INTRODUCTION TO THE WOODLANDS, TEXAS - By John Ronan Broderick
GROGAN-COCHRAN LUMBER MILL
In 1917 two lumbermen merged their operations to form one entity, the Grogan-Cochran Lumber Mill. In that era of the industry, sawmills, like their workers, were transients, frequently relocating after they had harvested all the old-growth trees in a given area. Unlike many of their competitors who engaged in irresponsible clear-cutting--the logging practice that removes every tree from a targeted area--Grogan and Cochran were environmentally conscious, and they engaged in the practice of replanting the areas where they had cut down trees.
Fortunately, their new, permanent sawmill was situated in what is now the master-planned community known as The Woodlands. Their orientation toward the future of the forests they had worked had as its result the wonderful legacy of an intact forest that future generations could enjoy. In 1928 they merged with Lone Star Lumber Company and, in spite of less profitability throughout the Great Depression, continued on with their policy of replanting right up into the 1950s, leaving intact the forests where they had harvested trees. In1964 they sold 2,800 acres of their pristine forest to George P. Mitchell, the Texas oil and gas magnate who had made his mark in that industry by perfecting the economic extraction of shale gas known as “fracking.” He had spent ten years and $6 million of his own money to solve the problem. Critics told him he would fail. He didn’t.
“MIGHTY OAKS FROM LITTLE ACORNS GROW” (14th CENTURY PROVERB)
After conquering the oil and gas industry Mitchell turned his attention to real estate development on a grand scale. After acquiring those original 2,800 acres, Mr. Mitchell’s “acorn” grew into a “mighty oak” of 17,455 acres over the next decade through his acquisition of 300 additional tracts of land, and the site for The Woodlands was born. For Mitchell had attended a symposium on how to develop HUD-financed Title VII towns and his game plan came together with striking clarity. In 1972 HUD provided Mitchell $50 million in loan guarantees, and work on The Woodlands began in earnest shortly thereafter. Skeptics abounded, for the “HUD New Town Program” had had many casualties. Out of more than a dozen such HUD-backed projects across the nation, only one had been even moderately successful. But none of those others had either the vision or determination to succeed with a George Mitchell at the helm. BIG difference! The HUD plan died a quiet death by 1978, but Mitchell’s new baby was alive and kicking.
The Woodlands was deeply rooted in the very woods that engulfed it. Mitchell’s original development plan was predicated on environmental design principles championed by Ian McHarg, the landscape architect who literally wrote the book on the subject, Design With Nature. Unafraid to adopt good ideas from others who had been successful in this area, Mitchell utilized many of the environmental design concepts that had been employed in other highly regarded new communities of the 1970s, such as Columbia, Maryland.
Total investment in The Woodlands had reached $1 billion by 1983. Besides the constantly crowded and over-used Interstate 45 corridor, new routes connecting Harris and Montgomery Counties were needed. The Hardy Toll Road and the functional and aesthetically appealing Harmony Bridge, came into being as this rapidly growing community demanded alternatives for ingress and egress. Since the vast majority of The Woodlands was located in Montgomery County, it was clearly that governmental entity that benefited the most from these alternative routes, especially to and from Downtown Houston and Bush Intercontinental Airport. The Woodlands had become a transportation game-changer.
In what was quickly becoming an affluent community, The Woodlands Country Club, with a professional Tournament Players Course (TPC) designed by golf legend Arnold Palmer, opened in 1989. The development of The Woodlands was in “full swing,” as Arnold himself might have said. By the 1990 US Census its population numbered more than 30,000 and total investment stood at a staggering $2 billion.
In April of that same year The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion opened with great flourish when none other than “The Chairman of the Board,” “Old Blue Eyes” himself, the undisputed greatest pop singer of the 20th century, Frank Sinatra, christened the amphitheater with his own unique brand of panache. With a seating capacity of 16,500, this venue, named after George Mitchell’s wife, is ranked among the top five amphitheaters in the world and caters to both the performing arts as well as contemporary artists. In 2018, an estimated 467,000 concert patrons attended programs offered there.
In 1993 The Woodlands Township was established and Town Center, a mixed-use commercial real estate development was announced. Mitchell’s original master plan had called for the creation of nine residential “villages,” each with its own neighborhood shopping center tied down by a major grocery store chain. The Town Center, on the other hand, would eventually offer more than 11 million square feet of shopping space, making The Woodlands one of America’s premier shopping destinations. Seemingly, Mitchell had the “Midas Touch.”
The first Village to be created was named Grogan’s Mill in homage to the man who, along with his partner Cochran, had been so conscientious about preservation of the forests. Though each village would offer homes in varying architectural styles and price ranges, Grogan’s Mill is considered the most desirable village due to its abundance of high-end homes. Known as the historic district of The Woodlands, it bears the moniker, “gateway to The Woodlands” and is home to The Woodlands Resort and Conference Center.
Mitchell’s vision was embodied in The Woodlands Development Corporation, which called for protection of the environment by preserving the trees and minimizing flooding and balancing the spirit of neighborhood life with commercial development and innovative business, all of this nestled within a natural setting. That he achieved his goals by dedicating 1,800 acres to open greenspace, the creation of 147 parks, 220 miles of hike and bike trails, and 14 swimming pools is evidence in and of itself of the realization of his goals and of a plan well executed. To Mitchell, the success of The Woodlands was evidence, if not proof, of the viability of the science of environmental sustainability, a topic near and dear to his heart.
