2024 Economic Outlook Conference gets down to business with record-breaking event

By: Sean K. Thompson
| Published 02/16/2024


THE WOODLANDS, TX – Nearly 1,000 people flocked to The Woodlands Waterway Marriott for the annual Woodlands Area Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Outlook Conference – known to all as the ‘EOC’ – sponsored by Entergy. The all-day event was filled with business and community leaders providing invaluable insight on the state of The Woodlands Township and beyond.

“The Woodlands Area Chamber of Commerce is excited to host this year’s conference. We have great speakers today, so this is a great place to be to learn more about the economy, how it’s growing, and how that can affect your business,” JJ Hollie, president and CEO of the Chamber, told Woodlands Online.

Dr. Stephen Popp, Head of School for The John Cooper School, agreed. “This is an exciting day for our community to be part of looking at the outlook and wonderful horizons for our businesses here. This is a special place to be, and we’re excited to learn more about how we can grow together.”

Before the event, Gil Staley, CEO of The Woodlands Area Economic Development Partnership, took a moment to speak with Woodlands Online. “It’s exciting. We have a great report that’s going to describe yet again positive news for The Woodlands business community. It’s timely that this particularly good report is taking place during our fiftieth anniversary celebrations.” When his time came to speak about business development in The Woodlands, he was true to his word.

After introductions and pledges of allegiance, the program continued with Patrick Jankowski, Senior Vice President of Research at the Greater Houston Partnership, presented a regional economic update, where he stated that the United States is currently in a strong position, economically, due to factors such as the GDP, job growth, low unemployment, and consumer sentiment. But he did caution about the stagnation of real estate and how it must be closely monitored.

ABC13 news anchor Tom Abrahamd next posed questions to State Senator Brandon Creighton about the current status of economic policies. On the heels of that, members of The Woodlands Township Board of Directors – Dr. Ann Snyder, Brad Bailey, and Kyle Watson – convened a panel to update attendees on The Woodlands community.

“We believe that good government is vital to growth in The Woodlands,” said Snyder. News that was related included a record-breaking level of Hotel Occupancy Texas – $9.6 million in 2023 – and the ongoing trend of lowering property taxes, which have locally come down more than 59 percent in the past 15 years.

“It’s a wonderful day to be here with so many community leaders and business leaders, and I’m excited to share on behalf of the board the excitement of the Township. You can feel the energy with all the people here. It’s a great day with, I believe, a record crowd. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Linda Nelson, who has headed up this entire EOC and who’s done a fabulous job,” Dr. Snyder said in an interview with Woodlands Online.

After a break, Gil Staley mounted the stage with a playful, “I’m back!” announcement. He eagerly talked about workforce growth in The Woodlands and the strong economic outlook for the area.

Next a special panel of experts – including former US Congressman Kevin Brady; Nelda Blair of The Blair Law Firm; Robert Heineman, formerly of The Woodlands Development Company; and Meredith Dreiss, the daughter of Woodlands founder George Mitchell – discussed ‘Fifty Years of Excellence and Counting’ under the moderation of Jim Carman, President of the Houston region at The Howard Hughes Corporation.

In an exclusive interview with Woodlands Online, Dreiss talked about the schism that has formed during recent years in the Township over what may or may not have been her father’s original vision.

“I think that you have to start with a desire of wanting to know about my father’s vision. The people who are in leadership positions have to stand firm with that. A lot of people don’t want to research what his vision actually was. Sometimes we even have that issue in our own foundation, trying to figure out, ‘What did they think? What was their vision?’ Even his kids argue about this,” she said.

Heineman chimed in. “The original vision is very general. As you develop, it gets more specific. To me, we’ve fulfilled his vision. Now, there’s just a lot of details that have been filled in, and I think it’s gotten better as a result of the details, because not all of those details could have been thought of back in the early 1970s when this was all being planned. For instance, the Pavilion was not part of the original 1972 vision, but it turned out to be part of the overall vision’s process,” he said.

Blair was quick to agree. “I want to back up what Meredith said. George never could have envisioned everything that The Woodlands would eventually become. He had a vision for a concept, and we try very hard to follow that concept,” she said.

“And that concept was building a community,” concluded Dreiss. “He didn’t want to build a suburb with clear-cut trees and a lot of concrete. He wanted a community where you could go to school, have a job, and be surrounded by businesses all in the same place. And that was a different concept from what Houston was doing starting in the 1960s with people leaving the inner cities to go to the suburbs. He felt there was a better way to handle a community.”

The lunchtime keynote speaker was Captain (retired) Eric ‘Popeye’ Doyle, formerly of the US Navy Blue Angels and current CEO of RAVN Aerospace, who regaled attendees with the comparison of running a business with flying extreme aerobatics.

The penultimate event was a CEO spotlight featuring the heads of Waste Connections, Inc., Ron Mittelstaedt, and Nurix Therapeutics Inc, Dr. Arthur T. Sands, in a panel moderated by Brian Albert of Kean Miller, LLP and chairman of The Woodlands Area Chamber Board of Directors. Finally, the keynote speech presented by Zac Kass, the former head of GTM at OpenAI, opened eyes and minds with his discussion of The Past, Present, and Future of AI.

As people filed out of the main ballroom at the end of a full, fulfilling day and headed to the after party sponsored by Stibbs & Co., P.C., Attorneys, Jim Carman was all smiles.

“Today is the largest collection of business leaders in the community here. It’s always good to hear updates on the community from the Township and the Economic Development Partnership, and Howard Hughes is proud to be a part of it again this year,” he said. “We’re excited to hear what’s coming up next and what the pulse of the business community is. It’s always the biggest event from the Chamber that I look forward to each year, and I know a lot of other people do, as well.”

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