Visit from Chicago kids

I had the privilege to speak to students and teachers from Timothy Christian School in Chicago.

“Texas Economic Development Council President/CEO Carlton Schwab and Rusty Brockman, a retired economic developer for the Greater New Braunfels Chamber of Commerce, made a special trip to Rockport-Fulton Monday, Jan. 7 to participate in a special Community Input Session to discuss economic development in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.”

That was the lead paragraph in my page one story published in the Saturday, Jan. 12 edition.

Schwab and Brockman, like thousands of people before them, traveled here to assist us in our recovery.

Those who have strong feelings one way or the other about forming an Economic Development Corporation are encouraged to attend another Community Input session from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 5 at the Rockport-Fulton High School Commons. An outline of a proposed plan will be presented at that time.

There will be a lunch session from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Rockport Country Club the following Tuesday, Feb. 12.

Both are open to the public and I encourage everyone to attend.

My take on things

Let me take a moment and share a little background from my perspective.

In the mid-80s, when I was on the Rockport-Fulton Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors, which was long before my wife was hired as the executive director, an Economic Development Corporation was formed. Now, that was 30 years ago, so if I’m not exactly right on dates and timing, forgive me. The point is, one was formed, but it eventually failed primarily due to a lack of a steady source of funding.

Another economic development movement was pushed by Gary Cooper several years later (he has since passed away), but that effort never got off the ground either due to local interest and funding.

Also, at some point during this time period, Aransas County voters approved a half-cent sales tax for the county, which is used by our county to pay for healthcare-related expenses such as indigent healthcare, inmate healthcare, and mosquito control. Those expenses came out of the county’s coffers (i.e. – primarily ad valorem tax revenue) prior to passage of the half-cent sales tax. It was an additional sales tax approved by the state at that time, but it had to be approved by local voters.

The county is to be praised for jumping on that opportunity when no other entity chose to do so, for whatever reason.

It is what it is.

In 2018 that half-cent sales tax generated almost $1.7 million for the county.

With the half-cent sales tax opportunity claimed by the county, Aransas County as a whole was left without an economic development tax, which is wholly used, or a portion thereof, by many taxing entities across the state to fund economic development.

Economic development could be funded by each entity appropriating funds from their budget, but there has been no instance of that happening for anything over any length of time since I moved here in 1984.

Here are two things, right or wrong, I always believed prior to Hurricane Harvey:

• Nothing, including any economic development effort, can be successful without a steady funding source.

• Nobody (individual, small business, or large corporation) should receive any incentive in our smallish county when so many others had to establish their businesses with no outside help.

Since Hurricane Harvey struck our shores almost 17 months ago, I still firmly believe funding sources are paramount to the success of any venture.

I’ve moved quite a bit in my beliefs regarding “everyone is on their own.”

What if, after Harvey, everyone cared only about himself or herself? Remember what it was like? Neighbor helping neighbor … it wasn’t, generally speaking, “I’m okay, take care of yourself.”

Here are just a few examples of the importance of having a steady funding stream for anything:

• Hotel motel tax: Where would the chamber, Rockport Center for the Arts, Texas Maritime Museum, and many other non-profits be without the revenues they’ve received through the years from the hotel occupancy tax?

• Venue tax: Where would Aransas Pathways be without the venue tax? That tax was approved by Aransas County voters for the Aquarium at Rockport Harbor (only one of several options in the venue tax election). Had that not been approved, think of the trails, kayak launches, History Center for Aransas County, and on and on that I would bet would not be here for us to enjoy.

• Utility surcharge: Where would our volunteer fire departments be without the revenue raised by the surcharge on utility bills?

In the Coastal Bend, Aransas County is missing the boat when it comes to economic development.

Corpus Christi and every town around it, except for Aransas County, is covered under the umbrella of an Economic Development Corporation.

I get it when people think economic development is a “corporate giveaway” – and it certainly can be – if it’s set up that way.

I sat and listened intently during the Jan. 7 Input Session and one thing really struck me.

Economic Development money can be spent on infrastructure. That is something we will always need. That need will never, ever go away.

