By Greg Ritchie
EAST TEXAS – Deep East Texas Council of Governments and Economic Development District (DETCOG) Executive Director Lonnie Hunt was recently honored by the Texas Forest Country Partnership, winning their “Silver Bucket Award” at their Partnership Economic Summit Wednesday, Jan. 17 at Stephen F Austin university. The award recognizes those who create economic development in the 12 county area the group serves.
The Messenger caught up with Hunt, a Houston County native and seven-year veteran of DETCOG to ask him not only about the award, but his thoughts on economic development in East Texas.
Hunt was his usual humble self when it came to the award.
“I don’t really know how it came about because it was a great surprise to me,” Hunt said. “A few people conniving behind my back, I guess!”
Hunt has served in several positions in both Houston County and around the state. He sees what it takes to bring economic opportunity to an area and was very clear in what, in his opinion works…and what doesn’t.
Hunt said there are forces affecting rural counties, some of which can be fixed and some of which are out of local control.
“If you look now at the 11 counties we serve, only two of the counties grew in population in the latest census. Eight of our 11 counties declined in population. Texas is booming and open for business and people are moving here and more people are moving to Texas than anywhere else,” Hunt said. “But these new people are moving to the urban areas. So Texas is booming, but rural Texas is not seeing all the benefits of that.”
Hunt disagreed with the idea that businesses will not come to an area because there aren’t enough workers. He noted if you offer jobs, people will come, noting how many people move out of rural East Texas to work, but would prefer to stay. Hunt mentioned companies like NUCOR-Vulcraft and other big companies, who always somehow seem to have enough people. He mentioned how many people still commute long distances to find better-paying jobs when many would prefer to work here and skip those long commutes.
“It’s all about jobs. So all these new people are moving to those big cities, because that’s where the jobs are. We can create jobs in rural areas,” Hunt said. “We can show you a workforce if you show us the jobs. We can get the people lined up to take them and be very successful and it can be a combination of local people who can be trained for new skills, if they need it, and other people currently living here, working somewhere else, or maybe just moved somewhere else for opportunity and would love to be able to move back. They traditionally move back after they retire, anyway.”
DETCOG is a voluntary association of local governments in the 11 county region encompassing all of Angelina, Houston, Nacogdoches, Newton, Polk, Sabine, San Augustine, San Jacinto, Shelby, Trinity and Tyler counties. As one of the largest rural COGs in the nation. the DETCOG region is larger than the states of New Hampshire, New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island.
Always passionate about both his home area, rural issues and willing to discuss his opinions honed over many years traveling around the state, Hunt is optimistic about the future of Crockett and Houston County. Inspired by many of the activities and the feeling the area is coming to life, Hunt was happy to see signs like revitalization of downtown Crockett, including the Ritz Theater.
Asked about what we in Houston County can do to spur growth and jobs, Hunt showed no hesitation. He said two key factors, in his experience, make the difference. A dedicated person at the helm, who “lives, breathes and eats” economic development and a focused and well-thought-out plan and strategy to achieve it. Everything else, he concluded, this area already has.
“We may be rural, but we’re not remote. We are actually in a terrific strategic location to take advantage of economic development, being between Houston and Dallas, with Austin to the Southwest,” Hunt noted. “We’re in a very strategic location, if you set the table and get all the right pieces in place and do some planning for that growth. I think Crockett could be another Fredericksburg. But Fredericksburg didn’t just get lucky, overnight. They started 50 years ago, seriously trying to make their town into what it is today.”
Greg Ritchie can be reached at [email protected]