The vote happened so fast, you almost might have missed it.
After months of fierce, contentious debate over whether or not to grant tax breaks to two companies aiming to build a petrochemical plant within about a mile of the local high school, the Gregory-Portland Independent School District board voted 6-0 on Tuesday night to give ExxonMobil and Saudi Arabia Basic Industries Corporation the requested Chapter 313 tax breaks.
Spurred by the glut of cheap natural gas on the market due to the gas-rich U.S. shale plays, Exxon and Sabic, longtime partners in Saudi Arabia, want to turn the farmland into a new petrochemical plant with the world’s largest ethane steam cracker at its heart. Exxon has spearheaded the effort, sending its own people to represent the Gulf Coast Growth Ventures Plastics Project, the umbrella company created for the joint venture, in San Patricio County.
But their efforts to reach out to the communities have been problematic at best as Exxon insisted on keeping the plant site under wraps and rumors swirled around both towns. When it was revealed last fall that the plant would be built on a 1,400-acre tract of land wedged between Portland and Gregory about a mile from Gregory-Portland High School and within two miles of an elementary middle school, protesters started showing up to San Patricio County Commissioner meetings and Gregory-Portland ISD school board meetings, as we reported in our recent cover story, "Game Changer."
Because the plant would be located outside the city limits of both Gregory and Portland, Exxon's requested tax breaks were the only way that the locals could hope to influence whether or not Exxon and Sabic ultimately chose to build on the San Patricio County site. As the school board and commissioners' meetings began to weigh whether to approve those tax abatement requests, the meetings grew tense, with supporters and protesters getting into it before the meetings and during them.
But despite all the tense encounters leading up to the vote, the mood was relatively calm on Tuesday night.
Each school board member made a statement before the vote actually took place. School Board Vice President Dean Atkinson pointed out that board members had been put in a true pickle, since there was simply no way to make everyone happy. "Our charge as elected officials, mind you, is to make the best decision for the district and whenever we have to deal with something we have no control over, that's what we have to refer back to. Nobody's against Exxon coming here; it's the location," Atkinson said.
Atkinson also called out the Corpus Christi Economic Development Corporation and the Port of Corpus Christi for keeping the Exxon project under wraps for so long. "It's been a very emotional ride for six or eight months now and the sad part in my opinion is it could have been avoided. If the EDC (Corpus Christi Economic Development Corporation) and the Port of Corpus Christi had been more up front and honest with us, perhaps it would have been a smoother ride. But it is what it is and we have to deal with it as it is, and the decision I will make tonight is what is best for our school district."
While some, like Gregory Mayor Celestino Zambrano, who worked in the petrochemical industry for years, say these plants are remarkably safe and will bring much-needed jobs to his beleaguered town, others, particularly those who joined Portland Citizens United, a grassroots organization that sprang up to oppose the petrochemical plant, have argued from the start that the plant is too close to the local schools and that the location will mean environmental and infrastructure problems for both communities.
On Tuesday night, the board members made a point of addressing how the possibility of the plant brought out so much division in Gregory and particularly in Portland.
"Some view this plan as a disaster for our community, while others see it as a great economic opportunity. While I most definitely respect everyone's opinion and passion, I feel that the truth lies somewhere in the middle," School Board Secretary Carrie Gregory said.
She noted how ugly the situation had gotten, with "character assassinations" and accusations being lobbed from all sides. "If we are to continue to coexist with industry, we must be willing to have open, honest and sometimes difficult dialogue with all sides," she said. "We can and should ensure that the integrity of the process remain intact even if we do not agree on the outcome."
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But once the board members had spoken, they went ahead and voted, a quick show of hands thrust into the air and just as rapidly yanked back down, with all six in support of approving the Chapter 313 tax abatement.
Rob Tully, Exxon's project executive for the joint venture, told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times that the back-and-forth within the community has actually helped the companies fine-tune their plans. "The feedback from the community really did influence how we plan to build this plant," Tully said. "I think we're going to be a better project for it."
Coming on the heels of the San Patricio County Commissioners vote on Monday to grant a tax abatement of their own to the corporation, the school board's decision clears one of the final hurdles that stood in the way of Exxon and Sabic building their proposed petrochemical plant at the "preferred location" site.
Now it's just a question of whether Exxon will ultimately decide to actually build the plant on that stretch of raw farmland.