Mayor Parker: Shaping Houston's Future

Thursday, September 1, 2011 - 01:00

The Editor interviews Annise D. Parker, Mayor of Houston, Texas.

Editor: Tell us about your career and what motivated you to become Mayor of Houston?

Parker: I was a member of the Houston City Council for six years, the elected city controller for six years and now mayor of Houston. I am honored to be the first person in Houston's 175-year history to hold all three elected positions. Houston is a strong mayor city - maybe the strongest in the country in terms of direct administrative authority within the city.

I became mayor because I wanted to help shape the future of Houston, a city I believe to be the best place in America to live, work and start a business. Houston is better known internationally than domestically, and we have tremendous growth potential as an international business city.

As the most critical level of government, city government has the greatest potential to transform people's lives in a positive way. My agenda is threefold: create jobs; fund and implement major infrastructure projects to the extent possible; and further Houston's international development. My view is that infrastructure cannot be ignored simply because it tends to involve long-term projects that may not be completed during any individual mayor's tenure. Certainly, a mayor who does not focus on jobs or development likely will not be mayor for very long; thus, these are my big three initiatives.

Editor: What are the major components of Houston's economy?

Parker: There are three large employment sectors driving Houston's economy. First, we're known as the oil and gas capital of the world, and having worked for 20 years in this industry, I'm very familiar with that part of our economy. Second is the Texas Medical Center, which is the largest concentration of hospitals and medical institutions in the world. Third is the Port of Houston - America's largest foreign tonnage port. The Houston ship channel brings cargo 50 miles inland - right into the city's heart - and we handle more Mexican cargo than all Mexican ports combined.

Houston is one of the most entrepreneurial, business-friendly cities in America with ordinances and policies that support the creation of small businesses. We're also a very international city - 20 percent of Houstonians or those living in the greater Houston area are foreign born. Given our proximity to Mexico, it is natural to think only of our Hispanic population, but we also have the third largest consular core in the U.S. We have a large and growing Asian and South Asian population, and every global language of business is spoken somewhere in Houston. We are developing our reputation as an international destination, not only for business but also as a center of learning for students from around the world. Houston has two first-class research institutions - Rice University and the University of Houston.

Editor: What are some of your accomplishments so far?

Parker: Three months into office, we initiated a major infrastructure project to improve Houston's water and sewer rate system. We were losing approximately $100 million per year in system costs, and rates were not in alignment; consequently, we weren't reinvesting in maintenance and necessary improvements. By an overwhelming vote of the city council, we overhauled and standardized the rate system and upgraded the retail side of the Combined Utility System.

Last November, Houston voters passed a ballot initiative for a city drainage fee. Given the nation's general antigovernment mood plus local uncertainty as to the exact details of the fee and how the funds would be spent, such a vote speaks volumes for Houstonians. Voters knew that the funds were pledged to overhaul the drainage system - in a city that was built on the flat coastal prairie just a few feet above sea level - and that the project had several good government elements. For one, it forced the city of Houston into a "pay as you go" mode for major infrastructure spending on streets and drainage.

While it wasn't an overwhelming mandate, the vote reflects that Houstonians understand the need to invest in order to grow. As a result, within the next 20 years, Houston will have completely upgraded water/sewer and street grid systems, with at least 60 percent of our streets and the most pressing drainage issues addressed.

So it's a very exciting time. As mayor, I will have the opportunity to launch infrastructure projects - we call it Rebuild Houston - that will benefit Houston's economy and create jobs. As part of this effort, I recently presented to city council an ordinance called Hire Houston First aimed at ensuring that the billions of dollars for these infrastructure projects will be spent in the Houston area. We're America's fourth largest city at 2.1 million people, with the greater metropolitan region probably three times larger. Our Hire Houston First initiative is focused on keeping local tax dollars circulating locally.

I've also been working with the international business community to leverage Houston's resources, including its large consular core, a major airport hub and government that will focus on this issue. For the first time, Houston has a chief development officer engaged in the city's economic development activities. Previously the city ceded this responsibility to the Greater Houston Partnership - our Chamber of Commerce. Now as a division within the city of Houston that is devoted to international business initiatives, we try to engage every inbound trade delegation, ensure they have information about Houston and connect them to key business and city leaders to get them what they need. We also have incentives - from infrastructure build-outs to tax abatement - to assist companies with relocating in Houston; however, our focus is on attracting international businesses rather than on luring domestic companies to move within the U.S.

