The City of Houston is making it easier to get free COVID-19 vaccinations. Photo courtesy of ABC13

Since COVID-19 vaccinations arrived in Houston, locals have been clamoring for the inoculations. Now, the City of Houston has made it easier for those at highest risk to receive the injections.

The Houston Health Department launched online registration on January 4 for residents at highest risk of coronavirus disease to schedule appointments to receive free vaccinations. (A Spanish version is anticipated to launch as well, according to the city.)

Those in Phase 1B of the State of Texas' vaccine distribution are advised to use the new service. This includes those 65 and older or 18 and older with at least one chronic medical condition putting them at increased risk of severe illness or death.

Frontline healthcare workers — classified as Phase 1A in the distribution plan — who have yet to receive the vaccine also are eligible to sign up to get the shot through the health department, per a press release. The department currently offers the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. More information can also be found here.

Meanwhile, appointments are also available through the health department's COVID-19 call center by calling 832-393-4220. The call center is open Monday through Saturday from 7:30 am to 4 pm and until 5 pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Users will receive an appointment time and the location of the vaccination clinic site during the registration process. Staffers will screen visitors and direct them to a secure area to receive the vaccination and monitor them for any adverse reaction for 15 minutes, according to the city.

"The Houston Health Department is doing a phenomenal job getting the vaccine directly to people," said Mayor Sylvester Turner. "The new online registration, in addition to the call center, will make the process more efficient. While there is great public demand for the COVID-19 vaccine, there is also a lot of hesitancy. I understand the concerns, but I encourage all eligible Houstonians to get vaccinated to help stop the spread of the deadly virus."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

The world's first commercial space station will be built in Space City. Image via axiomspace.com

First commercial space station on the planet to be built in Houston

space city news

Houston's Spaceport will be the place where the world's first commercial space station will be built, according to Mayor Sylvester Turner.

The announcement was made during a December 22 briefing, where Turner announced the partnership between the Houston Spaceport and Axiom Space.

"Our great city is known for taking on humankind's boldest challenges," Turner said. "In 2021, the Houston Spaceport will be the first headquarters for Axiom Space, a privately funded space enterprise."

According to Turner, Axiom Space will construct a 14-acre headquarters. The headquarters "will be the world's first free-flying internationally available private space station that will serve as humanity's central hub for research, manufacturing, and commerce," Turner said.

The partnership is expected to bring more than 1,000 high-paying jobs, from engineers to scientists, mathematicians, and machinists.

"This opportunity will energize our workforce, engage our communities, and dare our young students to look up, wonder, and dream," Turner said.

Houston Spaceport is the country's 10th commercially licensed Spaceport and located at Ellington Airport.

The Houston area has played a key role for decades in the future of aerospace aviation. The Federal Aviation Administration granted formal approval for the city of Houston to making Ellington a launch site for reusable launch vehicles in 2015.

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For more on this story, visit our news partner ABC13.

Microsoft has announced it will be leasing space in The Ion. Courtesy of Rice University

Microsoft announces lease in rising Houston innovation hub

eyes on the ion

Microsoft and Rice Management Company — the owner and management of The Ion, a rising innovation hub in Houston — announced that the tech company will be leasing space on the 288,000 square-foot building's fifth floor.

"Over the last several years, Microsoft has made it clear it is committed to Houston," says Mayor Sylvester Turner in a press release. "With the work Microsoft is already doing with the City and The Ion to support entrepreneurs, workforce development and energy transition, it is only fitting its new home should be in our City's hub for innovation. This news is an exciting next step in our partnership with Microsoft as we continue to grow Houston's innovation ecosystem and become a leader in the global energy transition."

Microsoft has an existing partnership with The Ion and is a founding sponsor of its Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator. Earlier this year, the technology leader has also committed $1 million to skills programming.

"The Ion is fast becoming a hub for Houston's startup community and driving forward innovation in energy transition technologies," says Ravi Krishnaswamy, corporate vice president of Azure Global Industry at Microsoft, in the release. "My team and I are excited to get to work there, supporting Microsoft's vision of powering a sustainable future and accelerating energy transition with the expertise of partners, customers, and industry."

According to the press release, Microsoft will also be a programming partner for The Ion and will host advancement opportunities and events, including a monthly executive forum and virtual symposiums, and support future accelerators for advanced manufacturing, digital skilling, and smart and resilient city innovation.

