The County Gin sat down with Wharton Economic Development Corporation Executive Director Joshua Owens to check in on the progress and goals he has made in his first months as head of the agency.
Owens was named the organization’s executive director on Monday, July 20 and officially hired on Aug. 3.
Q: How would you describe the transition process into the WEDC executive director position?
A: Whartonians have been touchingly welcoming. They have picked up my dinner check and given me fresh-baked cookies and yard eggs and goat milk from their farm; I can’t imagine another community being more welcoming.
Economic development is a relationship business and the pandemic has inhibited my ability to do as much outreach as I would like, but our assistant director Karen Heintshcel, with 23 years of experience with the organization operations, has given me the time I need to get my feet under me.
Q: What was one of your first impressions of the status of the Wharton business climate?
A: Wharton’s agricultural, educational and manufacturing sectors provide a solid economic base. Wharton needs to grow its middle class by attracting new residents and providing career opportunities that can support a family for those who live here, which is challenging, given our school ratings and the threats posed by flooding.
I am optimistic that Wharton ISD’s new superintendent, Dr. (Michael) O’Guin, will transform the school district’s performance and the levee will solve many of Wharton drainage issues.
Q: Are you commuting to Wharton? If so, how is that travel time?
A: I am looking forward to moving here. Part of what attracted me to this job was leaving behind the traffic and congestion of Houston, plus the ability to see stars at night and hear the crickets. It has been taking me 45 minutes to commute from Greenway Plaza at U.S. 59 and 610, which isn’t bad at all (admittedly, I am not traveling at the recommended 55 miles per hour through the extensive work zones on U.S. 59).
One of Wharton’s strategic advantages is you can enjoy the best of small-town, rural Texas life within striking distance of all the opportunities that Houston provides.
Q: What are your top three priorities as the WEDC Executive Director?
A: Wharton Economic Development Corporation was chartered to drive economic growth. My top three priorities are jobs, jobs and jobs. We will attract those jobs through developing our industrial site, revitalizing the downtown and supporting expansion of existing businesses.
Q: We see there is a strategic planning session for WEDC. Is this something you implemented? How will this help you in your new role and the organization as a whole?
A: Our authorizing legislation requires we submit a plan to the state on an annual basis, but it was needed regardless as we set our priorities for the coming year. We would like to hear from the community on what their priorities for Wharton’s economy are; you can let us know through taking our survey: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/LBT58YC.
Q: What would you like to see for the economic future of Wharton in the next five years?
A: Quality of life is the new incentive package in economic development. The levee, the I-69 expansion and the FM 1301 extension are all huge infrastructure projects that will change the community’s ability to attract employment.
In addition to those infrastructure improvements, turning Wharton ISD into a blue-ribbon district will be crucial to attracting housing development. Once we can address the fundamentals of drainage and education, the city has the potential to be the finest county seat in Texas.
For more information about the Wharton Economic Development Corporation, visit the organization’s website.