Conroe and Willis schools, cities consider new school bonds, infrastructure projects to address population growth

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Conroe and Willis city and school district officials are preparing for an influx of new residents from new communities in the region and are investing millions of dollars in new projects.

By the year 2030, the Lake Conroe area is expected to reach a population of 268,368 residents—a 37.7 percent increase from 2017’s population estimate, according to a 2016 study by Community Development Strategies.

“I think [growth is]a challenge that we all have to step up and face,” Conroe Mayor Toby Powell said. “We need to just stay ahead of the curve and make sure the infrastructure and mobility is all taken care of.”

To that end, Conroe and Willis ISDs are considering new school bonds to fund new facilities and expansions for future students while the cities are widening congested thoroughfares and investing in new infrastructure.

A growing region

In May, Conroe was recognized by the U.S. Census Bureau as the fastest-growing city in the nation with a population of more than 50,000 residents. Nancy Mikeska, Conroe’s director of community development, said the city will soon conduct a new long-term comprehensive plan to help city officials prepare for growth and development for the next 20-30 years.

The most concentrated areas of growth in the region are the north Conroe and Willis area, and south Conroe from Grand Central Park to Hwy. 242, Mikeska said.

Combined, south Conroe developments like John-son Development Co.’s Grand Central Park, Harper’s Preserve and the recently announced Star Ridge Ranch are expected to bring about 9,900 new homes to the area upon build-out, Mikeska said.

“Everyone is waiting to see whether the [growth]bubble is over or if it is just beginning,” she said. “But I have not seen any slowdown in it at all.”

Additionally, developments like The Howard Hughes Co.’s The Woodlands Hills, a 900-acre residential development by Caldwell Companies called Chambers Creek Ranch, and development of the 673-acre Moran Ranch will combine to add about 8,000 new homes to the area upon build-out, Willis City Manager Hector Forestier said.

“As we continue to grow, I think we’re going to see a change in [population]demographics,” Forestier said. “We’re going to see people with higher incomes coming into the area.”

School districts planning bonds 

For school districts, residential development can significantly affect future enrollment numbers. It is necessary for districts to know where development occurs to plan for future schools, Willis ISD Superintendent Tim Harkrider said.

The Woodlands Hills and Moran Ranch are in the attendance zones for Brabham Middle School and Willis High School but are subject to change with the addition of new schools. Both campuses, as well as Turner and Lynn Lucas elementary schools, have surpassed or will soon surpass their maximum capacities, according to the district’s 2015 demographic study.

Harkrider said the $109.5 million school bond approved by voters in 2015 did fund some projects to address immediate population growth. The bond funded a 250-student capacity expansion for Brabham, and construction of a career and technology education center and agriculture science center at Willis High.

The district will also open a new elementary school as part of the 2015 bond, but the timeline for the project is dependent on growth, Harkrider said. The school could be located near the intersection of the incoming M.P. Clark and League Line roads, according to 2015 bond information.

“We knew on the bond in 2015 that we were due for some new facilities prior to this new growth,” Harkrider said. “The bond was based on our normal percentage of growth because we needed those facilities.”

Still, Harkrider said the district should plan for another bond election—possibly as early as November 2019—and consider a 250-student expansion at Lynn Lucas Middle School as well as construction of a second high school, an 800-student elementary school and a 1,000-student middle school combination on a 50-acre tract on Longstreet Road near Chambers Creek Ranch.

“When that southern growth comes, I think we’re going to be in a position where something else needs to be done down south as well as something up on the north side of town,” Harkrider said.

Conroe ISD is also monitoring the growth, Superintendent Don Stockton said. On average, the district gains 1,700 students per year.

CISD residents approved a $487 million school bond for CISD in 2015 to address anticipated growth, but a majority of the bond focused on infrastructure updates and new schools in South Montgomery County. However, Stockton said the district is not ignoring growth in Conroe.

CISD Deputy Superintendent of Operations Chris Hines  said the district is building a new 1,500-capacity junior high school, which is expected to break ground in February or March and open in August 2020 behind Bozman Intermediate and Patterson Elementary schools in the Conroe High School feeder zone.

The 2015 bond also included construction on a K-6 campus, or Flex 19, which will begin in March and open in August 2019 in the Oak Ridge High School feeder zone on Hwy. 242 to address south Conroe-area growth, Hines said.

“We know there’s still going to be growth north,” Stockton said. “We know it’s going to happen when we look ahead years from now, but we just don’t know the timing.”

The district plans to conduct a new demographic study in the next year and potentially hold a bond election in November 2019 that could include a new 3,000-student high school, Stockton said. The high school could be located on the same 200-acre tract of land as Bozman Intermediate School.

“When we have opened a new comprehensive high school in the past, we have typically created a new feeder zone,” Hines said.

Infrastructure needs

Municipalities are also improving city infrastructure and mobility to address population growth. The city of Willis, Montgomery County and the Texas Department of Transportation continue to invest in infrastructure updates in the Willis area.

“The growth that has come north on I-45 that has left Houston, Shenandoah, The Woodlands and Conroe behind is coming our way,” Forestier said. “We are looking forward to working with developers.”

The city of Willis and Montgomery County invested $1.6 million to build the West Side Loop between FM 1097 and Old Montgomery Road that was completed in March. It is also working with TxDOT on a $5.6 million project to widen FM 1097 from two to four lanes from Hwy. 75 to I-45 by 2018.

Montgomery County is working with TxDOT to expand FM 1097 between I-45 and Lake Conroe in a series of projects, estimated to cost $45.6 million.

Meanwhile, Conroe allocated $15.4 million to expand Longmire Road by 2020 from two to four lanes, interim Director of Engineering Tom Woolley said.

Woolley said the city is also working to build a new $61.4 million wastewater treatment plant north of FM 1488 and east of Old Conroe Road, and it is digging two new water wells.

“In some areas like Hwy. 242 and FM 1488, we might not have the capacity or the line to accommodate their developments,” Woolley said. “So that’s new infrastructure that we’re kind of behind the eight ball to get into the ground.”

The city of Conroe will also prepare a new comprehensive plan in the next year to replace 2007’s 10-year plan, where it will evaluate infrastructure and utility needs for the next 20-30 years, Mikeska said.

“It’s very difficult to know how many police men, how many firefighters we are going to need 20-30 years out,” Mikeska said. “But I think you always have to be looking to the future or the city will be left in the dark.”

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Kelly Schafler
Kelly Schafler is the editor for the Lake Houston, Humble and Kingwood edition of Community Impact Newspaper, covering public education, city government, development, businesses, local events and all things community-related. Before she became editor, she was the reporter for the Conroe and Montgomery edition for a year and a half.
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