"The Ion and Microsoft will provide the necessary tools and knowledge needed to become more resilient, strengthen our workforce and create new innovations to accelerate the energy transition," says Jan E. Odegard, interim executive director, in the release. "We were delighted this summer when we announced Microsoft's sponsorship of The Ion programming and are now even more ecstatic to welcome a division of Microsoft to its new home. My team and I look forward to showcasing our great programs that are enabled by corporate sponsors like Microsoft to the entrepreneurs, academics, corporations and community in Houston and around the world."

Microsoft's partnership with The Ion, which is set to open in just a few months, is due in part to the city's collaboration with Microsoft.

"Having Microsoft as a major tenant is a huge step forward in realizing the vision for The Ion as a dynamic hub bringing together key elements of innovation in Houston," Rice President David Leebron says in the release. "We are very grateful to Microsoft and Mayor Turner for advancing this vision."

The city of Houston has implemented a new free internet program in collaboration with Comcast. Photo via Getty Images

City offers internet vouchers to low-income Houstonians amid pandemic

tech support

It's an increasingly digital world, and COVID-19 has just accelerated that trend exponentially. Yet, there are still tons of Houstonians operating offline due to socioeconomic inequities.

The Houston City Council recently approved a $624,960 program with funding from the CARES Act to help bridge this gap. The program, by Mayor Sylvester Turner's Health Equity Response (H.E.R.) Task Force in partnership with Comcast, will provide 5,000 internet vouchers to low-income Houstonians. Applications for the vouchers are open from now until December 20, 2020, and will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. They will provide internet for one calendar year.

"This pandemic has highlighted the importance of quality internet service particularly for those vulnerable populations who must stay at home to stay safe," says Mayor Sylvester Turner in a news release. "This program will provide a lifeline for citizens that have struggled through the pandemic without internet access and a way to stay informed, connected and safe during these challenging times."

To be eligible for the voucher, applicants must live in the city of Houston and have a Comcast serviceable address, as well as meet two personal sets of criteria. First, they must prove that their total household income before February 2020 was lower than 80 percent of the area median income, and second, they must either be over age 65, a person with disabilities, households with children less than five years of age, or a person between 16-24 who is not currently enrolled in school or participating in the workforce.

"During this unprecedented time, it is vital for Houstonians to stay connected to the Internet — for education, work, and personal health reasons," says Comcast's Melinda Little, director of Government Affairs in the Houston Region, in the news release. "We're proud to partner with the City of Houston and Mayor Sylvester Turner's Health Equity Response Task Force to help keep Houstonians connected through our Internet Essentials Program."

While there are existing internet access programs, this program, which is complementary to the city's Computer Access Program, is specifically targeting critical groups that have been overlooked.

"The shift online in everything from grocery shopping to accessing healthcare has been an additional barrier that Houstonians with disabilities have been forced to confront as a result of COVID-19," says Gabe Cazares, director of the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities, in the release. "Thanks to Mayor Turner's commitment to equity and accessibility and the City Council's support, this program will breakdown that barrier by providing in-home internet access for qualifying Houstonians with disabilities, enhancing their independence and self-determination."

The Grow with Google Digital Coaches program has expanded to Houston. Photo via Unsplash

Google launches new program to serve Houston's minority small business owners

new to hou

A new Google initiative is expanding its Texas presence this month. The Grow with Google's Digital Coaches program, which has already launched in Austin, has expanded to the Bayou City — making the Lone Star State the only state to have two locations of this entrepreneur-centric tool.

The program aims to provide digital skills training and coaching to Black and LatinX small business owners and create economic opportunity. Houston is one of eight new cities the program has recently expanded into.

"Houston has a vibrant and growing Black and LatinX small business community," says Lucy Pinto, Google's Digital Coach program manager, in a news release. "The Digital Coaches program will provide business owners in these communities with ongoing workshops and hands-on coaching sessions focused on techniques and digital tools to reach new customers, thrive online and grow."

Houston entrepreneur Joy M. Hutton, founder of Joy of Consulting, will serve as the Grow with Google Digital Coach for Houston. Hutton also runs a restaurant-focused consulting business called The Restaurant Girl and founded go GLAM, a beauty on demand platform.

"The Grow with Google team is making an effort to close the gap in resources that Black and LatinX small business owners have not generally had access to — in Houston and beyond," Hutton says in the release. "I live and breathe entrepreneurship, so I'm honored to participate in the Google Digital Coaches program and excited to work with Houston entrepreneurs who are traditionally underrepresented."

Joy M. Hutton will lead Grow with Google in Houston. Photo courtesy

According to the release, the program is expanding with inclusion in mind. This year, the program will grow to 20 mentors.