Do you know how infrastructure is funded today?

I’ll be the first to admit I used to think of economic development as just tax incentives for someone to come in who really doesn’t have the desire to maintain the beauty of the Rockport-Fulton area.

While tax incentives may or may not be included, which would ultimately have to be decided by elected officials, maybe it’s time we look at that.

When Harvey hit we really came together as a community. While we are still together, I can see some of our old ways starting to creep back into local operations.

I guess that’s only natural, but I’ve seen periods of great mutual respect among entities, as well as periods of great mistrust in my 34-plus years serving you at the newspaper.

The point is, we can be on the same page without a Harvey.

By most accounts I hear we are down at least 5,000 residents.

Half of our hotel rooms remain closed.

Workforce housing is far from where it needs to be and won’t return overnight.

I watched in disbelief as one developer worked for months trying to work out a deal to help provide affordable housing, or somewhat affordable housing.

Just think how much smoother things would have run for that developer if all entities had their economic development ducks in a row, having already agreed on pre-Harvey what economic development initiatives would be offered.

That’s what a “one-stop shop” means.

Economic development is local.

We can make it easy for people to invest, or we can make it hard, like getting anything from the federal government, TWIA, etc.

Here are some troubling facts we face post-Harvey in regard to workforce housing.

Much of it was blown off the face of the earth in the storm and those units will not be replaced and rented out for the same price. The cost to rebuild is too high with the stricter building codes and other FEMA requirements.

Our economy is overwhelmingly tourism-based, which does not attract high wages. It should be a no-brainer moving forward that if we continue to depend solely on tourism, we will fall victim to yet another storm when it comes. Every study I saw after the storm said an economy such as ours has the hardest time recovering.

Everything revealed as weaknesses should not have surprised anyone who has live here for any length of time.

I’ve heard the same weaknesses outlined in study after study since the day I moved here.

But Harvey happened, and now we’re forced to look in the mirror face those weaknesses and hopefully make sound decisions for our future.

Right now our government entities are struggling.

Right now our residents are struggling.

Sure, there are some businesses and individuals who are doing better than they were prior to Harvey, but that is the exception, not the rule.

My challenge to every one of our leaders – elected and just regular movers and shakers – is to keep your minds open and look at all possibilities.

Keep your post-Harvey glasses on as you make decisions based on the future, not solely on the past, or the “I got mine” mentality.

The decisions our leaders make today are much like the financial decisions my wife and I have to make as we near 60 years of age. Whatever decisions we make today will affect the rest of our lives.

The decisions our leaders make today could potentially affect generations to come.

I get it. Nothing worth anything in life comes easy.

If for some reason it comes to pass and Aransas County voters hit the polls again and choose to use a portion of the half-cent sales tax for economic development, the obvious question is, “Where will the county get the money to replace that lost revenue?”

It could come from more homes being constructed, or new businesses starting up or moving in.

If one doesn’t like the idea of diversification, I guess residential property owners can collectively continue to bare the brunt of the local tax burden for eternity … and it won’t go down.

I wish I knew the answer, but I do know the question.

“Are things different in Aransas County after Hurricane Harvey?”

The answer is a resounding yes. That’s not necessarily good or bad in the long run, but it does require a new way of thinking.

We’ve survived every storm in the past, and we’ll survive after Harvey.

The question is, “What will life be like 10, 15, 20 years from now?”

It’s up to all of us, especially our leaders.

A visit from Chicago

Last week I had the opportunity to talk about my experiences with Hurricane Harvey with a group of 12 kids (10 boys and two girls) and three adults from Timothy Christian School in Chicago. The school has about 800 students. They were in town for four days helping our community. They were housed at First Baptist Church.

The coolest part about the whole visit came after I stopped talking!

One of the teachers asked a male and female student to pray over my wife and I.

It was a moving moment for me.

All types of people have come to Aransas County to help us.

Let us not be so quick to judge outside help.

Until next week, have a good week.

Mike Probst can be reached at publisher@rockportpilot.com.

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