Anne Heinen 2017-01-24 03:57:00
Houston is renowned as a city where business thrives. What is less well known is that its arts, culture, tourism, and sports form an economic powerhouse of their own, all the while breathing life into the metropolitan area. Highly visible, world-class opera, symphony, theater, and ballet are augmented by a robust local arts scene, while creative businesses, multitudes of visitors, and enthusiastically followed sports add to the dynamic that makes Houston a multidimensional city with strong appeal. “Anytime you see a vibrant, growing city—a city that’s attracting businesses but also attracting tourists—you have all the components of the arts, culture, tourism, and sports because what a tourist likes is what a person who lives here likes,” said Janis Burke, President and CEO of the Harris County–Houston Sports Authority, whose duties include marketing the county’s 12 sports facilities. “And whenever you see a really creative city [with a] lot of arts and culture, most of the time that’s a thriving business and tourist community too.” The creative economy is a giant and growing part of Houston. Tourism and conventions keep tax coffers stoked from Downtown to Galveston and The Woodlands and beyond, all while conveying the positive story of Houston to visitors from the United States and abroad. Six professional sports teams, including the Astros, the Texans, and the Dynamo, provide community connection, while area facilities bring in games and shows from across the world. And the revitalization of areas such as the Fifth Ward emphasizes Houston’s history and diversity. CREATIVE CAPITAL The creative economy is on the rise as a measurable, essential component of successful cities. Projected to be a $26 billion industry in Houston, the creative economy includes creative professionals working in non-creative businesses, such as a photographer at an energy company; non-creative employees in creative businesses, such as an accountant at an architectural firm; and creative workers in creative businesses, such as a curator at a museum. The demand in Houston for creative goods has grown 17 percent since 2011, according to studies from the Houston Arts Alliance (HAA), a multifaceted, public-private arts and culture organization that works to increase the activity, visibility, and status of Houston’s creative side to benefit the city as a whole. By 2014, Houston’s creative economy employed almost 180,000 people, “It’s a rapidly growing part of the economy,” said Jonathon Glus, HAA President and CEO. “We were very interested in measuring the creative economy because Houston has traditionally been a business-to-business city. As the economy diversified, we developed a creative economy that was expanding, but we weren’t looking at its size or impact, or the places where the creative economy isn’t growing well here, as well as the unusual strengths that we have.” At first a national rubric was lacking, but today, the National Creative Economy Coalition has helped to craft measurement standards, being used nationally, that also allow for reporting unique assets in each city. “Houston has embraced the nonprofit creative arts and culture sector,” Glus said, citing as examples the city’s philanthropically funded, first-rate cultural institutions and expanding higher-education degree programs in the arts. Growth for Houston lies on the for-profit side. “The truth is, in a 21st-century city, you have to have both the nonprofit and the profit sides for the creative economy to excel.” While no one wants a closed economy, Glus says Houston now imports 60 percent of its creative products and services, a number that can shrink with the cultivation of local resources, connections, and awareness. “It’s a huge opportunity. We need people to understand that Houston does in fact embrace and support creative businesses,” he added, noting that the openness to new ventures and ideas that keeps the Houston business economy humming is equally beneficial to creative ventures. “It makes it much easier to establish a business. We have a highly educated workforce, and we’re a global city in a way very few other cities are.” VISITS ON THE RISE Houston draws a large number of visitors every year and aims to attract even more. The Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau (GHCVB) and Houston First have two goals in their joint efforts to stoke the tourism engine, said Mike Waterman, GHCVB President and Executive Vice President of Houston First: The first objective is to bring 20 million tourists and visitors a year to Houston by 2018, up from 14.8 million in 2014 and 17.5 million in 2015. “[The second] is that we want to convert all 6.6 million Houstonians into fanatical ambassadors,” Waterman added. “We think those two things will allow Houston to bloom as a tourist destination.” In 2015, visitors spent $17.2 billion in Houston and supported some 135,400 jobs, making conventions and tourism the 