"As the representative of Houston's 18th District, a diverse and historic district, I know firsthand the importance and positive impact that investing in diverse communities and their residents can have on the entire population," says Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee in the release. "As Houston continues to prosper and grow, it is critical that we continue to invest in our minority-owned and small businesses to ensure an even brighter economic future for our city."

The program's first free workshop is called Connect with Customers and Manage Your Business Remotely and will be held virtually tomorrow, Friday, November 20, at 5:30 p.m. Moving forward, Grow with Google workshops will be hosted by Hutton on a regular basis, including the following sessions:

    • Dec. 3 at 5 p.m. CDT - Get Your Local Business on Google Search and Maps
    • Dec. 10 at 5 p.m. CDT - Reach Customers Online with Google
    • Dec. 17 at 5 p.m. CDT - Digital Skills for Everyday Tasks

    Both Google as well as local leadership are excited for the opportunities this program will provide Houstonians.

    "As a 'majority-minority' city that is the fourth-largest in the U.S., it is critical that our Black and LatinX business owners have the tools and knowledge to reach new customers, grow their businesses and help continue to make Houston a prosperous, skilled and inclusive city," Mayor Sylvester Turner says in the release. "The city of Houston is appreciative for the opportunity to provide invaluable resources and opportunities to our city's Black and LatinX small business owners."

    Out of the largest 100 cities in the country, Houston ranks high up on the list that evaluated personal financial distress of citizens. Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images

    Houston ranks No. 3 on list of cities with the most people in financial distress amid COVID-19

    money problems

    During the pandemic-produced recession, debt and loans are weighing heavily on the hearts and minds of Houstonians.

    A study released this week by personal finance website WalletHub found Houston ranks first among the country's 100 largest United States cities for online searches about debt and first for online searches about loans. Overall, Houston ranks third for financial distress, behind first-place Las Vegas and second-place Chicago.

    To examine where Americans are struggling the most financially, WalletHub compared the 100 largest cities across nine key metrics. Factors taken into consideration include average credit score, number of bankruptcy filings between June 2020 and June 2019, and online searches regarding debt and loans.

    Aside from sitting at No. 1 for interest in debt and loans, Houston ranks:

    • No. 9 for share of people with accounts in distress in September
    • No. 9 for average number of accounts in distress in September
    • No. 12 for average credit score in September

    WalletHub defines a distressed account as one for which payments have been reduced, skipped or delayed.

    Among Texas cities, Houston has a lot of company in WalletHub's top 10. San Antonio appears at No. 4, Dallas at No. 5, Austin at No. 8, and Fort Worth at No. 10. In all, the ranking includes 13 Texas cities. Irving demonstrates the most financial stability of the 13 cities, according to WalletHub, with its financial stress ranking at No. 72.

    As with almost every U.S. city, Houston has been whacked by the recession. In September, the metro area's unemployment rate stood at 9.6 percent, up from 8.1 percent the previous month. Compared with the state's three other major metro areas, Houston's September unemployment rate was the highest. The September jobless rate was 6.4 percent in Austin, 7.4 percent in Dallas, 7.6 percent in Fort Worth, and 7.8 percent in San Antonio. The statewide unemployment rate was 8.3 percent, while the nationwide unemployment rate was 7.7 percent.

    One of the main drivers of Houston's high unemployment rate is the ongoing slump in the U.S. oil, gas, and chemical industry. A report released October 5 by consulting giant Deloitte showed the nationwide sector shed 107,000 jobs from March to August.

    "We will never see oil and gas employment get back to where it was in December 2014. Employment in the industry today is pretty much where it was in 2006," Patrick Jankowski, senior vice president of research at the Houston Partnership, said in June. "Energy has been real good to Houston. It's still a big part of our economy, but we cannot rely on it like we have in the past."

    A September report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas noted that the Houston area is in recovery mode, but the pace has slowed, mostly due to weakness in the energy sector. The report says "that while Houston's recovery is likely to continue, it will lag the state."

    The report adds that the Houston area had recovered 33 percent of pandemic-era job losses as of August, compared with 42 percent across Texas and 48 percent nationwide.

    Of course, the pandemic recession also has hammered the hospitality industry.

    During his State of the City address on October 22, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said said 196 meetings, conferences, and conventions in the city had been canceled or rescheduled since March. The result: an estimated economic loss of $332 million. The city's hotel occupancy rate stands at a meager 44 percent, according to Turner, with the rate for downtown hotels at only 17 percent.

    The pandemic's impact during the rest of 2020 and into 2020 "will be significant for our hospitality community," the mayor said.

