Construction cranes clustered alongside Interstate 45 at the Hardy Toll Road carve a startling, wide swath through the trees just south of The Woodlands.Placards staked around the planned community advertise commercial land for sale, and billboards promote multiple new subdivisions - all indicators of a region undergoing furious transformation.
Come next year, this will be home to some 10,000 people who work for Exxon Mobil Corp., which is building a campus the size of a small city on 385 forested acres north of Houston. The project is so massive that it was initially given a code name: Project "Delta," the mathematical term for change. Long before the first employees arrive, the development is reshaping the region in vast ways that might be called the Exxon effect, solidifying Greater Houston's place as the nation's energy capital while testing the limits of its unbridled exurban growth. No less than 20 buildings are underway at the energy giant's future home, a real estate development thought to be the largest in the country. The project, which was announced a little more than two years ago, has triggered a real estate boom that some say is just beginning. Other companies have followed in announcing moves northward, and the local economic development council is swamped with inquiries from businesses. Developers are seizing on the opportunity to build more apartments, offices and shopping centers. "We describe it as the tsunami headed this direction," said Virgil Yoakum, general manager of Woodforest, a master-planned community between The Woodlands and Lake Conroe. Yet even as the many business leaders and Woodlands residents herald the economic windfall, the rapidity of the growth is creating a sense of unease about whether the region can absorb the waves of people and businesses soon to arrive.I-45 is already carrying more traffic than it was designed to handle, even before the first new employee arrives. New highway construction likely will accelerate the cycle of sprawl that has defined Houston and the surrounding region for decades. Some schools say bond referendums will be needed to make room for the influx of families and children, and the promise of an affordable home is fading quickly. "Exxon is a regular topic of conversation wherever you go - over dinner, at church, around the neighborhood and at school," said Petri Darby, a longtime resident of The Woodlands.
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