Despite the hit on the economy from the pandemic, Houston's prosperous economic development activity from 2020 has earned it a top spot on a new nationwide ranking. Photo via Getty Images

The Houston metro area shed 141,300 jobs last year — the worst one-year job loss ever recorded in the region — and the area's unemployment rate peaked at 14.3 percent last April. But, according to a new ranking, there's at least one bright spot in Houston's economy.

Site Selection magazine's latest report shines a bright light on last year's economic development activity in the Houston area and on the future of the region's economy. The area ranks No. 3 among major U.S. metro areas for the number of economic development projects secured last year (213). Houston shares the top 10 with two other Texas metro areas: Dallas-Fort Worth (ranked second with 262 projects) and Austin (tied for No. 6 with 84 projects). Chicago claimed the top spot, landing 327 economic development projects last year.

Site Selection lists several Houston-area projects among the top projects that Texas gained last year, including:

Measured another way, Houston ranked sixth for the number of economic development projects per capita last year (32.8) among major metro areas. Austin grabbed the No. 2 spot (43.2 projects per capita), and Dallas-Fort Worth appeared at No. 3 (37.7 projects per capita).

In remarks January 26 at the 2021 annual meeting of the Greater Houston Partnership, board Chairwoman Amy Chronis cited the 1,000-job Axiom Space project as one of last year's economic highlights for the region.

"This is a game-changing project for Houston as we position our region as one of the country's leading tech hubs," Chronis said. "It is the type of catalytic project that will drive meaningful growth of the commercial aerospace sector in Houston."

Chronis noted that Houston already is home to nearly 23,000 aerospace manufacturing professionals, along with more than 500 aerospace and aviation companies and institutions, "but the potential is so much greater."

"The space race is shifting to a commercially funded and operated industry, and it is critical that Houston maintains our leadership position," Chronis said.

NASA announced the Axiom Space project — the world's first commercial space station — in January 2020. Axiom Space aims to begin attaching its space modules to the International Space Station in 2024.

"NASA has once again recognized the hard work, talent, and experience of Houstonians as we expand the International Space Station and promote commercial opportunities in space," U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said in a release touting the Axiom Space project.

Just last month, Axiom Space raised $130 million in a Series B round led by London-based investment firm C5 Capital. The funding will go toward bulking up the company's workforce and developing the space station.

Rob Meyerson, operating partner at C5 and a new member of Axiom Space's board of directors, called the company "a force in the space sector," and the startup's space station "the infrastructure upon which we will build many new businesses in space" and a launchpad for exploration of the moon and Mars.

"Axiom's work to develop a commercial destination in space is a critical step for NASA to meet its long-term needs for astronaut training, scientific research, and technology demonstrations in low-Earth orbit," Jim Bridenstine, a Rice University graduate who resigned earlier this year as NASA administrator, said in January 2020. "We are transforming the way NASA works with industry to benefit the global economy and advance space exploration."

The Greater Houston Partnership hosted its annual economic outlook event online — here's what the numbers indicate for Houston business in the new year. Photo via Getty Images

2021 will be a 'bipolar year' and other key takeaways from the Greater Houston Partnership's economic outlook

looking forward

As much of the world is ready to celebrate a new year — one likely to be drastically less affected by COVID-19 — the Greater Houston Partnership released an annual report about what Houston's economy will look like in 2021.

Senior vice president of research Patrick Jankowski and his team put the Houston Region Economic Outlook report together and shared some its highlights at a virtual event hosted by Bob Harvey, president and CEO of GHP.

Of course, much of the study focused on how the coronavirus — as well as the impending vaccine — will affect the region's economy.

"At this point last year, neither Patrick nor any of us could have predicted the arrival of COVID-19 and its devastating impact on the global economy," Harvey says at the event. "Here in Houston COVID wreaked havoc on industries across the spectrum from energy to hospitality."

In the early weeks, the Houston region lost 350,000 jobs, according to the report, and in the months since, the region added back about half with 176,000 jobs.

Below are some more key takeaways from the report — and in most cases, the outcome depends on how COVID-19 case numbers are affected by the holidays and the accessibility of the vaccine.

"The weeks and months ahead are likely to be some of the most difficult of the pandemic," Harvey cautions. "We cannot afford to let our guard down now as we approach the finish line."

