South Montgomery County hospitals continued to expand in 2019, with several facility openings, construction announcements and job creation cementing health care as a key and growing industry in The Woodlands.

These additions to the market are expected to bring in new jobs and patient services to the area’s economy, building on industry growth, officials said. The total workforce of major health care industry employers in The Woodlands area grew from around 4,550 employees in 2010 to more than 9,200 this year, according to The Woodlands Area Economic Development Partnership.

“The last several years, when I deliver the state of the job growth in our community at the chamber’s [The Woodlands Area Chamber of•Commerce] Economic Outlook Conference, we typically start by saying, ‘Once again, health care is leading our growth and jobs,’” EDP CEO Gil Staley said. “It reinforces to us that there’s still a strong belief in this market to bring opportunities and health care. ... It’s just a grand example of the popularity of our area.”

Hospital expansions

The south Montgomery County medical market has seen new additions and project announcements in 2019 that are expected to bring hundreds of new jobs to the region.

Two of the area’s hospitals and largest employers, Houston Methodist The Woodlands Hospital and Memorial Hermann The Woodlands Medical Center, each began work on facility additions that are expected to open in 2022.

Houston Methodist announced a $240 million patient tower expansion this spring as the second phase of its master plan for its campus in The Woodlands, which will increase the hospital’s capacity and staff. The addition broke ground in late September.

The hospital now holds nearly 200 patient beds and 15 operating rooms, and it will gain around 100 beds and 10 operating rooms with the tower addition. The tower project will also expand capacity for several centers within the hospital, including emergency, endoscopy, heart and diagnostic imaging areas. •Debbie Sukin, the CEO and regional senior vice president for Houston Methodist The Woodlands Hospital, said the facility had always planned to grow along with the area and its needs, but the health system accelerated its plans to kick off the expansion in 2019.

The tower’s groundbreaking followed a year of growth for the hospital, which Sukin said included the completion of 16 capital projects, such as the addition of five new operating rooms and several intensive care unit beds. The facility also gained around 500 employees since the start of 2018, according to information from Sukin and the EDP.

This fall also saw the start of an eight-story tower addition across I-45 at Memorial Hermann’s Shenandoah medical center. That $250 million project will add nearly 150 patient beds, six operating rooms, and several specialized care units and labs, according to hospital officials.

“We have patients of our community that we can’t accommodate today that are ending up going elsewhere,” said Josh Urban, Memorial Hermann senior vice president and The Woodlands Medical Center CEO. “If we’re pretty much out of space today, we’re definitely going to have the need—even a greater deficit here in the future.”•Memorial Hermann was the area’s third-largest nonretail employer in 2019, with its more than 2,500 employees behind only Conroe ISD and Anadarko Petroleum Corp. Urban said the expansion is expected to bring even more workers to the Shenandoah hospital.

“I anticipate several hundred more employees as we move towards opening the south tower, and we’ll be over 3,000 here in the coming couple of years,” he said.

Staley said the planned additions should bring a boost to many layers of the local economy as construction and hiring continue at both locations.

“When you’re looking at expansion with a capital spend of nearly a half a billion dollars just on two projects, that is tremendously impactful to a community,” Staley said. “Then you start bringing in the need to hire, and that brings the need for more housing. And rooftops drives economy.”

Projections from the Greater Houston Partnership showed health care as the Greater Houston area’s top sector for employment gains as well. The GHP in late 2018 estimated an annual addition of around 9,000 health care jobs in the region in 2019, and the partnership’s mid-November update showed a “return to trend” in the field with around 8,400 jobs added year to date.

Room for growth

This year also saw another Houston-area medical provider expand its presence in The Woodlands. MD Anderson Cancer Center, which had operated out of CHI St. Luke’s Health-The Woodlands Hospital for around a decade, completed a three-story standalone care center off Hwy. 242 that opened in early fall.

