Sears, I remember when you had a last name.
One morning last month I was sitting in my office when the phone rang. It was a reporter from a local TV station wanting an, on camera, interview about the closing of Sears. Although, the Port Arthur Sears was not on the list of immediate closings, I agreed to an appointment. I grabbed my hat, climbed into my truck, lit up a cigar and headed north. On the way, the memory of my first encounters, with Sears and Roebuck, took me back to the past. I remembered when, as a boy, out in the woods of East Texas, the Sears and Roebuck catalog arrived in the mail. My grandfather always referred to it as the Sears and Rareback” catalog. The products shown on those pages went beyond what a person might purchase. They transported an entire nation to the future. These pages were the first time new styles and inventions were seen by many folks. Amazing items like, electric can openers, coffee pots, electric stoves and vacuum cleaners. As a youngster I had to wait until the adults had finished perusing the pages. I would listen to the gasps and exclamations of, “Wow, would you look at that! What will they think of next? If we just had electricity the vacuum cleaner would be nice to suck the dirt from the rough wood floors.” There was speculation as to how curtains would spruce up the house, if a little extra money could be found. New dish patterns, of flowers and beautiful abstract designs, were wished for to replace the old, chip and crack, design most people used. A set of matching dishes, including cups, saucers, salad plates, dinner plates, serving dishes were almost unheard of in the country. Most newlyweds had picked up odds and ends from relatives or collected them one at a time from dishwashing soap. The women looked, longingly, at the new fashions and dreamed of how they would look, dressed up, in these newfangled city clothes, going to the ball. Some dreamed of the luxury of having a machine that washed the clothes and had a wringer that would get some of the water out before hanging them on a line, outside, in the sun, to dry.
After the adults finished, the kids gathered to look at the toy section. A few of the wayward boys would sneak a peek at the bra section, hoping to get a glimpse of a woman in underwear. Of course, I never did that. Little girls would cut out the underwear models and dresses, making instant paper dolls. Tools and mechanized tillers caught the attention to those that had labored, long, behind a plow or used a hoe, rake and shovel to prepare the garden each year.
For months the catalog would be left out. It had many uses. Standing on it allowed shorter family members to reach the top shelf or placing it in the highchair to lift the new baby. The end, to the old edition, was marked by the arrival of the new catalog. The old edition might be retired to the outhouse or torn up to be used to start a fire in the stove. The Sears and Roebuck catalog was more than advertising, it was a portal from one generation to the next. A glimpse into the future and a source of dreams and what could be. It provided incentive to do better so, one day, just maybe, you could get that, wished for, item.
Back in the present, I gave 10 second sound bites, about the economic impact of Sears closing. I also spoke of the personal impact on the employees. Some were elderly and had been in retail their whole lives. While many jobs are available in America, many, of those jobs, are in the construction or technical field. Most of the retail employees are too far alone in their lives to shift their career paths to that type of work. I talked about loss of sales taxes and the difficulty in finding a use for such a large building. Like the employees, the building had spent its life as a retail establishment attached to a large enclosed mall. Malls, such as this, have been suffering for years under the onslaught of on-line shopping and the switch to walk up malls or stand-alone facilities. In the case of Sears their path, to bankruptcy, was accelerated due to bad management at the top. Sears Holding Company is the parent company of Kmart and Sears. They got away from their core customers and tried to be everything to everybody. Just like people, companies that do this, usually end up pleasing no one. Sears failed to keep what was working and failed to find an effective way of competing for on-line shoppers. Their products, at one time, were some of the best available, but over the years that, too, was no longer true. Finally, on October 15, Sears, filed bankruptcy. Another American standard fell to a changing market and bad leadership. As I said, the only good thing, from my point of view, is, at this time, Port Arthur Sears is not on the closing list.
All the above is sad but the real loss, to me, and a lot of old people, is the loss of a piece of history. A part of our childhood is no longer. The interview done, I go on about my day, a little sadder at the loss of an old friend.
