Community leaders in Harris County said they feel confident about the region’s economic recovery and have initiatives in place to deal with the area’s growing population.
The Houston Northwest Chamber of Commerce’s annual Economic Outlook Forum was held March 31 at Southwestern Energy’s headquarters in Springwoods Village. The forum featured speakers from government, business, education and technology sectors discussing the future of their respective industries in the region.
The Houston metropolitan area population increased by about 125,000 from July 2015 to early 2016 despite zero job growth during that period, said Patrick Jankowski, senior vice president of research at the Greater Houston Partnership.
Jankowski said he is optimistic about Houston’s recovery from the oil and gas downturn.
“We’re definitely on the mend,” Jankowski said. “The worst is behind us in the rearview mirror.”
The GHP has forecast more than 29,000 new Houston-area jobs for 2017 and predicts about 60,000 jobs will be added each year beginning in 2018.
Jankowski said part of the reason for this expected recovery is the diversity of job opportunities in the Greater Houston area. While the region lost over 80,000 energy jobs from 2014 to 2016, it added at least 83,000 jobs in health care, hotel, retail and other sectors, he said.
The energy sector will have greater recovery prospects when the price of oil is at least $60 a barrel, and the region will need that recovery to keep up with growth, he said.
Southwestern Energy CEO Bill Way said in his remarks as keynote speaker the energy industry will continue to play a major role in the economy of the Greater Houston area. Way said he expects a resurgence in energy infrastructure by 2035, with up to $620 billion in U.S. energy infrastructure projects possible by that time in new pipelines, exports and other projects.
“We have an optimistic view of the energy business going forward,” Way said.
Harris County has approved 669 new neighborhoods since Jan. 1, 2014, Harris County Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said. The growth has led to unprecedented road congestion and a need for expansion and improvements on heavily traveled roads.
Cagle said Phase 2 of the $99 million Hwy. 249 extension project is slated to be completed Dec. 31, 2019. Meanwhile, the expected completion date for the project to widen Kuykendahl Road over Spring Creek is May 17, he said.
Speakers also addressed the challenges that a growing population poses in education and health care.
“We are one of the most diverse [communities]—perhaps the most—in the country, and we need to work to make sure that is an asset and a strength and something we build on,” said David Thompson, an attorney at Thompson & Horton LLP, which specializes in education. “Schools are going to be central to how we productively respond to changes that are occurring in the world around us, the state and in the local level.”
Ken Janda, the CEO of nonprofit Community Health Choice, discussed the health insurance needs of Texas residents and the future of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Texas has the highest rates of uninsured people in the country, he said.
“For all the faults of the ACA, there are 30 million [American] people now covered who were uninsured,” Janda said.
Janda’s advice to business owners concerned about further changes to health care coverage for their employees was to remain flexible.
“Keep doing what you are doing now, but be ready to flex when laws change,” he said.
Technology, national concerns
With the region diversifying in its approach to job growth, speakers from technology industries weighed in on how the field will create new opportunities and challenges.
Van Lindberg, an attorney at law firm Dykema Cox Smith who specializes in technology issues, discussed the potential of autonomous vehicles in the development of the Houston economy.
James Morrison, an FBI computer scientist at the Houston Cyber Task Force, described how small businesses are vulnerable to avoidable cyberattacks.
“Sixty percent of small businesses collapse after they get hit by a cyberattack,” Morrison said.