Energy will continue to struggle

Photo via Getty Images

The past six years have been rough for oil and gas, and in Houston specifically, Houston has lost nearly 100,000 upstream energy jobs, and the energy industry's share of Houston's GDP has fallen from 35 to 40 percent (a GHP '14 estimate) to 20 to 25 percent (a GHP '19 estimate).

The Russia-Saudi Oil Feud in March brought this decline to its head and it's not looking like it's getting back to normal any time soon. "Next year won't be any easier for the industry. While global demand has improved, it will remain three to five million barrels per day below pre-COVID levels," reads the report.

The new administration is expected to have several goals that will affect the industry, such as bringing the U.S. back into the Paris Agreement, negotiating new mileage and emission rules for autos and trucks, slowing or halting oil leasing on federal lands and in the Gulf of Mexico, increasing environmental scrutiny during the pipeline permitting process, and more.

Jobs in some industries will come back

Chart via GHP

According to the report, Houston's unemployment rate, at 3.9 percent in February, jumped to 5.5 percent in March, then 14.3 percent in April — the highest on record.

"Unemployment has improved — we're at 7.9 percent now," Jankowski says at the event.

But recovery depends on the industry. Jankowski predicts that retail and energy are both expected to continue to lose jobs, and other industry sectors — such as government, arts and entertainment, and educational services — aren't expected to grow by much.

However, some of the sectors hardest hit in 2020 — construction, manufacturing, support services, and restaurants — are expected to bounce back with thousands of new jobs.

The chart gives a range of job growth — there's a lower and a higher outlook. Jankowski says it depends on how well the vaccine is doing.

If by mid-year, we don't have much of the population inoculated, it's going to be closer to that lower number," he says.

2021 will be a "bipolar year"

Patrick Jankowski of the GHP. Photo via Houston.org

The first and second halves of the year are going to look different, Jankowski says, it's just a matter of how different at this point. In addition to the vaccine and COVID case numbers, the things the GHP as well as Houston businesses are watching is the new Biden Administration

"We won't see any significant growth in the economy until we get to the second half of the year," he says

The first quarter of 2021 will be especially tough for Houston, according to the report, since the region always experiences job losses in January as retail, restaurant, and transportation workers hired for the holiday season are rolled off. Additionally, contract workers employed to meet year-end deadlines are released and plans for reorganization are implemented.

"No one should be surprised when Houston loses 40,000 or more jobs this January," the report reads. "Houston's recovery will likely lag the U.S.'s by a few months, but growth will resume in the second half of '21."

Houston ranks at No. 11 in the best cities in America — and No. 1 in Texas. Getty Images

Houston scores lofty ranking in new study of America’s best cities

h-town proud

Buoyed by diversity, fine food, and Fortune 500 companies, Houston ranks as the 11th best city in the country and the top city in Texas, according to a consulting firm's annual study.

"Smart, skilled, and soulful, Houston is the American city of the future," says the study, published by Vancouver, Canada-based Resonance Consultancy Ltd., which specializes in marketing, strategy, and research for the real estate, tourism, and economic development sectors.

In last year's study, Houston also held the No. 11 ranking.

The 2020 study praises Houston for its:

  • Ethnic diversity, with more than 145 languages spoken in Houston-area homes.
  • Highly regarded restaurants, rated fourth behind Los Angeles, New York City, and Chicago.
  • Healthy concentration of Fortune 500 companies, representing the country's biggest businesses. Twenty-two companies based in the Houston area are listed on this year's Fortune 500.
  • Airport connectivity (No. 7 ranking).

The study further lauds the city for development of the Houston Spaceport, a hub for the region's space industry. However, the study notes that Houston ranks 47th for prosperity, 74th for employment, and 99th (next to last) for income equality.

"From medicine to space to energy, we are at the forefront of innovation. We are resilient problem-solvers who work together to find common solutions, no matter if we're facing Hurricane Harvey or a global pandemic," real estate developer David Mincberg, chairman of Houston First Corp., says in an August 6 release. "Houston continues to grow and get better, so we invite those who live here to rediscover our city and visitors to come as soon as it is safe and enjoy all that Houston has to offer."

Houston First promotes the city as a destination for leisure and business travelers.

