Census numbers highlight growing diversity in area
It's no surprise that diversity is increasing in The Woodlands, but recent 2010 census data adds an emphatic underline.
The area grew by 68 percent since 2000, part of substantial growth seen across Montgomery County.
Meanwhile, minorities became a wider slice of the pie: Hispanics in particular grew from 9 percent to 16 percent; African-Americans from 2 to 4 percent; and Asians from 1.7 to three percent.
It's a demographic shift seen across Texas, but The Woodlands adds its international flair.
This spring, tiny India Gourmet Spices will be moving into bigger quarters off Interstate 45 in The Woodlands, adding a section with Caribbean spice blends and items from Great Britain.
Imran Syed says his clientele is a mix of immigrants as well as curious natives who just want to replicate the delicious dishes they have sampled in the areas many new international restaurants.
"We've been here almost five years," says Syed. "Our clientele includes people from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka…the Middle East. There are a growing number of families here from Asian countries and they are asking for spices."
Nelda Luce Blair, a lawyer in The Woodlands and a member of the Township board, says many people are surprised to learn there are nearly 100 countries represented in households in The Woodlands. "It's not just black, brown and white," she said. "I can walk Market Street or the mall and hear a multitude of languages…You don't do that in most suburbs."
Gil Staley, who heads up the South Montgomery County Economic Development partnership, sees one part of that new demographic in Mexican nationals fleeing turmoil back home. He mentioned meeting a group of Rotarians from Monterrey – including a doctor, businessman and teacher – who are relocating their families to the area en masse.
In many cases, immigrants are taking advantage of special visas available to business men and women who invest and bring jobs, Staley said.
At Maingate Plaza in Oakridge North, he added, aging convenience stores and strip centers will be razed to make way for a hotel, restaurants and retail, thanks to the multi-million-dollar investment of one such new arrival.
"We do frequently see Mexican nationals who are coming here wanting to relocate their families for the quality of life and the safety, and also looking for citizenship opportunities."
Hedith Upshaw, the Conroe school district's director of programs for English language learners, helps many of the children of those new arrivals. Today, the district has more than 6100 "ELLs" in its student population of about 51,000 – a 40 percent increase in just five years.
Out of 38 elementary and intermediate schools in the district, 19 now have bilingual programs for Spanish-speaking students, Upshaw said. In the past 4 years, the school has organized special training for more than 1,500 teachers who work with English language learners.
"In the past five to seven years, we did go from serving 61 different languages to 74, but we've always served different cultures," Upshaw says. "We've always celebrated that…"
Potential employers – especially those who recruit internationally – also celebrate South Montgomery County's diversity, say local officials.
"The demographics will also show we're a very highly educated area with high household incomes," says Staley. "It helps us tremendously with our employers.
Marisa Rummell, president of the Greater Conroe Latino Chamber of Commerce, agrees. "What I'm seeing is a lot more Hispanics moving to Montgomery County and starting businesses – a lot of them from other countries and a lot of them locally," she said. "It's a wonderful economic boost…Many are becoming American citizens and they are just going to fit right in."
Local officials say they have been planning to accommodate the robust growth.
Fred Koehler, traffic operations manager for Montgomery County, says the county has been expanding its traffic monitoring network to shave precious seconds off crowded intersection. Recent projects at Rayford and Research Forest near I-45, and plans for new flyover ramps at FM 242, are aimed at getting all those new residents across the county and on their way.
"If the census came out tomorrow and said we grew by 5 million people today, I assure you I already knew that because I'm dealing with the traffic," said Koehler. "We see the growth all over the county and are trying to stay ahead of the game."
As another important example, County Judge Alan B. Sadler says the Sheriff's Office had a budget of $8 million when he came into office in 1990. Today, he added, that budget is about $60 million.
Sadler notes that the county grew by an average 5.4 percent per year in the last decade, slowed somewhat by the national economic crisis.
"We expect that growth to kick back up to 6 or more for the next decade because we have the capacity for growth here," Sadler said. "We still have some relatively developer-priced land for housing that many counties don't have."
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