As the year comes to a close this week, it’s been a bit of a tumultuous one in Fort Bend County.
From drama between elected leaders to new leadership taking over the area’s primary school district to development progress and more, it was quite the year for residents of one of the country’s fastest-growing counties.
The year 2021 has brought continued power struggles at the heads of local cities such as Missouri City and Stafford. Stafford, the only city in Texas with no property taxes, might have to rethink that stance given the state of its current finances, according to some former and current city leaders, though its mayor and others have refuted such a notion. And Missouri City hired a new city manager – its third in two years. Could Charles "Tink" Jackson be the one who sticks?
There was also a winter freeze that caused a catastrophic failing of the power grid and plunged residents into darkness and cold for days earlier in the year, and 2021 has brought on continued struggles with the COVID-19 pandemic amidst the rise of the delta and omicron variants.
However, there has been plenty of uplifting news across the county as well. Baseball returned to the area in earnest as the Sugar Land Skeeters found resounding on-field and developmental success in their first season as the Houston Astros’ Triple-A affiliate at Constellation Field.
New Fort Bend ISD superintendent Christie Whitbeck took over the job in October and has candidly offered some optimism despite some of the struggles facing the district in the wake of pandemic. And amidst recovery from the winter storm, several area residents and businesses sprang into action to help those in need.
On the developmental side, a major project which has been years in the making has taken hold in Rosenberg near the county fairgrounds as construction on the EpiCenter has begun.
This is just a sampling of the top 10 stories in Fort Bend this year as chosen by our staff. They are not placed in any particular order, but we’ve done our best to place the most relevant stories near the top.
Winter freeze hammers county
Residents were hammered by below-freezing temperatures as part of Winter Storm Uri early in the year, leaving more than half of the county without power for several days in mid-February. More than 1.3 million outages were reported across the Houston area, according to CenterPoint Energy’s outage tracker.
County Judge KP George took to social media to criticize Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's television appearance on Fox News in which he blamed renewable energy sources for the outage. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), which manages the flow of electricity for much of the state, said in a news release that extreme weather conditions caused generating units “across fuel types” to trip offline and become unavailable.
From Stafford in the heart of Fort Bend to as far away as Richmond, Needville and Kendleton on its outskirts, a number of residents were without power for multiple days and the low temperatures led to water service issues, causing local governments to enact water boil notices and find alternative methods of warming.
It even caused some rifts among local elected officials. State Rep. Jacey Jetton of House District 26 wrote a letter to George on Feb. 24, criticizing George’s handling of the mid-February storm. Jetton said he was met with resistance by George and the Fort Bend County Office of Emergency Management (FBOEM) in his efforts to open warming centers. He said he made George and FBOEM aware the morning of Feb. 15 of the pending outages and the potential that rolling blackouts would last longer than planned. However, George said he never spoke with Jetton.
However, some good did come out of the storm as several local residents, elected officials and businesses did what they could to help their community.
Mahmood Marfani, a Richmond resident and founder of the Marfani Foundation, partnered with Chippy’s in Sugar Land to provide hundreds of meals to those in need. Sathish Rao, owner of Udipi Cafe in Sugar Land, fed 40-45 families who were in need of food after their power went out.
Later, George and Fort Bend County District Attorney Brian Middleton volunteered with the East Fort Bend Human Needs Ministry at Ismaili Jamatkhana and Center, collecting 22 pallets of food and water. George's office also partnered with Niagara Bottling’s Missouri City office to distribute thousands of gallons to residents at the county’s Justice Center.
Delta, omicron COVID variants arise in county
COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations have spiked in recent weeks, which health experts have attributed to the spread of the new omicron variant. The situation was much the same over the summer, when the delta variant caused a surge of cases in southern U.S. states, with hospital admissions going above 100,000 per week in early September, according to a Washington Post article.
The omicron variant made its way to Fort Bend County by early December, when the county announced its first three omicron-related cases.
Health experts are still determining how much of a problem the latest variant might cause moving forward, according to Dr. Wesley Long, a doctor studying infectious diseases for Houston Methodist Hospital.
“I can say that the data coming out of Africa and Europe suggests omicron is more transmissible than delta,” Long said. “But they have different vaccines than we do and different rates of vaccination. So, we’ll need to see how it behaves in the U.S. But for the most part, experts believe this will be more transmissible than delta. And delta itself was very transmissible.”
