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Holiday shopping serves as litmus test for Lake Houston retail

November 20, 2018

Traffic jams and crowded parking lots at Deerbrook Mall are a welcome sight for Mark Mitchell this holiday season.

While just two years ago, they would have been a burden.

After Hurricane Harvey devastated last year’s holiday shopping season, Mitchell, president of the Lake Houston Economic Development Partnership, is relieved to see the community getting back to normal.

“It looks like there’s going to be a good recovery,” Mitchell, 56, said.

Thousands of businesses were damaged in the Lake Houston area, including many within the trendy mixed-use developments that have popped up in the last decade, such as H-E-B-anchored Main Street Kingwood, Kingwood Town Center and Townsen Boulevard, which features a Costco and Main Event in Humble.

Most of the businesses and restaurants in Kings Harbor, a mixed-use development along Lake Houston in Kingwood, received more than 5 feet of water. Some of the popular local restaurants just reopened this last month.

However, holiday sales could indicate whether retail in the Lake Houston area has truly bounced back.

After the hurricane, Humble City Manager Jason Stuebe said he was expecting to see a 25 to 35 percent decline in sales tax revenue.

But the area still thrived, and 2017 was only $400,000 behind 2016’s $13.6 million in earnings. Stuebe said he believes the reason why the area stayed afloat is because it’s a main retail hub in Northeast Harris County and, as people were rebuilding their homes, they went shopping at big box stores for things like wood, appliances and furniture.

“Is this a bubble, so to speak?” he said. “Why is it that we didn’t take it as hard as what we were expecting?”

This year’s sales tax revenue is expected to hit $14 million. Stuebe, 35, said he will consider business is back to normal if this year’s holiday shopping returns to historical numbers.

“I’m kind of bullish on the local economy and future right now,” he said.

Other factors that helped keep sales up were that the mall, which never flooded, stayed open, and only seven out of the 64 Humble companies that were flooded by the hurricane shuttered their doors.

Consumers got the message, he said.

“We’re right here in your backyard, and we’re open for business,” Stuebe said.

Mitchell said local businesses, especially some in the retail sector had a hard time regaining their footing with limited assistance options for business owners.

The Small Business Administration’s Disaster Recovery Loan Program helped some companies, but not all. About 90 percent of the money from the SBA went to residential homes. Small businesses like Kingwood boutique Pretty Little Things depended on savings and grant money to reopen.

Nikole Christian, owner of the boutique, was getting ready to open a second store when Hurricane Harvey hit.

She should have been picking out new items and décor. Instead, Christian spent all the money in her savings account to restock and remodel her store, which sells women’s apparel and accessories.

“It was good timing, if there ever is good timing,” Christian, 29, said.

But for the past year, Christian said her store’s sales have been up. While she believes some people are still being reserved with their spending, it hasn’t affected her numbers.

“I think our sales are a good testament that the community is still shopping,” she said.

For the upcoming holiday shopping season, Christian has pushed her social media marketing, even posting a special holiday photo shoot with special items, to help replenish the funds that were lost to Harvey. Her plans to expand the store are on schedule again, and a second Pretty Little Things is planned to open near the Beltway.

“It’s a time to fully get us back on our feet,” she said.

The Lake Houston Area Chamber of Commerce also put out a huge marketing push earlier this year to let the public know that local stores were ready for customers. The Back 2 Business campaign shared local business news on their social media and email blasts and gave stores special signs to celebrate being back in business, Mitchell said.

The chamber reached out to more than 300 businesses and helped with relocation, tax incentives and grants to try to fill the gaps that businesses could not.

“Many of them drained their bank accounts so they could remain open,” Mitchell said.

While sales revenue is a major concern, Mitchell, however, said the most important economic issue for the community is still flood prevention.

“Make no mistake, the priority for us is that we dredge effectively and that we make sure long-term we get additional gates on Lake Houston so we can get the water out of here quicker than we were able to during Hurricane Harvey,” he said.

ana.goni-lessan@chron.com

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