In addition to the three major initiatives on my agenda - jobs, infrastructure and international development - for the first time, Houston has a sustainability director tasked with implementing more sustainable policies and practices. We received the Mayors' Climate Protection Award from the U.S. Conference of Mayors for being the largest municipal purchaser of renewable energy of all American cities. We are eighth on the list of public or private purchasers of renewable energy, and the city of Houston is vaulting ahead of most other cities in the number of LEED-certified buildings. We launched the green office challenge to provide grant-based funding for companies that want to retrofit their buildings for greater energy or water efficiency. Thus, as the heart of the world petroleum industry, we want to be known not only as the oil and gas capital but also as a leader in green and renewable energy.

Editor: Talk a little about Houston's role in the energy sector and specifically the oil and gas industry.

Parker: When I entered the oil and gas industry in the late 1970s, it comprised 80 percent of the Houston economy, and aspects of the international oil and gas industry still may make up 50 percent of the local economy. We are the U.S. headquarters of most of the major multinationals and a headquarter city for a number of others. With the Offshore Technology Conference, we host the largest oil and gas trade conference internationally, and, next year, we will launch the Total Energy USA conference. The oil and gas industry is still vital to our future, but the city's energy footprint is expanding.

Editor: You dubbed Houston as an "international destination city." Where do you see Houston's future headed in terms of it's presence in international commerce and, particularly, with respect to Latin America?

Parker: One setback during this last year was the merger of our hometown airline, Continental Airlines, with Chicago-based United Airlines. This included moving the headquarters of the merged airline to Chicago, resulting in the loss of a few hundred jobs. On the upside, we are projecting rapid growth in the number of maintenance and operations jobs from the combined airline into Houston. I expect that our international airport, Bush Intercontinental, will be the largest hub of the largest airline in the world, and if you look at a map of the United/Continental hub cities, Houston stands alone in the center of the southern coast of the U.S. - the natural gateway to South and Central America.

Now, add to this expectation the fact that we are the largest U.S. foreign port and that, in 2014, the new channel through the Panama Canal will further increase waterborne cargo into Houston. The result is major airline activity through a Houston hub to other central U.S. or international destinations, and major waterborne cargo received and routed similarly. Houston is uniquely positioned to grow dramatically.

One of the keys to growing as an international business destination is direct air traffic as the operator of three airports: Bush Intercontinental, Hobby Airport and Ellington Airport. Bush Intercontinental already serves as a major international airport, and discussion are underway about opening up Hobby for international air traffic. We'll have more gate space and flight options. We expect to add several international direct flights within the next year, which will further our aggressive international business and trade initiatives.

Editor: What about Houston as a place to live? Quality of life is an important factor for international companies that are deciding where to situate their U.S. headquarters.

Parker: A number of international companies are locating their headquarters in Houston. While the oil and gas industry - including its expats - led the initial influx, we are increasingly attracting business capital from all over the world.

Houston is underappreciated and misunderstood here in America. My election and subsequent focus on developing Houston as an international destination has helped elevate the city's reputation and illuminate its culture. Houston wouldn't be America's fourth largest city if it were viewed only as a place to find a job. While this is true right now, Houston also is a culturally rich, interesting and fun place to live. We offer all major forms of performing arts companies and professional sports teams. A city of museums, Houston is an international arts destination, and for more than a decade, we've allocated money from capital projects and from the tourist tax pool for arts funding.

Houston boasts a very reasonable cost of living - including the most affordable housing prices of any major city in America. Those wanting to start a business can purchase real estate at all price points, and they can obtain permits quickly and at low cost. The only thing that I ever hear anyone complain about is the heat; however, I quickly remind them that our growing season of 10 months per year creates a beautiful, green and outdoor city - with no snow to shovel!

Editor: Tell us about your educational facilities. Do you have a workforce that is well educated and highly skilled?

Parker: Rice University and University of Houston are tier-one research institutions, and we have a number of other colleges and universities plus a very extensive community college system. NASA's 40-year presence concentrated in Houston a highly educated, motivated workforce of scientists, engineers and technicians. With the recent changes at NASA, many of these professionals are out in the marketplace and being snapped up by the oil and energy sectors and by the medical center. In addition to our strong professional workforce and educational infrastructure, we have an abundant supply of labor for manufacturing.

Editor: Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?

Parker: If I were a young man or woman ready to launch my career or choose a place to go to university with the expectation that I might want to stay indefinitely,

Houston would be at the top of my list. It is a place of opportunity - an open and welcoming city with wonderful people and a real entrepreneurial spirit.