Resonance Consultancy ranks large U.S. cities by relying on a mix of 26 performance and quality measures. This year, New York City tops the list, followed by Los Angeles; San Francisco; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; San Diego; Las Vegas; San Jose, California; Miami; and Boston.

Three spots behind Houston is Dallas, at No. 14. Austin comes in at No. 17 and San Antonio at No. 28. Fort Worth isn't included in the ranking.

Highlights for Dallas include:

  • No. 1 ranking for airport connectivity, thanks largely to the presence of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
  • Country's highest concentration of corporate headquarters (more than 10,000).
  • Country's third largest grouping of Fortune 500 companies (24 in Dallas-Fort Worth).
  • Sixth largest LGBTQ community in the U.S.
  • Dallas Arts District, the country's largest contiguous urban arts district.

"Dallas inspires big ideas. This big and bold approach has resulted in world-class arts, culture, architecture, dining, business, and more, which are changing the face of the city," VisitDallas, the city's convention and tourism arm, says on its website.

Sitting at No. 17, Austin boasts No. 8 rankings for educational attainment and nightlife, the study says, along with a vibrant cultural scene anchored by events such as SXSW and a flourishing tech landscape dotted by the likes of Apple, Dell, Facebook, Google, and Oracle.

Austin's showing in the Resonance Consultancy study comes on the heels of the city being hailed by U.S. News & World Report as the No. 1 place to live in the country, with particularly high marks for desirability, jobs, and quality of life.

"With a strong, continually growing tech-talent labor force and an overall lower cost of living and doing business, I think Austin could end up being a beneficiary market in the recovery of the pandemic as many tech users look to move out of more densely populated areas like New York City or San Francisco," Erin Morales, senior vice president of commercial real estate services company CBRE, said in a July news release.

At No. 28, San Antonio earns kudos from Resonance Consultancy for its plethora of attractions, including the River Walk, five colonial missions, San Antonio Zoo, San Antonio Museum of Art, and Texas Golf Hall of Fame. Alamo City shows up at No. 7 in the study's attractions category.

In addition, the study highlights San Antonio's popular mixed-use Pearl district, whose assets include a campus of the Culinary Institute of America. "Around the esteemed school, a host of grads and chefs have clustered, creating a smorgasbord of choices from Italian to 'cue to bakery to vegetarian cuisine," according to the study.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Texas was named the second best state for business by Forbes, and Oxford Economics predicted Houston's economic growth to be more significant over the next few years than most other major metros. Getty Images

Texas recognized as second best state for business, while Houston expected to see key economic growth

Feathers for our cap

Houston and the rest of Texas received two early Christmas presents signaling that their economies continue to percolate.

In a report released December 23, economic forecasting and analysis firm Oxford Economics predicted Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth will enjoy a greater share of economic growth through 2023 than any other mega-metro area in the U.S. except San Francisco.

Meanwhile, Forbes magazine declared on December 19 that Texas is the second best state for business, behind only North Carolina. Texas previously sat in the No. 3 spot on the Forbes list, preceded by North Carolina and Utah.

Through 2023, Oxford Economics forecasts average compound GDP growth of 2.4 percent in Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth. Among the country's 10 biggest metro areas, only the projection for San Francisco is higher (2.7 percent).

For Houston, the 2.4 percent figure would be an improvement over recent economic performance. From 2014 to 2018, the region's GDP growth rate was 1 percent, while it was 1.5 percent for 2015-19. In the 2020-21 timeframe, the growth rate for Houston is expected to be 1.9 percent.

In a recent forecast, the Greater Houston Partnership envisions the Houston area adding 42,300 jobs in 2020, mostly outside the energy sector. Among the region's top-performing sectors in 2020 will be healthcare, government, food services, and construction, the partnership says. Meanwhile, the energy, retail, and information sectors are expected to shrink.

In November, Robert Gilmer of the University of Houston's Institute for Regional Forecasting explained that by the end of 2022, job losses in the oil industry should have a limited effect on the region's economy. Still, he anticipates Houston's job growth through 2024 will be "moderate and just below trend."

In forecasting strong economic growth for Houston and DFW, Oxford Economics says the "industrial structures" of the two regions "are not exceptional, but low costs and low regulation mean that the industries that they do have grow faster than elsewhere."