EpiCenter project under construction
It was a long a time coming, but crews finally broke ground in mid-November on the EpiCenter project on a 51.75-acre site near the southwest corner of State Highway 59 and State Highway 36 in Rosenberg, near the county fairgrounds. The $120 million project to create a multipurpose events center could take up to 20 months to complete, developers said.
County officials have been mulling such a project since as early as 2015, when commissioners were considering proposals for a facilities bond election. The county commissioners court authorized a feasibility study that ended in 2018.
The project has not been met with universal praise as some living near the land protested the location earlier this year. They argued it will lead to worse traffic and parking issues in the nearby neighborhood.
However, work has begun on the 195,000 square-foot multipurpose arena that county officials hope will be a boon to the area for years to come by hosting events such as festivals, graduations and more.
“This is a special day and a special facility,” County Commissioner Grady Prestage said.
Battles wage over state of Stafford finances
Ever since Stafford eliminated property taxes in 1995 under then-Mayor Leonard Scarcella – the longest-serving mayor in America before his death in June 2020 – the city has generated revenue primarily through sales taxes, permits and other fees, contrary to the vast majority of Texas cities. That fact has become a point of pride for many residents, with the city’s own tagline declaring itself the “city with no city property taxes,” and has helped draw many businesses to town over the years.
But over the course of the past year, several current and former elected leaders have sounded alarm bells over the state of Stafford’s financial well-being, arguing that if major changes don’t come soon, the council may have no choice but to ask for a property tax to pay for more than $36 million in outstanding capital projects.
That includes maintenance on some businesses, such as Steve Martin’s RoofLab and others in the area, who have considered leaving for greener pastures – or may have already done so.
“We are at a crossroads,” city councilman Wen Guerra said. “If another budget shows up that looks anything like this year’s, I’m going to vote against it. We have got to make some kind of adjustment.”
However, mayor Cecil Willis has dismissed much of the criticism of the city’s finances. He said the current city budget is based on sound principles, that the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t hurt the city’s sales tax revenues as much as expected and that those questioning the city’s finances are doing so for political reasons.
“The budget is balanced and our two fund balances are higher than they’ve been in three years,” Willis said. “As long as the foundation of Stafford is there, we’re good to go.”
Skeeters find success as Astros affiliate
The Sugar Land Skeeters, who began play in 2012 as an independent minor league baseball franchise, found resounding success in their inaugural season as the Triple-A affiliate of the Houston Astros. Sugar Land went 75-55 during the 2021 season, during which primary contributors such as Jake Meyers, Jose Siri and Taylor Jones were shipped off to Houston to help the MLB team win the American League pennant.
Attendance was down a bit this year, though, as the Skeeters averaged roughly 3,255 fans per game at 65 home games at Constellation Field, according to Baseball Reference’s online database. It was the lowest attendance among the 10 teams in Triple-A West, and down from the 4,482 fans the Skeeters drew during their final season in the Atlantic League in 2019.
General Manager Tyler Stamm largely attributed it to complications from the pandemic and said the team is looking to revive its engagement next year. And it certainly didn’t diminish the passion of those who attended, such as Missouri City resident Rhonda Currie.
“I’m just a big baseball fan," Currie said. "For me, having baseball back and just things being a little bit more normal is great. It’s been really cool seeing the guys from here go up (to the majors).”
Missouri City manager cycle continues
The revolving door at the head of a local municipality has resulted in three people holding the city manager position in Missouri City in less than a two-year span.
Odis Jones, who was hired on a 4-3 vote at the recommendation of former Mayor Yolanda Ford in July 2020, was ousted by a 5-2 vote on April 26 – lasting just 14 months on the job. The move followed Missouri City’s firing of city manager Anthony Snipes in February 2020, which was decided by a 4-3 vote. Missouri City has paid out almost $1 million in severance payments to its last two ousted city managers.
Then in early December, the city council unanimously voted to make Charles “Tink” Jackson the city’s new administrative leader – making Jackson the third city manager since 2019. Bill Atkinson had been serving as the city’s interim city manager during the search that led to Jackson’s hiring.
Despite the recent turnover, Jackson expressed optimism about the city as he took the reins.
“I am both honored and humbled to have been selected as the ninth city manager for the city of Missouri City,” he said. “There is so much potential (here), and that starts with the people. I am so excited to get started and do my part to make Missouri City all that it can be.”
New FBISD superintendent takes over
In October, Fort Bend ISD saw a new leader take over the district in the form of former Bryan ISD superintendent Christie Whitbeck. Whitbeck, who was previously FBISD’s deputy superintendent for four years, replaced the retiring Charles Dupre as the head of the district.