10th-largest driver of GDP in the city. The aim to attract more tourists stems in part from the alignment of Houston First and GHCVB in 2014 with the intent of making a concentrated effort to extol Houston’s virtues as a great place to visit for work and play. “Being honest, our desire to promote Houston is a recent phenomenon,” Waterman said. “I’m not sure the city was ready before to accept itself and recognize that there are 145 languages spoken here, 12,000 restaurants, major attractions, and a robust theater district. For us, it was realizing we have all the assets that we need to promote, and then to go out and promote those things that other cities can’t compete against.” In addition to focusing on its current strengths, Houston is also enhancing its offerings. Pedestrianfriendly plaza Avenida Houston is part of the $2 billion in infrastructure improvements made in Houston to gear up for the 2017 Super Bowl that will remain after the February game, Waterman noted. “We’re benefiting immensely from Houston hosting this kind of event, between the infrastructure improvements and the media impressions that will come out in the lead-up.” On the road, the Houston team markets the city across the globe via traditional media as well as new approaches, such as an effort to bring Jimmy Kimmel Live! To broadcast from Houston for a week. In 2016, they brought New York fashion designer Vivienne Tam to the city for her 2017 spring collection inspiration. The city had hoped to see a few pieces in her line with a Houston influence, but instead, “she fell in love with Houston. Her entire 2017 spring collection was inspired by Houston, and it’ll be marketed globally,” Waterman said. “It’s an opportunity for us to go into one of our highly sought-after markets in China. We’re doing these things to change [our] perspective. It’s a marathon and not a sprint, that’s for sure.” On the city’s wish list: a major amusement park and more retail downtown. “We’re working to make that happen,” Waterman said. At The Woodlands, the planned master community due north of Houston, conventions, tourism, and retail bring in a large percentage of the area’s tax base, according to Nick Wolda, Director of Community Relations and President of The Woodlands Convention and Visitors Bureau. The township’s 115,000 residents enjoy amenities that also draw visitors, including the 16,500-seat Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion concert amphitheater, a 60,000-squarefoot convention center linked to The Woodlands Marriott Waterway Hotel, and the super-regional The Woodlands Mall, in addition to corporate offices and recreational assets. With $7.8 million in hotel occupancy taxes flowing to The Woodlands Township, “we’ve become the economic juggernaut of this region,” Wolda said, adding that recent research included feedback from overnight and day visitors who called The Woodlands “beautiful,” “relaxing,” “fun,” “family-friendly,” “upscale,” and “clean.” Galveston’s tourism business is another key part of the area’s economy and growth, with hotels, restaurants, and lively shopping providing the backdrop for swimming, sunbathing, fishing, and surfing, activities that draw visitors from around the world to the beaches of Galveston Island. The resort, boardwalk, aquarium, golf course, and spa at Moody Gardens, along with the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier, a revitalized old-school boardwalk with rides, midway games, food, and shops, are major attractions here. Cruise lines including Carnival, Disney, and Royal Caribbean call Galveston their home port, drawing visitors to enjoy Galveston’s offerings before embarking on ships sailing to destinations including Mexico, the Caribbean, and Puerto Rico. PLAY ON! Sports in Houston have a major impact as well. The county's facilities and teams generate $1.5 billion in economic output annually, according to Burke, who leads Harris County-Houston Sports Authority in keeping facilities in state-of-the-art condition while maximizing their usage by attracting sporting events to the Houston area. “Many times—99 percent of the time—when we go after a piece of business, we’re considered a magical city when it comes to sporting events,” Burke said. “We’re so sought after that we can pick and choose now to make sure they’re the right fit for us.” The magic translates to ever higher attendance records and other measures of performance, such as quality of volunteers. “It’s because we’re a creative, entrepreneurial kind of city,” Burke said, adding that Houston’s internationally diverse population translates into a strong interest in sports that don’t always have a big audience in other U.S. cities but are extremely popular around the globe. For example, the IWF World Weight lifting Championship was held at the George R. Brown Convention Center in 2015, marking its first appearance in the United States in 39 years. “The IWF president said it was the best event they’d had