"San Francisco's very high costs are creating affordability problems and rising inequalities that may eventually undermine its model," Oxford Economics adds. "Competitive advantages never last forever. The Sunbelt cities [including Houston and DFW] may yet give it a run for its money."

Houston's and DFW's competitive advantages mesh with those of the entire state. Texas' high points include lower taxes, lower labor expenses, lower cost of living, and low levels of regulation, Oxford Economics says.

As noted by Forbes, Moody's Analytics predicts Texas businesses will add close to 1 million new jobs by 2023, which would be the third highest average annual job growth rate among the states. Meanwhile, the share of Texans who launched businesses last year was the fourth highest in the country, according to Kauffman Foundation data cited by Forbes. And just three states — California, New York and Washington — saw more venture capital flow into them in 2018 and 2019 than Texas did, according to PwC.

Texas earned these rankings on the Forbes list:

  • No. 1 state for growth prospects
  • No. 1 state for business costs
  • No. 4 state for economic climate
  • No. 10 state for labor supply
  • No. 15 state for quality of life
  • No. 21 state for regulatory environment
In his 2019 State of the State address, Gov. Greg Abbott praised Texas as "the most powerful state in America," thanks in part to healthy job growth, low unemployment, and rising wages. "Texas is the premier economic destination in the United States," he said.
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Greentown Labs hires former Houston sustainability exec

new hire

The country's largest climatetech startup incubator has made a strategic new hire.

Lara Cottingham is the new chief of staff for Greentown Labs, a Boston-area company that opened in Houston earlier this year. Cottingham previously served as the city of Houston's chief sustainability officer and the chief of staff for the city's Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department for the past seven years. In her new role, Cottingham will oversee the day-to-day operations and communications for Greentown's CEO Emily Reichert, along with key stakeholder engagements and strategic initiatives for the incubator.

"Lara brings a tremendous wealth of knowledge and experience to our team from her dynamic leadership role at the City of Houston," says Reichert in a news release. "Her breadth of knowledge in sustainability, climate, and the energy transition, and her expertise in regulatory and stakeholder aspects of the energy industry, will be incredibly valuable to our team and community."

Under her leadership at the city of Houston, Cottingham was the chief author of Houston's Climate Action Plan, an initiative aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions in Houston, and getting the city to a point where it meets the Paris Agreement goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Cottingham helped the city move to 100 percent renewable electricity, according to the release, and helped turn a 240-acre landfill into the nation's largest urban solar farm.

"In leading the Climate Action Plan, Lara helped spark Houston's leadership in what has become a global energy transition and was a passionate advocate for climate action in Houston," says Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner in the release. "While she will be missed, this new role will only strengthen our partnership with Greentown. I look forward to working with Emily, Lara, and the Greentown team to meet our climate goals and make Houston the energy capital of the future."

Before her work at the city, Cottingham worked at Hill+Knowlton Strategies' Houston office range of clients across the energy sector. Earlier in her career, she served as communications director for two congressmen in the U.S. House of Representatives. She began her work with the city in 2014.

"In working with Mayor Turner and Climate Mayors across the U.S., I saw how important partnerships are to helping cities decarbonize," says Cottingham in the release. "There is no better partner or place for climate action at work than Greentown Labs. Greentown is 100 percent committed to attracting and nurturing the energy companies of the future and making Houston the energy transition capital of the world. I'm excited to join the team and see how climatetech can help cities reach their climate goals."

Greentown Labs first announced its entrance into the Houston market last summer. The new 40,000-square-foot facility in Midtown across the street from The Ion opened its prototyping and wet lab space, offices, and community gathering areas for about 50 startup companies opened in April. Greentown was founded in 2011 in Somerville, Massachusetts, and has supported more than 400 startups, which have raised more than $1.5 billion in funding.

Houston edtech nonprofit grows its technology with $440K grant from Kinder Foundation

student-focused

As the learning landscape shifted from in-person to virtual, the ability to provide students with necessary support systems and resources became compromised. However, one Houston edtech company worked hard to close that gap.

ProUnitas, a Houston-based nonprofit, partnered with Thoughtworks, a global technology consultancy, to expand its PurpleSENSE platform to mobile. This partnership was ensured through significant private investment, including a one-time gift of $440,000 from the Kinder Foundation.

