Chamber of Commerce Week is October 17 - 21, 2016. This column is a condensed version of the 116-year history of the Greater Port Arthur Chamber of Commerce. It is the collaborative effort of Barbara, Phillips, Verna Rutherford, Jeff Hayes, Stuart Salter and Carl Parker.
The Greater Port Arthur Chamber of Commerce – Doing What Most People Think “Just Happens!”
The Greater Port Arthur Chamber of Commerce is proud of its rich history and its numerous positive impacts on Port Arthur and the surrounding community. As Chambers across the state of Texas celebrate Chamber of Commerce Week, October 17- 21, 2016, I thought you would enjoy taking a trip down memory lane about our Chamber and the many with whom we work with throughout the year.
The Port Arthur Chamber of Commerce began on January 18, 1900 when business leaders met and formed the Port Arthur Board of Trade. W.M. Smith was elected President of this organization and it purpose was regulating the shipping industry in Port Arthur. Later its name would be changed to the Port Arthur Board of Trade and Commerce; then to the Port Arthur Chamber of Commerce; and finally, the Greater Port Arthur Chamber of Commerce.
For nearly 117 years, The Greater Port Arthur Chamber of Commerce (GPACC) became a key leader for the economic growth of Port Arthur, Texas. Chamber members would attract Gulf, Texaco, Phillips, Shell, Atlantic and other major refineries to this city; It would see the City by the Sea grow to 70,000 people and have the first 12-year school system in Texas; the Chamber would lead the city through wars, strikes, recessions, hurricanes and changing economic times; the Chairperson of the board and board members would be the leading business leaders in the area and would lead the fight for better schools and development for the city.
GPACC’s early operation was housed in the bustling downtown Port Arthur hub of business activity, inside the stately Adams Building. In 1952, the Chamber proudly broke ground on its own building at 530 Waco Avenue, which became a revolving door of business and community leaders, elected officials, visitors and members who partnered in the success of Port Arthur’s thriving economy. As the center of business shifted, the Chamber sold its downtown office and moved into a third-floor office inside a bank building on Twin City Highway. The Chamber continued operating there until March of 2015 when Chamber leaders made a bold decision to show its commitment to support the redevelopment of downtown Port Arthur by leasing space, at 501 Procter Street, from the Port Arthur Economic Development Corporation in their beautifully restored First National Bank of Port Arthur Building. This building was recently listed in the National Register of Historic Places by the United States Department of the Interior.
As the City of Port Arthur grew steadily over the decades, so did the list of firsts which were organized by the Chamber, in partnership with local, state and federal officials, community leaders and citizens who eagerly volunteered to make a difference.
This collaborative group of individuals took great pride in rallying support and leading successful efforts for the flood protection system in Port Arthur, the Pleasure Island Bridge and seawall, the Port Arthur Civic Center and the legislative lobbying days which began as Port Arthur Days in Austin, through leadership by Senator Carl Parker, later becoming the Southeast Texas regional Golden Triangle Days in Austin, as it’s known today. The Chamber sponsored the first Bill for making Port Arthur a port of entry, and it was one of the first Chambers in the nation to become an accredited Chamber of Commerce.
The Chamber organized several festive “first” celebrations, such as the Mexican Heritage Festival, the Black Festival, the Cajun Festival and ShrimpFest, which saluted the huge shrimping industry in Port Arthur. The Chamber provided leadership support and volunteer coordination for those who partnered to construct a community park, “Fun island Depot” on Pleasure Island. Our Chamber was one of 18 charter investors in Mardi Gras of Southeast Texas – the first celebration of this type in our area, which continues to be hugely successful in terms of enjoyment and economic impact throughout Southeast Texas.
Over the many decades, the Chamber made huge marks on the economy of Port Arthur and the surrounding community. GPACC worked with Chambers across the state in the 1970s to get the Hotel Occupancy Tax approved to fund tourism throughout the state of Texas. In the mid -90’s the Chamber brought consultants here to share news about a new tax option that could provide funds for economic development. That session led to the formation of a PAC, led by Chamber leaders who raised funds for the ½ cent sales tax campaign, “A Half-Penny Will Do.” The success of that campaign nets millions of dollars annually for the Port Arthur Economic Development Corporation, providing incentives, staff and financial support to attract and retain businesses in Port Arthur, while also investing another portion for quality of life improvements to benefit our city and its residents.