in 45 years,” Burke said. “Weightlifting isn’t popular in the U.S., but when you figure it’s being televised on every continent, with 59 million people watching around the world—you can’t buy that kind of exposure.” The 2015 Major League Lacrosse All-Star Game was held at BBVA Compass Stadium despite the organizers’ original trepidation. “They were scared to come to Texas. They’d never played this far west of the Mississippi,” Burke said. “But it was the first time in the U.S. that a lacrosse event sold 17,200 tickets. No one around the world could believe it. We see this time and time again, and we don’t turn out just one event a year—we turn out many.” Houston’s forward-thinking attitude when building facilities is a big help. A new world-class BMX park coming up in the Greenspoint area will host the international BMX training and world championships before the 2020 Olympic Games. After some back and forth, the BBVA Compass Stadium was built to accommodate rugby as well as soccer, setting the stage for hosting the Americas Rugby Championship on what is now one of the few regulation fields in the country. “It’s going to be an Olympic game and it’s the next up-and-coming sport,” Burke said. Other events in 2016 included the NCAA Final Four, the Americas Rugby Championship, the Copa America Centenario international soccer tournament, AAU Junior Olympic Games, NCAA golf championships, and the processing center for every U.S. Olympic team member going to Rio, an activity set up six years in advance. “It became a really neat way for our community to touch the Olympic movement,” Burke said. SOUL OF THE CITY Houston is thinking ahead, to be sure, but the city also recognizes the importance of local culture and history. Houston’s founders divided the city into political wards that today define six areas. Houston’s Fifth Ward neighborhood, an eight-square-mile enclave northeast of Downtown that has struggled economically since the 1960s, is the beneficiary of a long-term revitalization effort with recent success stories. Fifth Ward Redevelopment Corporation (FWRC) spearheads work to help area residents and encourage redevelopment and investment without the downsides of gentrification. “Given the significance and contribution of this 150-year-old community to Houston in general, it’s exciting to see the revitalization taking place, using the De Luxe Theater and the arts as an anchor to celebrate the culture and rich history, and to create a sense of destination,” said Kathy Flanagan Payton, President and CEO of FWRC, a nonprofit founded in 1989 that brings together public entities, community leaders, and outside investors for steady progress, as evidenced by $93 million in projects. The $5.5 million restoration and repurposing of the De Luxe Theater, originally a 1940s Streamline Moderne–style movie house, is the latest project bolstering the sense of community and history among Fifth Ward residents as well as providing resources to propel the area to its next economic level. The De Luxe now includes a 125-seat performing arts theater, small-business-development offices, and pop-up retail, while nearby Texas Southern University, a financial supporter of the De Luxe redevelopment, holds classes and concerts at the venue. The restored De Luxe is today a community cornerstone that contributes to the deliberate, multimillion-dollar renaissance of Lyons Avenue from Highway 59 to Lockwood, Payton said. “We’re working on redevelopment that honors the community but preserves the history,” Payton said, noting that the Fifth Ward is “as-built,” with historical churches and other established buildings that she sees ultimately serving as a draw that brings Houston visitors to the area as a destination. “As a community that borders Downtown Houston, our work is significant.” The Jam Park art installation, solar splash pad, and playground enliven once-abandoned lots on Lyons. A $7 million Legacy Community Health Center is under construction; the Houston Housing Authority is building 66 new homes, including housing for seniors; and area youth are buoyed by the Mickey Leland College Preparatory Academy for Young Men, a Houston ISD magnet school with an advanced academic focus for grades 6–12. Next up is working closely with Buffalo Bayou redevelopment where it borders the Fifth Ward, followed by the transformation of the former St. Elizabeth Hospital into a mixed-use commercial and residential project with a blend of retail and market-rate and affordable housing. Plans will be finalized in early 2017, with construction beginning shortly afterward, Payton said. For area residents, FWRC offers myriad programs, including homebuyer education classes, assistance with down payments and repairs for homes, and support for the establishment of businesses in the area. “We want to do more to build the capacity of the individual to improve their quality of life,” Payton said.
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