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When attracting businesses,
first impressions count

Cleaning Up

When Alberta, Canada-based ATCO Structures Inc. was looking for a site to manufacture its modular office buildings, it had a lot of options.

After a lengthy search, the company selected Angelina County, Texas for its 87,000-square-foot plant, which opened in 2000 and employs 120 people.

Other companies that opened or expanded operations in Angelina County since 1999 include American Color Graphics of Brentwood, Tenn., which made a $5 million expansion to its Lufkin plant; American Freightways of Harrison, Ark., which opened a new $1.5 million terminal and Brenham's Blue Bell Creameries, which is building a $1.5 million distribution center in Lufkin.

County officials say attracting major employers is an indirect result of their focus on maintaining a clean, litter-free community.

"To make a home for world-class companies you have to have a world-class community," says Bill Wellborn, president and CEO of the Lufkin/Angelina County Economic Development Partnership. "If you look at trying to attract new business and industry, you need to have a clean and neat community. If you don't have those things in the decision-making process you never make it past the first visit."

Wellborn says it's hard to tie a direct line between Angelina County's beautification efforts and its economic development achievements but adds that the climate the community has created certainly hasn't hurt its ability to attract business and industry.

ABCs of clean
Angelina County's beautification program, Angelina Beautiful-Clean (ABC), began 17 years ago as a volunteer beautification committee but has evolved into what state beautification experts hail as one of the strongest environmental education programs of its kind in the state.

Housed within the Lufkin/Angelina County Chamber of Commerce, ABC employs one full-time executive director and an education coordinator who work with a team of volunteers, businesses, teachers and students on a series of educational and outreach events throughout the year. A large volunteer base and an active board of directors comprising top community leaders reflect the community's commitment to keeping Angelina County clean.

"First impressions mean a lot when a person is driving through your community and you have litter on your highway and don't have proper upkeep of your medians," says Melinda Kartye, ABC's executive director. "We feel like it's a very important role in the process of economic development."

There's more to beautifying a community than picking up litter from the side of the road, say beautification proponents. Clean, landscaped entrances to communities and well-maintained downtown streets can create a positive first impression for prospective employers. When it comes to attracting business and industry, Texas cities from Lufkin to San Angelo are realizing that appearances are everything.

Calling in the experts
Whether a community wants a minor makeover or requires a full face-lift, it can draw on the expertise of various statewide organizations that specialize in beautification. Keep Texas Beautiful (KTB), a nonprofit affiliate of Keep America Beautiful, works with some 320 communities statewide to share its mission--empowering Texans to take responsibility for improving their environment.

KTB's programs follow three primary principles: community improvement and beautification, litter prevention and solid waste reduction. The 35-year-old organization has seen its number of community affiliates statewide jump from 251 in 1999 to 322 in 2001. KTB officials attribute the rise to communities' increased awareness that a clean and beautiful environment can play an important role in a city's economic development efforts.

"We have a lot more mayors and county judges who are signing up for our programs in the last two years," says Stacy George Cantu, executive director of Keep Texas Beautiful. "They are saying it's important."

While no specific numbers are available, Heather Richardson, director of corporate expansion and recruitment with the Texas Department of Economic Development, says she sees a strong link between a community's focus on cleaning and beautifying its streets and parks and its ability to lure new industry. When choosing a site to expand or open a new plant or operation, companies look at an entire community, not just the potential building site.

"If you are buying a house, you may love the house, but if it's in a neighborhood that's not aesthetically pleasing, you won't buy the house," Richardson says.

Communities that want to investigate recycling can call on the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) for help. As the state's environmental agency, TNRCC's programs aim to protect the environment, keep air and water clean and handle solid waste management issues.

TNRCC's Clean Texas program provides education and assistance to communities, businesses and individuals who want to improve the environment. Texas Recycles Day, scheduled for November 15, encourages businesses and communities to recycle through a variety of events and public awareness programs.

Recycling can be particularly challenging in rural areas, where communities may not have a program in place. TNRCC hosts 60 recycling events each year in rural areas throughout Texas, says Rebecca Lallier, outreach specialist for TNRCC.

Flowers help
The Texas Department of Transportation's (TxDOT's) landscape division works with cities and counties to help them create planting projects designed to lure tourists, attract business and industry or help celebrate a major milestone in the community. Communities may work with TxDOT to landscape or help maintain highways or roadways that provide entrances to the city. Others may participate in TxDOT's wildly popular wildflower program, which promotes the beautification of 750,000 acres of land along the state's highways.

Mark Matthews, director of landscape design and enhancements for TxDOT, says more communities are realizing the importance that landscaping and beautification play in promoting tourism and economic development.

"It's a pride thing," Matthews says. "When you talk about economic development efforts, I've seen the communities really come together."

Talking trash
In KTB's Community Affiliate program, cities and counties participate in a statewide network of community-based grassroots litter prevention and beautification programs. By becoming a KTB affiliate, communities can participate in a range of programs, including a national event, the Great American Cleanup. The event runs from March 1 to May 31 and focuses on litter removal but also includes beautification, recycling, clothes collection and tree planting.

A partnership between KTB and TxDOT, the Don't Mess With Texas Trash-Off on April 6 is the largest one-day cleanup in the state. More than 100,000 volunteers clean highways and roads throughout the state.

An affiliate of both KTB and Keep America Beautiful, Angelina County's ABC group will participate in the Great American Cleanup, the Don't Mess with Texas Trash-off and a host of other events throughout the year. In its largest annual event, ABC joins with the U.S. Forest Service in February for the Great Forest Trash-Off, where about 600 volunteers comb the forests for trash and debris. On Memorial Day weekend, ABC will participate in another Keep America Beautiful event, Liberty Gardens, where volunteers will plant trees or gardens in remembrance of victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

ABC's efforts have made a difference in Angelina County's economic development efforts, says Wellborn.

"I can tell you that without their efforts I don't think we would have been as successful," Wellborn says. "Our actions have a direct impact on the attractiveness of this community and of our salability to our visitors, whether they are here for tourism-related activities or whether they are contemplating establishing new business and industry."

A full face-lift
In the early 1990s, San Angelo community leaders realized the city needed more than a minor cleanup campaign to bring business and residents to its downtown area. Members of the city's ethnic, political and religious organizations formed the Regional Urban Development Assistance Team. The committee developed and recommended a plan to make San Angelo's downtown more attractive to business and industry.

A $7 million bond issue helped cover the costs of the projects, which included construction of pedestrian-friendly walkways linking the town's historic Fort Concho with the Concho River and construction of a pedestrian bridge.

A new art museum, consolidated state offices, an outdoor amphitheater and an additional $40 million in private investment transformed the downtown area into an attractive, bustling core for business, says Michael Dalby, president of the San Angelo Chamber of Commerce.

"That whole project has been a tremendous stimulus to our business and economic development and encouraging business to stay downtown and to come downtown," Dalby says.

Karen Hudgins