By Joe Southern
Joe Zimmerman’s star has risen over Sugar Land.
Having come up through the ranks from the planning and zoning commission to city council, Zimmerman, 62, recently won election as the city’s mayor following a grueling five-way race and a runoff election. With all that behind him, he can now focus on what’s ahead. So far the future is looking pretty sweet for Sugar Land under the new Zimmerman administration.
“The quality of life here is like no other place I’ve been,” he said.
He excitedly pointed to the new Smart Financial Center, an $86 million performing arts center under construction near Highway 59 and University Boulevard. It will open Jan. 15 with two performances by comedian Jerry Seinfeld.
“We’re pretty fired up about that,” he said.
The center is the second of three major public-private partnerships Sugar Land has been working on for the past several years. The first was construction of Constellation Field, the 5-year-old baseball park that is home to the Sugar Land Skeeters. The third is development of a hotel and conference center, which is currently on hold pending identification of a development partner.
The city is currently developing a plaza adjacent to the Smart financial Center and has a number of park projects and trails currently in development. Among those projects are improvements to Cullinan Park, which is still owned by the City of Houston but is now under Sugar Land’s control.
Another major project that has been in the works and is due to come to fruition under Zimmerman’s watch is the Imperial Market, the redevelopment of the former Imperial Sugar refinery, along with continued development of the 690-acre master-planned Imperial Market Development.
Not only are these and other projects in the works, but Sugar Land could potentially grow significantly in size and population during Zimmerman’s first term. The city has been working on plans to annex the New Territory and Greatwood communities. If that happens, the city’s population would skyrocket from about 87,000 to 115,000.
Zimmerman said there is a lot that has to happen before that can take place and it won’t happen if the move is detrimental to the city.
“We need to make sure our current residents don’t have to subsidize those residents,” he said.
Assuming the annexations move forward, Zimmerman estimated that city council would take action in the fall of 2017 for it to become official in 2018. Among the things to consider is a change to the city charter for governance of those communities. The city would need to either increase the number of council members or redistrict the current four council districts. The city is already under contract to provide fire and ambulance services to the communities, but police protection would need to be expanded.
To be sure, Zimmerman hasn’t presided over all of these projects but he has had a hand in much of it. Many of the projects had their start in the 2000s when he was on the planning and zoning commission. He served on the board from 2000 to 2008 and again from 2011 to 2012, having had terms as chairman and vice chairman. He left the commission to run for city council. He held the At-Large Position 2 for four years before becoming mayor.
Zimmerman is a native of Houston and he and his wife Nancy moved to Sugar Land in 1990.
“I raised my daughter here,” he said.
They have lived in Sugar land all but 18 months of that time. They moved to Tripoli, Libya, for his job but returned when the country become politically unstable.
Zimmerman is a professional engineer, having earned a bachelor of science in civil engineering from the University of Houston and a master’s in business administration from Houston Baptist University. He has held senior management positions in a number of industries including consulting engineering, water and wastewater operations, land acquisition and development and homebuilding. He is currently the director of development for Cobb, Fendley and Associates of Katy.
Zimmerman said that while there is a lot of growth happening in the city that it is important not to neglect what is already there.
“We’re very serious about maintaining our roads and infrastructure,” he said.
Economic development will continue to be something he works on. So far, the city is attracting major development despite the economic downturn in the oil and gas industry that is weighing on Houston. Zimmerman credits the city and its staff for good fiscal management and its judicious use of sales and use taxes to fund projects without having to raise property taxes.
He also said he believes projects like the performing arts center, ballpark and various parks and trails will help attract more businesses and residents to the city.
“We want to make Sugar Land a destination,” he said.