Port Arthur Economic Development Plan Is Blowing Up

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Earlier this year, I shared a photo with my friends at Strong Towns showing how drastically my hometown of Port Arthur, Texas had changed over the past hundred years. The scene above isn’t all that newsworthy given the same process is taking place across US cities that reached their apex during the 20th Century. What is newsworthy, though, is a recent urban renewal plan not to build new public housing or encourage small businesses, but to invite the movie industry to blow up one of the remaining buildings from the original postcard above.

You can hear Texas Standard talk with Port Arthur Mayor Pro Tem Derrick Freeman about his plan to blow up what’s left of Downtown Port Arthur here:

Obviously this plan is a horrible idea that will only lead to Downtown Port Arthur’s further decline. By going through with this plan, generations of incremental wealth will be destroyed for a fairly small, one-time transaction. What tax base will be left when the film crews leave? Where will residents meet, share ideas, and innovate when there are no longer any affordable old buildings in Downtown Port Arthur to do so?

The proposal to blow up one of Port Arthur’s few remaining landmarks is a symptom of much larger social and economic issues at play. It will not have any significant impact on economic stagnation, blight, and crime, despite that being the stated goal. By moving forward with this proposal, the City of Port Arthur is passing up a chance to rebuild their tax base through adaptive reuse of the Hotel Sabine building. Galveston, Texas has done a fairly good job at reusing their historic buildings to facilitate new businesses and additional residential units.

As Jane Jacobs said:

“Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them…. for really new ideas of any kind—no matter how ultimately profitable or otherwise successful some of them might prove to be—there is no leeway for such chancy trial, error and experimentation in the high-overhead economy of new construction. Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.”

04--Procter Street aerial 001a

That said, after hearing Mayor Pro Tem Freeman explain his idea in his own words over the phone, I can’t help but think he is just a well-intentioned guy trying to do his best to turn around a city that has experienced 50 years of steady decline. In many ways, I too would be desperate to find ways to fight what seems to be economic and social forces outside of anyone’s control. In fact, I have quite a bit of respect for Mayor Pro Tem Freeman. After all, he moved from Los Angeles to Port Arthur to make it a better place while many others—myself included—left for better opportunities in other Texas cities.

In the end, demolition is not a serious solution to Port Arthur’s economic development problems. Port Arthur residents are some of the most creative, hard working people that I have ever met. Surely, they know what is best for their city. We should be empowering them to determine their own fate, which is, in turn, reflected in their buildings.

“I’m flippin’ through PA
I’m tryin’ to see some good
But everythang is still the same
up in my neighborhood”

— Pimp C, UGK

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5 thoughts on “Port Arthur Economic Development Plan Is Blowing Up

  1. Wow. This is still being done in 2015?

    Interestingly, West Palm Beach blew up a waterfront building in the 90s that was derelict and abandoned. Our Mayor at the time sold tickets to watch the implosion and with the money raised, partially funded our waterfront park known as the Meyer Amphitheatre. The circumstances were different than this because it was a hotel and a modernist era clunker that was not a good building for downtown. Imploding it allowed for the public to reclaim some waterfront park space.

  2. I have always thought that urbanists and preservationists work toward the same goals, albeit with different motives and methods. In our conversations with neighborhood councils, I think it is important to remember that we all want character and a sense of place, history and vibrancy. Our cities should tell a story, or many stories, and should represent all of its people and voices.

    Great essay, Jace! I have never been to Port Arthur, but your photos and words remind me to keep the bigger picture in mind for Austin. -CG

  3. Brett Walker says:

    Interesting idea, I understand the cost of remediation and in that particular area there is little use for a building that would be so expensive to renovate. In Oregon and Washington State there is the McMenamin’s Group that purchases old building and renovates them. Creating exciting restaurants, bars, wineries, breweries and hotels. I strongly recommend these properties whenever you have the chance. A GREAT example of reuse and renewal. Stay at the Kennedy School, a 1904 Elementary school that keeps it’s character and you sleep in a renovated school room. Good restaurants and great bars/brewery right on the property.

    However, Port Arthur is not a destination and magnet for that kind of tourism and especially not that area, unfortunately. A renewal plan must a long-term investment in EDUCATION in Port Arthur. The best and brightest have fled the area for opportunities in other Texas cities and around the world.

    If the good mayor knew the history of the area he might have come up with a creative contest to write an original screen play or adapt one from one of the books written about Port Arthur’s own history. If you’re not a student of history or not from the area, find a copy of the out of print “The Early History of Port Arthur Texas” by William McKissick Timmerman or the currently available and more exciting “Betting Booze and Brothels” by Laura O’Toole.

    You would be amazed by the activity, legal and illegal that made this a thriving port city and preyed on it at the same time. That is until the James Commission in the 1960s came in and cleaned up the area. Shacking up all the local governments, police forces and the economy.

    From Spindletop to the James Commission, this was an exciting area and a rich history that has never been shared with a large audience. THAT could bring a long term economic renewal to the area long after the dust has settled on the late, great Sabine Hotel.

    Many other thoughts but, I have to get back to my day job in the world I left Port Arthur to find, while my thoughts go back there often, few of us will ever return.

  4. M Wong says:

    Mr. Walker:

    Is the following quote an example of Port Arthur’s need to invest in education?

    “A renewal plan must a long-term investment in EDUCATION in Port Arthur.”

  5. Brett Walker says:

    No, I left out the word include. Mea culpa. It should read.

    “A renewal plan must INCLUDE a long-term investment in education in Port Arthur.”

    If you’ll notice I also misspelled ‘shaking’, so before someone else points this out I have done so. The James Commission was not shacking up with the local governments.

    Thanks,

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