HOUSTON – (Realty News Report) – David Wolff is chairman and president of Wolff Companies, Houston’s largest developer of office, business and industrial parks as well as sites for healthcare, hotels, retail and multifamily. Wolff recently broke ground on Beacon Hill, a 521-acre development on Highway 290 in Waller County.
In his five decades in Houston, his civic endeavors have included service with the West Houston Association, the Houston Parks Board, the Houston Grand Opera and the Greater Houston Partnership.
Wolff recently was a guest on THE RALPH BIVINS PROJECT, a new podcast published by Realty News Report. Here is an excerpt on that interview:
Ralph Bivins: David, how is Houston doing in its efforts to attract new jobs to the city?
David Wolff: Attracting new growth, new companies? I would say not very well – outside of the energy industry. There will be some growth in the energy industry during this downturn, through consolidations. The Tulsas, the Midlands and other areas are diminishing as oil companies concentrate their people here. In terms of attracting non-energy companies, we are not doing well.
Ralph Bivins: You’ve been on the board of the Greater Houston Partnership, which is expected to generate economic growth. Why can’t the Partnership do a better job?
David Wolff: Historically, what was the Chamber of Commerce was challenged in the 1980s as we went through a serious downturn then. Ken Schnitzer and others, and I was involved in that, said we need to focus on economic development. I do not think the then-Chamber or today’s Greater Houston Partnership really gave economic development the priority it needs. The Partnership did an important job, for example, lobbying the legislature to help the city with pension reform. The Partnership holds big luncheons, they issue reports, they do studies and they have meetings. But economic development is not their Number 1 priority. People are not hired and fired at the Partnership depending on how we do on economic development. And consequently, it doesn’t happen. If you look at the supporters of the partnership, they are the major oil companies, and for that, we should be appreciative. The Shells, the Chevrons, the BPs, the Exxons. But do they really care about economic development in Houston? I don’t think so. They look to the Partnership to help protect their interests; to make the city a better place to live; to be sure that the Legislature is friendly to the major oil companies. And that’s what matters to them. But whoever at GHP is responsible for Chevron or Exxon is not going to have their career made or broken depending on Houston’s economic development succeeds of fails. And that’s one of the problems. Now, they (GHP) are beginning to recognize it as they received a lot of criticism and have a lot of failures – Amazon, Tesla and so forth. And they are doing their best. But I’m not sure that the people at the Partnership are dealmakers. They are generally consultants who are very good at writing reports and having meetings and doing studies. And that’s what consultants do. The consultants aren’t where the rubber meets the road.
Ralph Bivins: In recent months, some people have floated the idea that Houston needs another organization that would be more focused on economic development wins? Would forming a new alternative organization that’s more of a dealmaker be a good idea?
David Wolff: I don’t know the answer to that. The (Greater Houston) Partnership is trying to reorient itself. They’ve admitted that they have been focused on the downtown. It’s only now that they are familiarizing themselves with the suburbs and far suburbs, which is really where the growth in Houston is happening and will happen. The Partnership has been a very downtown-oriented organization. If you’re (Greater Houston Partnership President) Bob Harvey, and you have to make sure you have the dues income and you focus on the people who can write $150,000 a year checks – the Chevrons and the Exxons of the world. You can’t blame Bob for that. I’m sure his board of directors is very concerned about being financially stable.
For example, let’s talk about Tesla. You raised a furor about why weren’t we involved in the competition to attract them to Houston. Quite frankly, it got me stirred up that we did not get into the effort. I can give you a very strong case about why Tesla shouldn’t be in Austin. I don’t think the site even has rail service.
Ralph Bivins: Right, they have no rail. But will have a 5,000-person workforce coming and going. Tesla needs to bring in materials to build the cars, then ship them out. And what kind of transit do they have? Texas 130, a two-lane toll road. That’s a lot weight to be putting on that location.
David Wolff: Austin has one interstate; we have three. Tesla is already shipping 300 cars a week out of the Port of Houston. They are going to export a lot of the cars they make in Austin. How are they going to get the cars to the port? Highway 71? We have in Houston a workforce of 3 million people here in Houston. Where will Austin’s workforce come from? Late in the game, I made contact – through Bill Ackman (CEO of Pershing Square Capital) — with Elon Musk.
Ralph Bivins: What was the response from (Tesla CEO) Elon Musk? Why didn’t Musk consider Houston for the new Tesla manufacturing plant?
David Wolff: Musk said Houston has “a significant Significant Other problem.” He was talking about moving people from California.
Ralph Bivins: So Musk means the spouses of California tech people don’t want to move to Houston.
David Wolff: I was discussing this with my daughter, Carolyn, about how a person’s Significant Other can be affected by the move from California to Austin. Most people are two-income families. Suppose that other person, the one that doesn’t work for Tesla, is a doctor or a lawyer or a marketing person. How many law or medical or other job opportunities are there in Austin for the Significant Other? Suppose they like opera or the symphony or live theatre. Austin doesn’t have that. We do. Had we gotten into the fight for Tesla, we would have made a hell of a presentation. We have a workforce, logistics, (two major airports) and land available. But the Partnership decided not to make an offer. They were told that the offer to Austin was something of a closed invitation.
The thing is, if you don’t get in the door, if you don’t get up to bat, you’re never going to win. You get in the game early. You do a Hail Mary and you find out how to reach the CEO and the executive decision makers. There was no one at the Partnership whose job depended on economic development to the extent that they would lose their job if they didn’t produce.
To listen to the entire 40-minute interview and learn more about how Austin beat Houston in securing the 4 million-SF Tesla auto plant, which is now under construction in Austin, please CLICK HERE:
Nov. 18, 2020 Realty News Report Copyright 2020
File: How to Fix Houston’s Shortcomings in Economic Development: Interview with David S. Wolff – THE RALPH BIVINS PROJECT Podcast
File: (2) Tesla. Elon Musk. Austin. Bill Ackman. Greater Houston Partnership. Beacon Hill. Wolff Cos. David Wolff. How to Fix Houston’s Shortcomings 11-18-20
Caption: THE RALPH BIVINS PROJECT, a podcast available on Realty News Report