I am Houston First. Me and 207 others, that is.
We are all proud employees of what the media likes to call a quasi-public organization that is officially a local-government corporation created by the City of Houston. And that’s part of our identity problem. It seems that many folks don’t know who we are or what we do.
Houston First is a name that conjures a number of logical-sounding entities. But we’re not a bank, credit union, brokerage or any manner of financial institution. We’re also not a bastion of higher education. Or a house of worship.
“Somebody inadvertently posted on our Facebook page, ‘Thank you for all you do as a church,’” said Dawn Ullrich, president and CEO of the corporation. “There are days when I wish we had that kind of divine influence, but that wasn’t us.”
It turns out the poster was expressing appreciation for Houston’s First Baptist Church.
Then there was the time two of our executives were mixing at a black-tie affair and a board member of a major nonprofit group asked if our bank had a Downtown branch.
Houston City Council created our corporation in 2011 by merging the city’s Convention & Entertainment Facilities Department with the Houston Convention Center Hotel Corporation. The aim was to bring private-sector savvy and flexibility to operations at the city’s convention and arts venues and Houston’s largest hotel, the 1,200-room Hilton Americas-Houston, while still retaining government oversight.
“Our mission is simple, though there is never anything easy about enacting it,” said Ric Campo, the corporation’s board chairman. “We want the world to think of Houston first and we want Houstonians to think of their hometown first. And finally, we want everything we do to be first class. Slowly but surely I think we’re checking off those boxes.”
If you work or live or visit Downtown regularly you’re likely to have come across our handiwork on a daily basis, even if you don’t know it’s us who manages the George R. Brown Convention Center, Jones Hall, Wortham Center, Miller Outdoor Theatre and Theater District Parking, among others.
Cissy Segall Davis is executive director of Miller Theatre Advisory Board, which provides the programming at the nearly century-old venue in Hermann Park. Houston First provides the management of the facility, where, as generations of Houstonians know, every show is always free.
“I think that one of the most important changes that has occurred since Houston First assumed management is the spirit of collaboration,” Davis said. “There is a recognition and celebration of this historic venue and there is definitely a desire to work together for the betterment of the theater.”
Davis said the recent process to develop a master plan for Miller Outdoor Theatre brought all stakeholders together at the same table. “(It) was quite collaborative,” she said. “To know that we have all played a role in visioning Miller Theatre for the next 20 years, adopting a plan to create an even more dynamic, inviting, inclusive venue for future generations is very exciting.”
At Wortham Center, one of the major tenants is Houston Grand Opera. HGO Managing Director Perryn Leech (who also is the board chair of Theater District Houston) has a front-row seat to what is taking place in the Theater District.
“City Council’s creation of Houston First has given a new level of energy and support for the city’s wonderful performing arts scene,” Leech said. “We have the world-class facilities and thriving arts groups who produce extremely diverse programming. This ongoing development will only add significantly to its appeal."
But we’re more than just facility landlords – a lot more. We also provide a wealth of the connective tissue that allows a number of development projects to take root Downtown. Balancing the needs of all players so that everyone gets something is a tricky business, but one made more plausible with the spirit of collaboration that our company displays.
Nick Massad Jr., president and CEO of American Liberty Hospitality, can vouch for that after having worked with HFC on several projects. American Liberty owns and operates the Downtown Embassy Suites (which opened in 2011) and is developing a nearby block to house two hotel brands, Hampton Inn and Homewood Suites, which American Liberty will also own and operate.
“Houston First has a very efficient business model which collaborates with Houston’s other groups, such as the Greater Houston Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Greater Houston Partnership, to achieve great things together,” Massad said. Last year, Houston First completed a strategic alignment with the convention and visitors bureau to consolidate more of its operations and promote Houston more consistently.
“They have provided incredible vision and leadership to create one of the nation’s best convention districts, which will only get bigger and better prior to Super Bowl 2017. Their stewardship and success with the Hilton Americas makes all Houstonians very proud.”
Houston First is in the prominent business of renovating the Convention District neighborhood. One of the key pieces in the puzzle is Houston-based RIDA Development’s construction of the 1,000-room Marriott Marquis hotel that will eventually tie into the George R. Brown. Between the RIDA and American Liberty projects, Houston moves closer to creating the critical mass of hotel rooms it can offer the world’s biggest conventions.
Houston First is also making over the boulevard in front the convention center, converting it from eight traffic lanes that were often unused into a pedestrian plaza that will create a better visitor experience. On the north side of the convention center, a 10-story office tower and 1,900-car garage are now under construction. Soon, another hotel could be part of that mix, too.
With all this work taking place, affecting so many aspects of Downtown life, there’s also something to be said for “playing nice” with the neighbors.
Nearby is Incarnate Word Academy, where Sister Lauren Beck has run the all-girls school since 2000 and has more than just a passing interest in changes to neighborhood.
"Just look around at the consistent growth Downtown and it is apparent Houston First has a passion for its revitalization,” said Sister Lauren.
“Bringing people together to collaborate on projects seems to be a specialty of Houston First. It’s amazing to me the number of people they invite to the table to make sure all the voices are heard and their concerns are met before moving forward."
And that’s what we do here at Houston First.
But we still don’t offer free checking.