The Chamber earned awards for significant accomplishments – one of the highlights being the Fred Patterson Award for outstanding leadership toward growth and development of the African American community, which was especially meaningful to everyone. Another huge success that a Past Chamber Board Chairman often referenced was the leadership exhibited by the Chamber in pulling together a short-notice petition campaign that gathered thousands of signatures over a four-day period. As described by that individual, the outpouring of community support was a major contributing factor in helping an industrial corporation realize the importance of keeping its refinery operating instead of closing it while the buyer finalized their means of funding for one of the three major refineries in Port Arthur.
The mid-2000s was a period of great heights and devastating lows for our area, and the Chamber was there to rally leadership, support and involvement in a myriad of happenings. Amid the height of energy and enthusiasm for billions of dollars in petrochemical expansion projects, came the low points of hurricanes that devastated areas of our city, as well as cities to the east of us from which residents fled to find refuge and assistance from the impacts of Hurricane Katrina.
In mid-2005, Chamber leaders were racing toward the final goal of getting enough signatures for a successful Mixed Beverage campaign for economic development in a fast-growing area of the city. The success of that campaign would ensure that new businesses would invest in the area near Central Mall, where hotels and restaurants were hesitant to build without the opportunity to serve mixed beverages as part of their overall business operation.
Three short days before the successful campaign ended, Hurricane Katrina victims sought refuge in Port Arthur and other areas in Southeast Texas, having lost homes and most of everything they owned back home in Louisiana. The Chamber quickly partnered with city, county, state and federal officials to assist those in such great need – coordinating the opening and resourcing of shelters and assessment centers to provide temporary housing and provide basic needs to hurricane victims.
Little did our Chamber and partners know, but our community, itself, was destined for the next devastating blow – this time from Hurricane Rita that hit head on in Sabine Pass and other areas throughout Port Arthur and surrounding cities. When that happened, the Chamber continued the newly-established partnerships for hurricane recovery efforts, this time helping many of our own residents.
As I review files from those days of horrible memories, there were multitudes of shining examples of the worst of times bringing out the best in people. Chamber staff members coordinated calls far and near – sending donations that ended up totaling nearly $3 million, to be distributed to individuals, families and businesses in dire need. By no means did the Chamber do all of this alone, as the list of partners could fill the pages of several books. It’s amazing to look over the list that was compiled after that time, as everyone came together to make possible a situation that certainly appeared would have been impossible to overcome. It sounds ridiculous to state that this was also the best of times for our city, but many feel that to be the case.
Prior to the hurricane impacts, three companies alone had announced plans to invest billions of dollars in petrochemical expansions or new projects in Port Arthur and others were going through the feasibility study phases to determine their paths forward. Needless to say, the hope of that future was a motivating factor in the resilience and importance of getting Port Arthur back on its feet as quickly as possible.
As was the case in so many other instances, the Chamber was a hub of activity where businesses owners and their consultants had reached out to garner community support and advice, permitting and other regulatory advice, leadership and much more. This was the case with the existing companies that needed a level of community support – but even more important was the case for three Liquefied Natural Gas company newcomers into our area. Again, the Chamber called about many in order to respond to the needs – everything from finding suitable property, regulatory permitting processes, community awareness and understanding of this new industry, business contracting and labor needs, as well as the vast array of needs for workers here and others who would be in the area while construction and ongoing operations moved forward.
Among the many, many important partnerships and collaborative efforts leading to this multitude of success stories, I can’t close without noting the high importance of our relationships with the school district, Lamar Port Arthur and other programs and training providers that contribute toward the workforce readiness of our residents.
I can whole-heartedly attest to the value of supporting the Chamber, by investing as a member. Whether you seek to derive direct value by the networking and other opportunities for Chamber members, or if you simply recognize that your support of the Chamber enables the staff to continue leading and coordinating all that it takes to do what some people think “Just Happens!” -- Please know that we welcome you to be a part of this broad-based, collaborative organization known as “Your Chamber.”