Texas is known for its leadership in attracting new businesses to the state. The Gulf Coast currently is the “Gold Star” of new industry and job creation. Most of this success is because of the refineries and oil companies in the area. The new kid on the block is the Liquid Natural Gas projects. In our area those include Chenier, Golden Pass and Port Arthur LNG (Sempra). These projects cost approximately 12 billion each and require 4 – 5 thousand construction workers each. When you couple these labor requirements with the turn arounds and existing plant expansions, the numbers are phenomenal.
Almost all states and cities, in an effort to attract new projects, offer tax incentives. Some people see this as giving tax money to companies to entice them but it’s allowing the companies to keep more of their own money in lieu of giving it to the government. Still, the idea, to some politicians and citizens is a gift. And with any gift comes strings. In the case of Port Arthur, if a company signs a tax agreement, there are incentives that will lower their tax burden. These incentives are, hire Port Arthur Citizens and Buy from Certified Port Arthur Businesses.
How do you become a Certified Port Arthur Business? The city website has this requirement.
Since “principal place” has been determined as their headquarters, this noble idea, that sounds good for political purposes, is not realistic in today’s global market. Currently, out of all the businesses in Port Arthur, Texas, there are 28 listed on the city’s website as having been certified. This program is, at least, 8 years old.
The reason for the Certified Business Program is to encourage companies to hire local people and spend their money locally. But, according to city rules, locally means, with a Certified Port Arthur Business. If an industry purchase from any other Port Arthur business, it does not count towards your contract. Since there are so few qualified businesses there is no way industry can comply with the contract.
I have an example of a company that spend hundreds of thousands of dollars, annually with a company, located in Port Arthur but gets no credit. A company that has hundreds of employees and pays thousands of dollars in property tax and sales tax does not meet the criteria of “Certified Port Arthur Business.”
The chamber has asked to be allowed to work with the city to design a more realistic program that rewards companies for spending their money in the city limits of Port Arthur, to any company that pays property tax or sales tax to the city. To date we have not been asked to help.
Other incentives are based on sound ideas and do work. The chamber and the Small Business Development Center – Lamar State College, constantly encourage qualified businesses to apply for the HUB (Historically Underutilized Business Certification.”
The federal government, in an effort, to help these businesses, require certain contractors, by contract, to make every effort to award a percentage of their work to a HUB certified business. The Port, city, state, county, and many other agencies live under this regulation. It gives the HUB business an edge in any bid. Linda at the SBDC Port Arthur knows her business when it comes to helping a business complete the requirements necessary. Her services are free. The chamber encourages its members to call and ask us about this program.
In September the Chamber hosted its first SETX Industrial reverse trade show. Local industries set up booths to allow participating contractors the opportunity to make contact and obtain information about bidding on future or existing projects. There were 9 sponsoring booths and 4 industrial booths. Approximately 150 contractors attended, all giving this first attempt good reviews. I congratulate the chamber’s membership and events coordinator, Paige Snyder, and her ambassador volunteers for their hard work to make this event a success. Rachel Ochoa designed a PowerPoint presentation highlighting the sponsoring and participating companies.
The Beaumont, Orange and Port Arthur Chambers continue to meet, jointly, for the purpose of setting legislative agendas for the Golden Triangle Days in Austin, scheduled for February 12, 2018. I continually encourage business to become more involved in government affairs and pay attention to the direction our state legislatures are going, regarding regulations and taxes. To date, these three chambers are working with other coastal chambers, targeting Windstorm insurance, health facilities, environmental regulations and the funding of higher education and transportation. There will be more issues popping up on our radar. If you know of other legislative issues that hurt or help business development, call the Beaumont, Orange or Port Arthur chambers and give us the information.
