Monday, May 12, 2008

A Map to Houston’s World-Class Future (part 2 of 2)

Continuing from part 1 last week:

So what tactical improvements can Houston make to keep its talent pipeline full with young professionals?

It starts with “growing our own.” The easiest young professionals to attract are ones that grow up here, but we have to transform them into educated professionals first. That starts with excellent primary and secondary education. Unfortunately, our current system seems to only work for about a third of students, getting them through high school and on to college. We need a radical flowering of public and private entrepreneurial innovation to create new schools (or new schools within existing schools) - both curriculum and culture - that really work for the other two-thirds of kids. Too much of today’s high school doesn’t feel relevant to kids, so they drop out. Or they squeak by, but fail to go on to college, or don’t have the skills to succeed once they do go to college. Some are “saved” later by a GED and the community college system, but wouldn’t it be far better to offer them a compelling high school experience now (especially in science and math), rather than picking up the pieces later? This is, by far, Houston’s greatest challenge.

The first “mobility decision point” for most people is after high school: how do we attract outsiders – and locals – to college here? It’s about offering quality choices. Rice is excellent, but needs to grow larger (and is). UH needs Tier 1 status like UT and A&M, with state funding to match. We need stronger programs to attract top-tier international students, who are less worried about a “cool college town” than a good education at a good price in a city with a support network of others of their ethnicity/nationality/language/culture – a strength of Houston’s global diversity and 82 foreign consulates. In general, Houston must make every effort to continuously improve, support, and upgrade all our local colleges and universities. They will provide the critical foundation of our talent base.

The second decision point is after college. The first group to attract are our own native sons and daughters that have gone to school elsewhere. If they remember positive experiences growing up here, they’re likely to want to come back. As children, that can mean easily accessible parks with healthy clean air where many hours are spent with friends and family or playing sports. As teens, many know only the “boring family-oriented suburbs” of Houston, and feel little reason to return. With development of a light rail network in our core plus some dense transit and pedestrian-oriented districts, including entertainment and nightlife, we will have more compelling Houston experiences to offer our teens, and those experiences will help to draw them back in their twenties. Those districts will also help to draw the second group of college grads that did not grow up here. Delayed marriage has given rise to a new, large demographic of childless professionals – also known as the “creative class” – that are looking for vibrant pedestrian and transit-oriented mixed-use districts where they can mingle with other young professionals at retail, restaurants, and nightlife. They also look seriously at issues like quality of life, parks, open space, and clean air. They usually have to become thirty or forty-somethings before they appreciate the true value of an affordable house with a reasonable commute – a great Houston strength.

A vibrant entrepreneurial climate also helps attract young professionals. Here, we have great assets in the Houston Technology Center, BioHouston, the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, and similar organizations, but Houston would be helped significantly by the injection of more local venture capital. A great way to do this would be for local employers to offer it as an investment option in their 401(k) plans.

Finally, Houston needs to upgrade its tourism experience. All great, world-class cities offer a compelling tourism experience, even if only for a short trip. Even with NASA, the Galleria, and solid museum and theater districts, this has been one of Houston’s most glaring weaknesses, and one that has kept us off the radar for educated, well-traveled professionals. Again, the light rail network and some vibrant pedestrian districts will help greatly, but we really need one powerful, anchor “mega-attraction” that will actually draw people to Houston for at least a long weekend. One niche where I think Houston could be distinctive would be the world’s largest engineering and technology museum – something along the lines of DC’s National Air & Space Museum, Munich’s Deutsches Museum, and Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry. It could even be one of the Smithsonian’s network of National Museums, which have started to move out beyond Washington DC (Design in NYC, Industrial History planned for Pittsburgh). Think of it as Houston’s version of Paris’ Louvre or London’s British Museum. The combination with Space Center Houston could create a national draw, not to mention a wonderful source of educational and career inspiration for our youth. As far as sites, 109 acres just became available at the end of the light rail line with the closing of Astroworld – not to mention the old Astrodome - both easily accessible to downtown and Reliant Park conventioneers. Any well-heeled philanthropists out there?

To sum up, the challenges separating Houston from top-tier world-class status are substantial but certainly achievable with the right focus and resources: innovative schools that truly leave no child behind, upgraded universities, plenty of parks and open space, youth-oriented pedestrian and transit districts, quality of life and clean air improvements, increased venture capital, and a more compelling tourism experience – maybe with a few aesthetic tweaks thrown in (landscaping, signs, etc.) – all while working hard to preserve and grow our existing foundation of strengths and amenities. How about it, Houston?

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At 7:39 AM, May 13, 2008, Blogger Brian Shelley said...

I do like your museum idea, but why not a museum of energy, since we are the "Energy Capital of the World". It could stretch through time from water wheels and windmills to oil, gas, nuclear, etc... I feel that a generic engineering and technology museum wouldn't stick out from the others you mentioned. Maybe you could paint a more vivid picture of what you're envisioning.

At 7:51 AM, May 13, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Three problems with focusing the museum on energy:
1) The Museum of Natural Science already has a pretty good wing on energy
2) It would be a lot smaller
3) It would attract a whole lot fewer tourists

I'm talking about something truly massive that would actually draw people from around the country and even the world to see it. I also think it could help broaden Houston's brand beyond oil and gas and even just energy to the whole realm of engineering and technology.

At 8:03 AM, May 13, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm liking the energy idea. The wing in the Museum of Natural Science (while awesome as it is) could be greatly expanded.

