As The Woodlands approaches its 50th anniversary in 2024, government officials and businesses hope to carry the township through the next 15-25 years by attracting retail, restaurant and entertainment options to boost its tax base and status as a destination.
With four new faces on the seven-member board of directors, the township and other entities are working toward projects to support more local economic growth.
The Woodlands witnessed a 39.4% year-over-year increase in hotel occupancy tax revenue from 2021-22, putting numbers near prepandemic levels, according to Visit the Woodlands data.
Township officials said the numbers show tourism, which provided the boon for economic growth, is on its way to supporting additional projects.
Changes potentially coming include the township’s takeover and programming of The Woodlands Waterway and redevelopment efforts for several local village shopping centers with low occupancy levels.
Meanwhile, The Woodlands Mall is considering an 80,000-square-foot expansion.
However, many of these changes will require help from outside agencies as well as efforts from the township’s newly reformed Ad Hoc Economic Development Committee, which was disbanded in 2020 early in the pandemic.
“This is a truly remarkable community, but it’s showing its age,” township Board Member Brad Bailey said at the board’s Jan. 27 strategic planning meeting. “It’s almost 50 years old, and there are some areas we need to make it a priority to look at those areas and what we need to do.”
The Woodlands Mall is poised to undergo a potential renovation and expansion which could break ground as early as 2025. The project would alter the layout and offer a more open and walkable concept reminiscent of Market Street, according to Brookfield Properties, the management company overseeing the mall.
The previous township board approved an economic development zone agreement with the mall developers Nov. 16 that would reimburse the mall for up to $80 million for construction of a parking garage.
Funding would come from 1% of new sales and hotel tax revenue generated within the zone. The development and construction of the mall do not fall under the township’s control, but township officials said it would benefit from the additional tax revenue.
“It is going to be a long process; developments don’t happen quickly unfortunately in our world,” said Jim Varsamis, senior vice president of development at Brookfield Properties. “But we are in the process where we’ve kicked off with an architect, and we are starting to work on plans ... that we can submit to the township for approval.”
Brookfield is looking at roughly 80,000 square feet of potential new retail and restaurant opportunities where the current parking garage and Macy’s surface parking lot sits at the southwest corner of the mall. It could include relocating a Forever 21 store, officials said.
At the Jan. 19 township meeting, Brian Whaley, manager of development and retail for Brookfield, explained the idea is to create an open, walkable environment which could attract some higher-end clients.
Commercial real estate data and analytics firm Green Street released a report Feb. 8 which stated the best performing tenants in U.S. malls are higher-end retailers. It also noted a reduction in apparel-based stores in favor of more entertainment and restaurant-style businesses.
The project could also include two hotels, one of which is proposed to potentially connect directly to the mall as well as offering roughly 30,000 square feet of conference space.
According to Varsamis, Brookfield is partnering with a hotel group and putting together a package to go out early this year for hotels that fit the criteria. Hotel brands being considered include Grand Hyatt, Thompson, Kimpton and Canopy.
Officials said the new hotels could bring a new wave of tourism that could be supported by the development of an arts center adjacent to The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion.
JJ Hollie, president of The Woodlands Area Chamber of Commerce, said new development is key to continuing a positive economic outlook for The Woodlands.
“I think that us having new and upscale properties in The Woodlands helps to attract visitors and travelers to The Woodlands,” Hollie said. “That is a huge part of our economy. It really helps to drive sales tax and hotel-motel tax.”
The Waterway and arts center
In 2024, the township will take over management of The Woodlands Waterway from the Howard Hughes Corp., adding another potential source of revenue and development.
As part of this, the township is eyeing possible events, festivals and offerings which would continue to feed into future retail, restaurant and entertainment growth.
Maintenance and operation of the Waterway will be under the township’s purview, and $650,000 was budgeted in 2023 to begin taking over those costs, with $1.2 million expected in the 2024 budget, according to The Woodlands Township CEO Monique Sharp.
Chief Operating Officer Chris Nunes said at the Jan. 27 strategic planning meeting that township officials have looked at places such as Providence, Rhode Island, for comparable ways to use the Waterway.
“We’ve got to understand what [the township] vision is to really try to figure out how to make it work in a five-year plan or what might be feasible to research,” Nunes said.
For example, plans to pursue a performing arts center were tabled in early 2020 until better economic conditions were available, officials said.
The township approved a memorandum of understanding with the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in 2019 to explore options for a possible arts center on a parcel of land next to the Pavilion. The former GE Betz campus at 9669 Grogans Mill Road, acquired by the township in 2015, was also discussed as a potential site by township officials at its Jan. 27 strategic planning meeting. A final determination on the location has not been made.
According to Sharp, the next step in the process to pursue an arts center would be to hire architects and develop an official design, which would take 14-18 months.
She said hotel occupancy tax reserves could be used to pay the architect fees, which she estimated could potentially total around $100,000 to $140,000.
Hotel occupancy tax revenue helps fund tourism projects in the township. However, Sharp said the fund would not be enough to cover the full expense of constructing the performing arts center, and the township would need to partner with another entity or put a bond referendum before voters for approval. Township officials have not discussed a bond as a possibility.
Revitalizing the village centers
During the Jan. 19 meeting, the township board voted 5-1 to reform the Ad Hoc Economic Development Committee, which dissolved in 2020 due to the pandemic. The committee is now composed of Board Members Ann Snyder, Kyle Watson and Brad Bailey.
The committee works independently of The Woodlands Area Economic Development Partnership, which largely pursues large corporate relocations in The Woodlands area.
The local committee will focus on how the township can spur local retail, dining and entertainment development, officials said.
“Economic development is critical to growing and sustaining our local economy as well as maintaining and increasing our sales and hotel tax, and what that does is it reduces the reliance on property tax,” Snyder said in an interview.
Several of The Woodlands’ village town centers have seen occupancy drop as larger grocery stores such as H-E-B and Walmart opened locations in and around The Woodlands.
“Those village centers were supposed to be the hub of those villages, but right now they’re the flat tire,” Bailey said at the Jan. 27 meeting.
The Grogan’s Mill and Panther Creek Village Centers saw their anchor Randalls stores close in early 2020, and while economic growth in other parts of The Woodlands has started to return based on sales and revenue tax levels, the low occupancy rates of those village centers has remained.
Bruce Cunningham, president of the Grogan’s Mill Village Association, said he hopes providing more visibility to the shopping center as well as bringing in a new anchor store would revitalize the areas.
“[The Woodlands’ founder] George Mitchell wanted everybody to be able to walk to a shop at Randalls, or, you know, a shopping center that was within a mile and a half of 90% of the people who live in the village,” Cunningham said.
One of the biggest challenges is bringing all parties to the table, as the Grogan’s Mill Shopping Center alone consists of nine separate properties, Cunningham said.
In a letter to the board of directors, the Grogan’s Mill Village Association asked whether the township would consider using $20 million in “surplus incorporation funds” to help improve the center.
Snyder said the committee will speak with various stakeholders and report back to the board of directors to find solutions at some point.
“The ... Ad Hoc Development Committee is the perfect vehicle to bring all those different parties together and try to come up with a solution that is going to revitalize the shopping centers,” Hollie said.