If you want to be a member of an organization that works to keep existing business and attract new business, call Paige Snyder at 409-963-1107 or send her an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This time last year we were all digging out from Harvey. A record rainfall had put water in about 80 percent of the structures in Port Arthur and much of the surrounding area. When the chamber staff was finally able to return to work we set about preparing to assist those members that needed help. As it turns out, only about 6 to 10 members asked for our assistance. Volunteers flooded into the area, helping to rebuild. Those with insurance rounded up contractors to begin repairs. FEMA began the long process of helping those without insurance but, a lack of contractors and materials has slowed the process.
The Golden Triangle was not alone in its struggles. The gulf coast, from Corpus Christi to Lake Charles, was flooded. Rockport was almost removed from the map. City services in all cities suffered but Port Arthur was hurting because many of our city vehicles were flooded. Replacing these specialty vehicles takes a long time and is very expensive.
A year later many of our storm drains and ditches remain clogged with debris and silt. The city is addressing these issues as manpower and money becomes available.
As with all disasters there are those pointing fingers and trying to blame someone. The blame game is easy. It is usually from people that think the government can protect them from everything.
The chamber is continuing to offer any assistance, within their resources, to any business. We do not take tax money, so we must rely on our business members for funding. Our biggest assets are our members. Gradually our city is being repaired and, as we look back on August 29th, 2017 the spirit of Port Arthur survived and is moving forward and the Greater Port Arthur Chamber of Commerce will continue to look to the future.
As the end of 2018 draws nearer, the chamber begins to concentrate on electing new directors and appointing new officers for 2019 – 2021. The officers for 2019 shall be, Chairperson Elizabeth Cravens - MidAmerica Contractors, Chairperson Elect, Ron Fletcher - Entergy, Vice Chairperson - Ron Arceneaux - Arceneaux, Wilson and Cole Architects, Treasurer, Stuart Salter – Salter Insurance, Members at large Randy Sonnier - Total, Art Thomas - Texas Gas Service and Immediate Past Chairperson, Jeff Hayes - Hayes Real Estate. These seven will comprise the 2019 Executive Committee. The chamber will also have 21 board members.
The chamber is planning a new event, targeting area contractors. The SETX Industry Show will be held in the Robert A. “Bob” Bowers Civic Center on September 18, 2018, 4 pm – 6 pm. The purpose of the industry show is to allow area contractors to meet industrial clients to discuss upcoming projects and gather all information required to become eligible to receive request for bid packets. The event is free, but reservations are required. You may register by going on-line at www.portarthurtexas.com.
The board will participate in a half day planning retreat in October for the purpose of finalizing the budget, planning the next year’s events and board training.
The 119th annual banquet will be in January 2019 at the Robert A. “Bob” Bowers Civic Center. This fund-raising event for the chamber will also see the awarding of the Ambassador of the Year, Business of the Year, Retiring Directors and the Arthur E. Stilwell Award. Although new directors take office, per the by-laws, on January 1, 2019, they will be recognized at this event. The exact date and speaker are yet to be determined but incoming chairperson, Elizabeth Cravens promises it will be entertaining.
On February 11 – 12, 2019, Golden Triangle Days will be held in Austin. Rooms may still be available at the Driskel or Intercontinental SFA, but you had better call now because they were filling up fast. You may go to the chamber website at www.portarthurtexas.com and register online. All events will take place on Tuesday the 12th. There will be no reception on Monday night. Tuesday will begin with a breakfast, followed by legislative sessions and end with the party that evening. If you don’t need a hotel you are required to register for the event. Our legislative committee and transportation committee has already begin meeting to map out which issues needing our attention. Since Golden Triangle Days in Austin is a collaborative effort we will work with Beaumont and Orange chambers to find common ground. It appears TWIA and school finance will be on the agenda once again. We will also be looking at highway funding in an effort to get some of our highway projects funded.
In 2019, The Greater Port Arthur Chamber of Commerce will continue to focus on economic development through its education foundation, transportation committee and legislative committee. If you wish to be part of a Five Star accredited chamber and make a difference in your community, or make a difference in your business, call Paige Snyder at 409 963-1107 – Extension 3.