayor and five councilmen.”
That lasted five years until a charter-mandated review committee proposed another change in government.
“A special city election was held Aug. 9, 1986, to submit the proposed changes to the electorate for consideration. By a majority of the voters, amendments to the charter were approved which provided for a change in the city’s form of government from that of ‘mayor-council’ (strong mayor) to that of a ‘council-manager’ form of government which provides that the city manager be the chief administrative officer of the city,” according to the city’s website.
“Approval of this amendment provided for the mayor to become a voting member of council, in addition to performing duties as presiding officer of the council. An amendment on May 5, 1990, changed the composition of the City Council to a mayor, four council members to be elected by single-member districts and two council members by at-large position. This composition remains in effect today with term limits of eight consecutive years.”
Utilizing master-planned communities and annexations, Sugar Land has grown significantly in population and diversity. The U.S. Census put Sugar Land’s population in 1950 at 2,285. By 1990 that number had increased to 24,529. With the annexation of Greatwood and New Territory in 2017, Sugar Land’s population crossed the 100,000 mark at an estimated 117,869.
In 2010, the city’s racial make-up was 52 percent white, 35.3 percent Asian, 10.6 percent Hispanic, 7.4 percent black, and the rest being other races or mixed races.
Most of the city’s growth has been to the south and west of the original city with much of the development sprouting along the Southwest Freeway corridor. First Colony played a major role in that growth, opening First Colony Mall in 1996 and seven years later Sugar Land Town Square, which is home to City Hall, Minute Maid, Coca-Cola, and the 300-room Marriott Hotel.
Sugar Land also boasts three large hospitals – Houston Methodist Sugar Land, Memorial Hermann Sugar Land, and CHI St. Luke’s.
As of 2015, the city’s top five employers are the Fort Bend Independent School District (established in 1959 with the merger of Sugar Land and Missouri City ISDs), Schlumberger, Houston Methodist Sugar Land Hospital, Fluor, and United Healthcare. Ironically, the industry that birthed Sugar Land, the Imperial Sugar Company, closed its refinery and distribution center in 2003. Today Johnson Development is redeveloping the site as Imperial Market, an entertainment-centric destination center that is expected to include upscale retail and restaurant space, class A office space, a luxury residential complex and a high-end boutique hotel. It currently houses the Fort Bend Children’s Discovery Center and Sugar Land Heritage Museum and Visitor Center.
In 2012, Sugar Land opened Constellation Field, a minor league baseball park that is home to the Sugar Land Skeeters. The team is part of the Atlantic League of Professional Baseball and in 2016 won the league championship.
In 2017, the 6,400-seat Smart Financial Centre, an indoor concert hall, opened with two performances by comedian Jerry Seinfeld. The venue is located near the campus of the University of Houston at Sugar Land, which is also home to a branch of Wharton County Junior College.
In 1990, Sugar Land purchased a private airport that was founded as Hull Field, renamed Sugar Land Municipal Airport and later Sugar land Regional Airport. A 20,000-square-foot terminal and a 60-acre general aviation complex opened in 2006. It services many of the oil and gas companies located in and around Sugar Land and southwest Houston.
Promoting itself as a destination city, Sugar Land continues to grow and provide new development and opportunities for residents and visitors alike. The University of Houston is currently constructing a new building on its campus and the city is in the process of approving a new development in the Telfair area around the university and the Smart Financial Centre. The Imperial Market and the area around Constellation Field are surging with growth and the major highways in and around the city are being widened yet again to accommodate the rapid growth of the area.
Sugar Land Mayors
There have been 10 mayors in Sugar Land’s history:
T.E. Harman (1959-1961 and 1964-1968)
Bill Little (1961-1964)
C.E. McFadden (1968-1972)
Roy Cordes Sr. (1972-1981)
Walter McMeans (1981-1986)
Lee Duggan (1986-1996)
Dean A. Hrbacek (1996-2002)
David G. Wallace (2002-2008)
James A. Thompson (2008-2016)
Joe. R. Zimmerman (2016-present)
Year – Population
1950 – 2,285
1960 – 2,802
1970 – 3,318
1980 – 8,826
1990 – 24,529
2000 – 63,328
2010 – 78,817
2018 – 117,869