I'm surprised Houston doesn't already have one. We shouldn't shun oil as if it's a bad thing, it's clearly not since it is purely responsible for the economic growth and "QUALITY OF LIFE" for the modern world.

And with the vast supplies still available within reach of the US coasts and within the mainland, Oil will clearly be here to stay for next 75 to 100 years.

This museum would also have to have the multitudes of other other energy sources available. It could also involve a research wing to securely anchor Houston as the true energy capital of the world.

In the end, I really don't care about the tourism industry. The revenue stream is nice for a community that can tap into it, but it isn't always reliable. Our region has flourished without. People are getting the message about Houston outside of the city.

Job fairs around the country consistently recruit talent and bring them to Houston. I notice, in waves, during several times of year I see an influx out of state license plates. Considering Houston is not a tourist destination, these plates are either family members traveling by car (not likely) are people moving here for work.

At 10:48 AM, May 13, 2008, Blogger Brian Shelley said...

In my mind's eye I was seeing a full size "operating" water wheel, near life-size wind turbine. Mock up of a hydroelectric dam and nuclear facility. Oil and Gas stuff of course(like a fake offshore platform or refinery). Real Solar panels and a corn field outside.

At 10:58 AM, May 13, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

OOOOHHH, then you wrap it all up in a couple of rollercoasters...

Call it energy world!

That'll take care of the loss of AstroWorld and add a new dimension to Theme/Amusement Parks.

At 1:05 PM, May 13, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think one of the best things we can do to attract young talent is the Buffalo Bayou Master Plan. I've been living in Dallas for about a year, and if I had to pick the single greatest amenity it offers for young talented folks, it would be White Rock Lake, with its 9 mile jogging/biking loop and skyline views. That's worth more than all the arts and museums combined.

I don't think Houston has anything that quite compares in terms of a nature/exercise experience, but I think the realized bayou plan would have similar grandeur. It should be at the forefront of our quality of life initiatives.

At 1:36 PM, May 13, 2008, Blogger Brian Shelley said...


Perhaps we could get Tilman Fetitta to donate the money and build the museum :)

At 4:03 PM, May 13, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Donate? He'll probably want to have controlling interest in the project.

Also, your idea of having a working offshore platform located in it has been done. In Morgan City, LA, they have a museum for offshore oil drilling in an actually offshore oil platform located in the Atchafalaya River right outside of downtown.

It's pretty impressive.

At 11:34 PM, May 13, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad to see some acknowledgment that many educated young professionals are not necessarily looking for the suburban house with the 2 car garage. Really, it is not even about marriage necessarily. Many married couples choose to live in the city.

I think Houston first needs to be realistic. It is not going to turn into a New York or even Chicago, at least not in my lifetime. But Houston can emulate some of the changes that LA has made, especially on the Westside. It is a shame that Houston doesn't have something like the Promenade. Santa Monica (although its own city) has done many, many things that have transformed the area into a pedestrian-friendly, thriving neighborhood. Compare this to how the situation was in the 1980's; anybody ever seen Fletch?

One thing that needs to end is the setback and parking requirements for many neighborhoods in the inner loop. It is crazy that the default development in a place like Midtown is stripmalls. If the developer wants to build a stripmall in that area of the city, then they should be the one going for the variance, not the other way around!

At 1:36 AM, May 14, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not just Morgan City - few have ever heard of the Ocean Star Museum right here in the area:

At 11:51 AM, May 15, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't believe that for four years everyone has been saying that we need to change the setback requirements for Midtown and other places, and yet nothing has been done. Why not?

At 1:35 PM, May 15, 2008, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

It's been rolled into the Urban Corridors initiative, which should come forward sometime this year, I believe. In the meantime, people I've talked to on the Planning Commission say they pretty much grant any variance requests for minimal or zero setbacks in neighborhoods like Midtown, but developers have just not come forward with projects, especially near the rail line. I think there is still a large buy-sell spread on land there: land speculators want too much, and developers are wary of any project with inconvenient parking. Hard to say when the deadlock will break.

At 5:08 PM, May 15, 2008, Blogger Michael said...

Great essay.

As far as attracting more young people and tourism, I think that Houston should pursue it's own music festival on the order of Austin City Limits - and preferably in March or thereabouts so as not to compete directly with ACL and to showcase our good weather (I don't get why ACL couldn't be held in October). It could be done in any or all of Memorial Park / Eleanor Tinsley / Hermann Park / Discovery Green. The broader point is I think Houston needs to compete better for the title of Texas' "hip" / "cool" city on the national scene, and one easy way to do that would be to equal or outdo Austin in a music festival. People come in from all over the country for ACL and leave with a great impression of the city - cool music, Zilker park, great Texas food, 6th street - what's not to like?

Yes, a music festival by itself may not draw young professionals to Houston. But I think it would help more people get exposed to Houston and come to see Houston as a place that is fun, green, young, and a place they wouldn't mind coming to work and live, as I think ACL has done for Austin.

This would help (along with converting the Astrodome into a film studio and our own Film Fest, Art Car Parade, iFest, etc) compete with Austin and Dallas for the reputation of "most fun" Texas city.

At 1:11 PM, January 10, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello out there, the Houston Computer Museum has been around for 5 years now and with a little help it will become the worldwide attraction you are talking about. We just moved to a new location at 9410 Harwin and will be reopening very soon. The museum showcases not computers but all of technology from the past, present, and the future. Watch the papers for our grand reopening.


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