She is not blind to the pandemic-related challenges facing FBISD. But from a potential return to full-time in-person learning next year – pending changes that could be caused by COVID-19 – to the enrollment shortage and resulting financial hardships facing FBISD to staffing challenges with 120 teaching vacancies, Whitbeck said she is ready to face them head on in a place she already knows very well.
“This has been my life’s work,” Whitbeck said earlier this month. “I’ve spent the majority of my career in the Houston area.”
Businesses struggle to find employees
As Texas and other states around the country allowed enhanced unemployment benefits during the beginning stages of COVID-19, business owners such as Vanderlei Bernardi – the executive chef and co-owner of Avenida Brazil Churrascaria Steakhouse in Meadows Place – were left spending months to find employees willing to come to work. And even then, they often fell short of what they needed.
Leonard Gomes and Paula Gomes run a Premier Martial Arts franchise at 8019 W. Grand Pkwy S. in Richmond, while Vu Dau of Pier 61 Asian Cajun at 12106 Murphy Rd. in Stafford was dependent on his family to help cover shifts and make up for the tepid labor market before being forced to close earlier this year.
“Business owners are killing themselves working 80 hours a week, 100 hours a week,” Bernardi said in May. “We’re short people.”
Eric Morse, the owner of The Sauer Kraut Grill in Richmond, said a change in attitude, combined with the plethora of government benefits such as local food programs that incentivize people not to work, were among the causes.
However, labor experts such as Erica Groshen – a senior economics advisor at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations – argue that a multitude of factors including a changing workforce, a mismatch in what businesses are looking for and what employees are searching for, and childcare demands are among the factors in isolated sectors seeing a shortage.
However, an August article from the Society for Human Resource Management also said that there is not a general nationwide labor shortage - defined as not enough available workers to fill open job - strictly speaking. At the time, the article said there were 9.5 million workers compared to 9.2 million available jobs - and echoed Groshen's sentiment as to why.
The Cleburne Times-Review also reported earlier this month that the state of Texas' unemployment rate dropped down to 5.2 percent in November - 0.2 percent down from October, and closing in on pre-pandemic rates. The state opted out of enhanced unemployment benefits in late June.
Zimmerman caught in I-45 battle
A contentious fight to stop the planned expansion of Interstate 45 through Houston has grown to the point where Sugar Land mayor Joe Zimmerman has gotten caught in its path. In late November, a group called Stop TxDOT I-45 penned a letter accusing Zimmerman of ethical misconduct for using his role on the Houston-Galveston Area Council’s Transportation Policy Committee to advocate for the project.
“Through his connections to his private employer, Halff Associates, Inc., Mayor Joe Zimmerman of Sugar Land has maintained conflicts of interest that violate multiple codes of ethics and undermine the TPC’s necessary impartiality in managing federal transportation funds,” according to the letter.
However, Zimmerman insisted that his support is not personally motivated.
“HGAC is in charge of advancing the transportation needs of the entire region,” he said. “It’s not just Sugar Land or Fort Bend County, though this project would benefit everyone. And other elected officials on the committee are equally like-minded.”
The expansion is a controversial $7 billion project from the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) that would widen I-45 from Downtown Houston north to Beltway 8. The project has drawn the ire of activists such as those with the Stop TxDOT I-45 group as well as Harris County, which sued TxDOT over the plan in March. An ongoing investigation by the Federal Highway Administration, which is looking into environmental and civil rights concerns raised about the project, has put it mostly on hold.
Solar power booming in Fort Bend
In June, Spanish-based Acciona began construction on a $258 million solar farm in far west Fort Bend County near Rosenberg that could be operational by 2022, according to a news release from the Spanish conglomerate. Once complete, the solar farm will have a generating capacity of 317 megawatts, and will double Acciona’s renewable energy capacity in the United States, according to the news release.
In addition to Acciona’s work on the $258 million solar farm, Cypress Creek Renewables also operates a smaller project in Fort Bend County.
The county has been part of an almost quiet revolution in Texas for the rapid and dramatic expansion of the solar industry. And it looks set to continue even after some elected leaders criticized the industry without evidence for causing the catastrophic failure of the state’s power grid during February’s winter storm.
“Solar is booming in Texas, and even more so since the storm,” said Nick Liberati, a spokesperson for EnergySage, a company that allows customers to compare prices from different solar companies.