THE PASSING OF THE TORCH
In 1997 Mitchell sold his interests in The Woodlands to a partnership of two real estate investment firms who carried on with Mitchell’s utopian vision, first with the construction of The Woodlands Waterway in 1999, then in 2001 with a new golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus, followed by the 2003 opening of the first urban residential units on The Waterway in Town Center. These initiatives helped cement the area’s mixed-use destiny. Ownership of the partnership changed hands a couple of times without doing any damage to the overall long-range game plan.
The City of Houston, with its predatory instinct for annexing areas that would shore up its tax base, e.g., Clear Lake City and Kingwood, eventually decided to gobble up The Woodlands, assuming it would be easy pickings. But the little township successfully fought off the advances of the fourth largest city in America, obtaining approval from the State of Texas to form its own government in 2007. Once again David bested Goliath. The Woodlands Township is governed by a seven-member Board of Directors, elected by the community at large to serve two-year staggered terms. They serve as the legislative body, setting policy and approving the budget.
By 2011 The Woodlands’ population numbered more than 100,000. In January of that year the partnership sold its interests to the behemoth Howard Hughes Development Corporation, enabling it to gain 100% control. As with the company’s namesake, it wasted no time capitalizing on its investment with the establishment of Exxon-Mobil’s massive campus along the newly opened Grand Parkway. Other major corporations quickly followed suit, among them Southwestern Energy, Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, Baker Hughes, and Chevron Phillips. In the words of one observer, The Woodlands had become the “quintessential American suburb.”
The ACS (American Community Survey) annual census report differs from the US Census conducted every ten years in that it shows us how we live, e.g., occupations, housing, schools, etc., providing data concerning the social and economic needs of a community. According to its 2018 report, the racial composition of The Woodlands was as follows:
93,689 (85.3%) White
6,203 (5.7%) Asian
4,738 (4.3%) African-American
3,069 (2.8&) Two or more races
1,862 (1.7%) Other races
145 (0.13%) Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander
137 (0.12%) Native American
Total population: 109,843. Overall median age: 40.5 years. Proportion of men to women: 94.3 per 100. Total area: 113.24 square miles. Median household income: $118,836. Mean household income: $167,144. Rate of home ownership: 71.4%. Residents holding a Bachelor’s degree: 39.25%. Graduate degree: 25.83%.
Total number of US military veterans: 5,440, broken down by the following percentages:
31.6% Vietnam War
28.2% Second Gulf War
27.4% First Gulf War
6.9% World War II
5.8% Korean War
HEALTHCARE, EDUCATION, HOTELS
According to the internet browser bing, The Woodlands Foundation is a place “where children and adults with disability and chronic illness find the freedom and empowerment to experience programs that enrich lives. Fully accessible and barrier-free facilities open new doors to safe, inclusive and engaging participant opportunities.” Volunteer physical therapists and occupational therapists lend a sense of neighbor helping neighbor to this wonderful institution, which includes among its many amenities an aquatic center that is second to none.
Hospitals abound in The Woodlands to serve a diversity of medical needs: Memorial Hermann; The Woodlands Medical Center; Houston Methodist; CHI St. Luke’s; Texas Children’s; and The Woodlands Hospital. There is little need for the average resident to venture outside his or her own community for typical, and in many cases atypical, medical care. The master planners of The Woodlands have most all the bases covered.
Because of the amount of territory encompassed by The Woodlands, the educational needs of the children are met by three different school districts: Conroe ISD; Tomball ISD; and Magnolia ISD. Moreover, there are 14 private schools to choose from, some of which are parochial. The local community college, Lone Star College, offers an excellent educational foundation for freshmen and sophomores bound for institutions of higher learning.
Nor is there a shortage of hotel rooms for visitors to The Woodlands, e.g.: Hilton Garden Inn; Hyatt Centric; Waterway Marriott Hotel and Convention Center; Residence Inn, also by Marriott; Market Street Courtyard; Spring Hill Suites; Hyatt Place; Drury Inn and Suites; Best Western Plus; La Quinta by Wyndham; Fairfield Inn and Suites, and the list goes on. There are hotels to suit every taste and budget, as befits a multi-use master-planned community. Over 200 restaurants cater to every culinary taste known to modern man.
MISCELLANEOUS DATA NOT TO BE DISCOUNTED OR OVERLOOKED
The Woodlands is the #1 selling community in Texas; nationally it ranks #2. It is one of the safest places to live because of the security offered by the Montgomery and Harris Counties law enforcement agencies who work in concert, rather than competition, with one another. Moreover, there are private security firms employed by the three gated communities. There are now a total of seven golf courses, two of them designed by Gary Player and Tom Fazio, totaling 135 holes of golf.
Hughes Landing, on The Waterway, forms the community’s nexus of approximately 2,200 businesses, as well as entertainment and culture. The Woodlands Towers at The Waterway are as modern and aesthetically appealing office buildings as can be found in the Greater Houston Metropolitan area. The nature preserve that Mitchell was so keen to maintain provides a natural habitat for many species of animals indigenous to the area that are now making a comeback from near-extinction.
Finally, that venerable, institution, the YMCA, is alive and well in this master-planned community. Known as The Woodlands Family YMCA at Shadowbend, its mission statement reads as follows: “To put Judeo Christian principles into practice through programs that build healthy spirit, mind and body for all.” Now that is as American a motto for a utopian community as one could hope to come up with. Thank you, George P. Mitchell, for making your dream of the all-American town a reality in the great State of Texas.
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