ProUnitas promises that this expansion will allow student support teams to take the power of PurpleSENSE with them on the go for easier, real-time response using the new PurpleSENSE mobile app.

"A mobile version of PurpleSENSE will empower student support teams to work more rapidly, efficiently and effectively towards their mission and goals," Chris Murphy, CEO of Thoughtworks North America, says in a news release.

Committed to ensuring that no students fall through the cracks, ProUnitas' purpose is focused on providing all students, including those most impoverished, with support services such as food assistance programs, mental health counseling, and after-school clubs.

"Every day many of our students carry the burden of poverty on their shoulders to school, and despite the availability of services, schools do not have the technology infrastructure necessary to connect students to resources in a coordinated way. We want to change this reality," says Adeeb Barqawi, president and CEO of ProUnitas, says in the release.

Engaged in similar work, the Kinder Foundation was a natural partner.

"The Kinder Foundation believes that children cannot succeed if they are juggling significant personal challenges," says Nancy Kinder, president and CEO of the Kinder Foundation, in the release. "As a result of the pandemic, we are seeing mental health and the impact of stress with fresh eyes. Now is the time to support our children and help them thrive and learn. We are proud to help elevate the work of ProUnitas to reach more schools and more students in this critical time of need."

In a press release, ProUnitas states that through these new mobile capabilities, up to 60 percent of administrative work in providing social service options is eliminated. It also shortens the response time for a student to be identified and receive services by 90 percent.

The expansion of PurpleSENSE to mobile is a critical step for ProUnitas to effectively support more schools and students.

Renewables are Houston's next chapter, says this expert

guest column

Houston has long been known as an innovative city — from medicine to technology to creative cuisines (see Viet-Cajun). I am always proud to see how cultures, education, and change come together to build the fabric of our city. As we look forward to a new future, we need to look no further than one of our strongest industries: energy. As many before me, I've sat down to ask: What does that next chapter look like for Houston?

Renewable energy has rapidly grown in Texas and across the country. Emerging technology has furthered this innovation, bringing wind and solar projects that are more powerful and reliable online from the Panhandle to deep in the Rio Grande Valley. As these new projects come online, aging wind facilities built in the early 2000s are beginning to be revitalized, gleaming bright white with newer, longer blades. And, similar to cleaning out your closet of old clothes, the current blades have to go somewhere. Where others see a problem, we saw an opportunity: We've made a business out of recycling them.

At Everpoint, we are demolishing and removing blades all across the US, with projects in North Dakota, Colorado, and even here in another Texas city, Sweetwater. In this rural Texas town, wind investment took Nolan County market value from $607 million in 1998 to $3.2 billion as development peaked in 2009. This growth enabled the school districts, county, and hospital district to expand and upgrade their facilities. As a trailblazer in the industry, we worked closely with the Sweetwater team to handle a smooth transition, allowing their community to look forward to a breezier future.

The industry is quickly innovating to meet the demands of Texas' future, and new opportunities are forming every day, something we're proud to be a part of, especially as a veteran-owned company. We are driven to make the future of energy more transparent and traceable, that's why we partner with firms like Media Sorcery which uses sensors and an ESG based blockchain built by another Houston firm, Topl, to maintain full accountability throughout the decommissioning process.

Beyond our company, the renewable energy industry employs veterans at a higher rate than the national average, with more than 11,000 in the wind industry alone. As a veteran myself it only made since to team with another veteran founded company to pursue this opportunity. I appreciate meeting fellow veterans every day that are applying the skills they learned in the military: a technical knowledge base, teamwork, and discipline.

Across Texas, renewable energy is powering 40,200 well-paying careers that I know are building toward a better, brighter Houston. It's in our blood to continue the Texas legacy of welcoming energy industries, like wind and solar, into our state. I believe in an all-energy approach to the energy transition. Renewable energy is about more than hearts and minds, it's about dollars and cents.

In honor of that, we are celebrating American Clean Power Week this week, October 25-29, and we hope you will join us. Not to celebrate one industry, but to embrace an all of the above, made in Texas energy future — a future that I know we can all be proud of, and where Houston will be the Energy Capital of the Future.

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Kevin Doffing is the chief commercial officer of Everpoint Services.