Establishing the 210,000-square-foot center also increased MD Anderson’s local workforce, which grew from around 120 employees at St. Luke’s to 230 at the new facility, officials said.

“Once we rolled out additional service lines to be more comprehensive, we needed additional experts. We’ve added all kinds of job titles and all kinds of different positions and roles to be able to support the growth of our new programs,” said Kyle Taylor, MD Anderson’s executive director of Houston-area locations.

Ketrese White, the assistant vice president for Texas Children’s Hospital The Woodlands, said the facility is also planning to expand over the next year and has grown its job count and coverage area since opening in 2017.

“People think just Woodlands, but we get the market from that whole region, even patients traveling from Louisiana [and the] East Texas area,” White said.

White said Texas Children’s will open an on-site urgent care center in May 2020 due to the needs of its emergency care services. The hospital also plans to open two additional operating rooms in the spring.

Hospital officials and industry experts said population growth continues to be the driving factor behind south Montgomery County’s health care corridor.•“I’ve seen projections for the population growth in our community and also our county, and it’s still projected to go up. So when that happens, history proves hospitals answer, and they have to expand to address the need,” Staley said. “I don’t anticipate it coming to a halt or even slowing down for that matter.”•Taylor, Sukin and Urban said each of their systems’ new facilities were or will be constructed with shell space for anticipated future demand for care as the Greater Houston and Montgomery County population upswing continues.

‘An economic boon’

Officials and experts also said the area’s specific demographics could justify further expansion of health care facilities. Bill Stinneford, the senior vice president of the health care analytics firm Buxton—which partnered with Houston Methodist for its The Woodlands expansion—said the area’s family focus and highly insured population are keys to its sustained medical interest.

“The Woodlands has a significant number of middle- and upper-middle-class households with good insurance. Many of those households are young families with children and young adults, which is a great target for health care organizations,” Stinneford said. “When people are moving into an area at a high rate it attracts health care providers’ attention.”

According to 2017 U.S. Census Bureau estimates, 93.9% of The Woodlands residents are insured—several points higher than Montgomery County’s 85.5% and Harris County’s 78.9% rates overall and the U.S. average of 89.5%. The Woodlands insured rate includes 94.8% of under 19-year-olds and 92.5% of 19- to 64-year-olds.

Staley also said the continued investment in The Woodlands medical center remains one of the EDP’s top attractors for businesses considering a move to the south Montgomery County area.•“I’m always keenly interested in promoting health care. When we recruit companies, literally all over the world, that is always top of mind for us when we talk about relocating or bringing your company here.” he said. “Health care plays a huge role in our ability to recruit companies because of the quality of health care in our own backyard.”

While industries such as oil and gas have experienced downturns in recent years, health care’s gains are currently tied to the ongoing population boom and show no signs of slowing, according to hospital officials and market analysts.•The energy industry grew its share of The Woodlands area’s workforce at major employers around 12.72% this decade, including a slight dip since 2016, while health care’s share grew by more than 22% over the same time. Oil and gas was expected to create less than 2,000 regional jobs this year, including forecasted cuts, according to the GHP’s 2018 employment estimates.

The industry “no longer determines Houston’s fate” as the Greater Houston area becomes more tied to the national and international economy, according to the GHP report, and now sits at 237,700 regional jobs—closer to the industry’s recent regional employment trough of 213,000 in 2016 than its peak of 300,100 in 2014.

Rickie Keys, an adjunct assistant professor at the University of North Texas School of Public Health, said the popularity of moving to Texas and its top metropolitan areas should ensure a flow of employment to places such as The Woodlands for years to come.

“These are going to be skilled workers; these are going to be knowledge-based workers,” Keys said. “Health care is an economic boon. If you look at indicators for technology-based ops or service-based, retail, things like that, you will see that there has been a retrenchment over the last 10 years or so. Health care is the only sector that has experienced continuous economic growth.”•

This article ran in the December 2019 edition of The Woodlands. Read the full e-edition here.