The Port Arthur News
Barring a gubernatorial veto, final action by the Texas Legislature means the Port Arthur Economic Development Corporation can spend approximately $5 million on a myriad of projects including downtown housing for 100 college students.
One of three measures, House Bill 2473, which would allow the PAEDC to spend sales and use tax revenue on dorms for Lamar State College-Port Arthur students, received final approval Tuesday in the House by a 112-34 vote.
It joins HB 1966 which would allow PAEDC money to be spent on municipal area development and revitalization and HB 1967 which allows money to be spent on life skills and job training skills for the unemployed.
To win over opposition, both HB 2473 and HB 1966 were amended during debate and will expire Sept. 1, 2017.
“I think it’s a win for the city. I think it’s a win for the citizens of Port Arthur. I think it’s a win for Lamar State College-Port Arthur,” said Floyd Batiste, executive director of the PAEDC. “All this stuff was well thought out in how we can create a better quality of life.”
Dr. Sam Monroe, president of LSC-PA, said officials were grateful to State Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Beaumont, and State Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, for working the bills through the legislative process.
“Our representatives have done just a magnificent job in representing the issues for the city and for the college,” Monroe said. “This is a golden opportunity to work with the EDC and the city to make real contributions to the former downtown area and I say former because the retail outlets and commercial investments that were once there are no longer.”
A feasibility and marketing study done by Collegiate Companies, of Irving, interviewed more than 700 LSC-PA students and recommended building housing in the downtown area for 345 students.
Monroe said the college is looking at housing for 100 students.
“We thought maybe it would be best if we tried a smaller number to make sure we were on solid footing,” Monroe said. “We’re optimistic that we can actually put this together.”
Supporters arguing for all three measures repeatedly told lawmakers that the city of Port Arthur should be treated differently than other cities with EDCs, highlighting the blighted downtown area and more than doubling of the statewide unemployment rate.
Opponents said existing state law would have allowed the EDC to do much of what the bills called for, except for student housing.
“What the law says is that in order for the EDC to assist a Port Arthur resident, it must be attached to a job,” Batiste said. “There’s a lot of residents within this community that do not have the life skills and job training skills.
“There’s a lot of jobs in the industrial area but we also have a lot of new companies that are coming here that have a lot of unsubsidized employment and with skill sets higher than the skill sets of the community.”
What the PAEDC wants to do under these measures is to take a “holistic approach” to getting residents better educated and trained, Batiste said.
The PAEDC and LSC-PA look at the new economic development options as a if-you-build-it, they-will-come strategy, especially with the downtown area.
“We want to do the infrastructure first so that we can attract private sector to that area,” Batiste said.
Batiste said he sees the PAEDC spending $5 million, approximately half of its fund balance, on projects under what supporters hope soon becomes law, with the city also paying $5 million.
Monroe said the college will have to get approval from both the Texas State University System and the Higher Education Coordinating Board for the proposed student housing.
“We’re prepared to do all these things to make it a reality, certainly within four years,” Monroe said. “It is our hope that Governor Perry will see the benefit of this legislation.”
Monday marks the end of the 140-day session.
Because the bills will be sent to the governor within 10 days of adjournment, Gov. Perry will have 20 days after final adjournment to sign the bills, veto them or allow them to become law without his signature.