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By Rod Evans

The Economic Alliance Houston Port Region’s Work Never Ends

For many southeast Texas residents, our only interaction with the Port of Houston and the Houston Ship Channel occurs when we drive over the area while traversing the Fred Hartman or Ship Channel bridges.

In reality, the Ship Channel touches all of us who call the region home thanks to its position as perhaps the main economic driver in the area. The Port of Houston is a 25-mile long complex of diverse public and private facilities within the 52-mile long Houston Ship Channel. Originally constructed in 1914 through an innovative partnership between local and federal funding sources, the Port of Houston is consistently ranked first in the U.S. in foreign waterborne tonnage, U.S. imports and export tonnage and second in total tonnage, as each year, according to the Port of Houston Authority, more than 200 million tons of cargo move through the port.

But those numbers, as impressive as they are, tell only part of the story. As one of the busiest ports in the world, the Port of Houston and the Houston Ship Channel as a whole, with its 150 private industrial companies along the circuitous route to the Gulf of Mexico, contribute over one million jobs throughout Texas and generate over $178 billion in statewide economic impact, according to a study by Martin Associates. The largest component in the jobs and economic impact picture is the $15 billion petrochemical complex; the largest in the U.S. and among the largest in the world.  As a result, U.S. Department of Commerce figures show Texas has led the nation for the past 11 years in exports, with exports totaling $265 billion in 2012, up over five percent from 2011.

The Ship Channel region literally put Houston and the Bay Area on the map by playing a vital role in the economic development of the area. In addition to Houston, towns like Pasadena, Deer Park, Baytown, La Porte and Seabrook grew from sleepy country burgs into prosperous smaller cities with vibrant economies that grew as the port became a job creating monster.

With so much riding on the port region, it only made sense that organizations such as the Port of Houston Authority and the Economic Alliance Houston Port Region would be founded to help support businesses located in the area and to promote the region as a whole as an ideal place to live and do business.

The Economic Alliance Houston Port Region began life in 1985 as the Southeast Economic Development Corporation, but while the name has changed, its mission remains the same: serving as the economic development corporation for the Houston Ship Channel region.

“Our mission is to market and grow this vibrant regional economy,” said Michelle Hundley, the Economic Alliance’s vice president of public affairs.

In order to perform that far reaching job, the Economic Alliance has service contracts with Harris County, the Port of Houston Authority and the 16 communities that surround the channel, with development efforts focused in the petrochemical, maritime and logistics industries.

“Each contract is distinctive, with the common theme of providing promotion and economic development services on behalf of each member institution,” Hundley said.

Led by Economic Alliance President/CEO Chad Burke and in partnership with its 150 members, the Alliance supported 38 projects that facilitated over 3,600 direct jobs and a capital investment of more than $2.6 billion in the Ship Channel region between 2008 and 2012.

The membership roll includes the governments of the surrounding communities as well petrochemical companies, engineering, architectural and law firms, area colleges, financial institutions, energy providers and many more. The members seek to promote the region and support existing industries through work on a variety of task forces, including ones related to public policy, new business development, quality of life, transportation, business growth and workforce development.

Where the Jobs Are

The Alliance, through its Workforce Development Task Force, is actively involved in trying to solve a problem that could have dire consequences in the future: the increasing lack of qualified workers to fill positions with companies along the Ship Channel and those who do business with companies located in the region.

“Everyone in the region is trying to tackle this workforce issue on their own, but what we decided was since we are a regional organization, let’s bring all of those resources together and all of those people speaking about the topic into one room so we can coordinate efforts and resources,” Hundley says. “The task force consists of representatives from all of the school districts and colleges in the region, along with representatives of the industries most affected by this shortage. The companies play a vital role because they can tell students and their parents what career paths are available and what they can make salary wise.”

But according to industry analysts, the shortage of qualified workers is the result of state and national education systems emphasizing having students attend four-year colleges at the expense of providing opportunities for students to be exposed to technical or trade disciplines.

A Houston Port Bureau study indicates that the petrochemical and manufacturing industries will invest some $35 billion in capital development and maintenance within the Ship Channel region over the course of the next several years, which will create over 111,000 direct construction jobs and 154,000 indirect jobs that will need to be filled.

Hundley says the Greater Houston Partnership recently became a member of the Workforce Development Task Force, further strengthening the regional power of the organization, but much work remains to be done to encourage students to enter technical and trade fields and combat the so-called “four-by-four” requirements in place in most Texas schools that influence curriculums to encourage attendance at four-year colleges over instruction in technical subjects.

“There is a great need for skilled labor because many students are steered away from courses like welding. Students are no longer able to learn these skills because they are not introduced to them in school,” Hundley says. “The second issue affecting industries is the retiring workforce. A large percentage of the population currently working in these industries will be retiring over the next few years, which will make filling these positions even more critical.”

Through its speakers bureau, the Alliance visits area schools and delivers Power Point presentations and other materials to educate students regarding the career opportunities available, while also educating school principals, teachers and counselors, as well as parents, to help guide students through their career decision making process.

A Great Place to Live

In addition to helping to secure the future growth and health of the communities and industries doing business in the region, the Economic Alliance works to maintain and improve the overall living experience of area residents through its Quality of Life Task Force. The group’s initiatives include working with the San Jacinto Historic District on projects that promote the historical value of the area. Part of that effort includes the beautiful “Epic Art” murals that depict Texas historical figures that are placed on the storage tanks that line State Highway 225 and a newly unveiled mural on a water storage tank along Barbours Cut Blvd. in Morgan’s Point.

The task force is also involved in helping area cities develop unique, attractive gateway structures welcoming visitors to their community and works with cities to develop parks and recreation areas in and around detention ponds.

As the Economic Alliance continues its ongoing, multi-faceted business promotion activities, Hundley says the member supported organization is eagerly looking forward to 2014, when the Port region celebrates its centennial. Stay tuned for details on what surely will be a Texas sized celebration.

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