    Despite the downturn in the energy and hospitality sectors, Turner and others feel optimistic about what's ahead for Houston.

    "As we gradually take steps to reopen, we recognize that the full recovery will take several years, but when we work together, we put ourselves in the best position to manage the virus and rebound from it," Turner said. "As we move forward through these unprecedented times, the city's foundation is strong, the city itself is resilient, and the city's future is bright."

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    Texas named a top state for women-led startups

    this one's for the ladies

    Who runs the world? According to Merchant Maverick's inaugural Best States for "Women-Led Startups'' study, Texas is a great place for women to be in charge.

    The Lone Star state cracked the top 10 on the list, earning a No. 6 spot according to the small business reviews and financial services company, which based the study on eight key statistics about this growing segment of the economy. Colorado (at No. 1), Washington, Virginia, Florida, and Montana were the only states to beat out Texas on the rankings—leading the Merchant Maverick team to conclude that "the part of the country that lies west of the Mississippi is great for startups led by women entrepreneurs."

    Women-led startups in Texas received $365 billion in VC funding in the last five years, the report found. This is the seventh largest total among U.S. states. Too, about 20 percent of Texans are employed at woman-led firms, which is the fifth highest percentage among states. Roughly 35 percent of employers in Texas are led by women.

    A few other key findings that work in female founders' favor: The startup survival rate in Texas is nearly 80 percent. And a lack of state income tax "doesn't hurt either," the report says.

    Still there are shortcomings. On a per capita basis, only 1.27 percent of Texas women run their own business. The average income for self-employed women is also relatively low ranking among states, coming in around $55,907 and landing at 31st among others.

    This is not the first time Texas has been lauded as a land of opportunity for women entrepreneurs. A 2019 study named it the best state for business opportunities for women. Houston too has proven to support success for the demographic. The Bayou City was named in separate studies a best city for female entrepreneurs to start a business and to see it grow.

    Still, as many findings have concluded, the realities of the pandemic loom for all startups and small business owners. The Merchant Maverick study was careful to add: "The pandemic has changed the economic landscape over the past year, and often for the worse.

    "This means that not every metric may be able to accurately gauge how a state might fare amidst the pandemic," the report continues. "To help factor in COVID's impact, we included some metrics that take 2020 into account, but it will be a while until we get a full picture of the pandemic's devastation.""

    New downtown office tower will rise in bustling Discovery Green

    new to hou

    A new office tower will soon loom over the popular Discovery Green as the anchor of a new downtown district. Global development and construction firm, Skanksa, announced the new building at 1550 Lamar St. and its anchor tenant on January 13. The new 28-story, 375,000-square-foot Class-A office structure is dubbed 1550 on the Green, per a Skanska statement.

    Global law firm Norton Rose Fulbright will relocate its Houston office in 2024 and acquire naming rights upon occupancy, according to a press release.

    Bound by La Branch, Lamar, Crawford, and Dallas Streets, 1550 on The Green will feature extra-wide pedestrian zones with a canopy of trees, two tenant outdoor roof terraces, and wide views of the surrounding greenery.

    International design firm BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group led the building's design; it is the company's first foray into Texas. BIG's design promises sustainability, energy efficiency, and an "airy" office environment for tenants, a release describes.

    Some 7,000 square feet of retail space will greet first-floor guests. Michael Hsu Office of Architecture has been tapped to design the interior amenity spaces; those include a fitness center, rooftop event space and terrace, and community spaces.

    The new 1550 on the Green tower is part of a new envisioned district that will be branded as Discovery West. The district will consist of 3.5 acres of mixed-use development boasting restaurants, retail, green space, and "world-class architecture," per a release.

    Working with Central Houston Inc., Discovery Green, Bike Houston, the Kinder Foundation, as well as several brokers, Skanska and design firm of record, BIG-Bjarke Ingels Group, completed the master plan for Discovery West in early 2020.

    Skanska has been noticeably active in the Houston office market, specifically with the development of Bank of America Tower, West Memorial Place I and II, and the future Discovery West. The company is behind the acquisition of a buzzy strip center in Montrose. Skanska also plans to multifamily to its Houston portfolio, the firm notes.

    "As an organization that prides itself on building what matters to our communities, our team, made up of Houstonians, has been working alongside local stakeholders to develop a plan and a building that will transform this side of downtown Houston while still meeting the needs of the city," said Matt Damborsky, executive vice president for Skanska USA commercial development's Houston market, in a statement.

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    This article originally ran on CultureMap.