Sugar Land, Texas
NICEST PLACES IN AMERICA 2021 FINALIST
Sweet place, sweet people, sweet cash.
When David Sebek and his business partner Tracie Whitacre opened Escape Again Rooms 20 years ago, they were glad to be opening in Sugar Land, Texas, a place with a sweet name and a sweeter reputation.
“I’m so happy that we chose Sugar Land as a place to open because they have been a partner to us from the beginning,” Sebek says.
Located about 20 miles southwest of Houston, the town of 118,000 was founded in the 1800s as a sugar plantation and takes its name seriously, starting at the top. For instance, K.P. George, the local County Judge, child of Indian immigrants and the first person of color to hold that position, spent time driving elderly neighbors to warming centers when millions of people lost power due to freezing temperatures in February 2021. The City Government sets the tone, and Sugar Landers run with it.
“Kindness and neighborliness are very important in Texas because we have so many natural disasters,” says Claire Goodman, a senior reporter at the Houston Chronicle.
With this precedent, it was inevitable that when the pandemic hit, locals sprang into action, doing much of what we all did across the country to keep each other healthy, safe, and sane. But seeing how local businesses were suffering, the City Government went one step further, launching an innovative program that sparked the joy of community giving across the area.
They called it Sweet Cash and the premise was simple: Sugar Landers bought gift cards from local businesses, and with proof of purchase, the City matched their contribution, sending them a gift card from another local business. In addition, Sweet Cash participants could purchase a gift card that would be sent to a frontline worker, either one they knew, or one selected by the city on their behalf.
“Of the participants, almost two-thirds were healthcare workers,” says Cam Yearty, public-private partnership manager for the City of Sugar Land. “The city partnered with our three hospital systems, the local school district, and two local grocery stores to deliver frontline worker gift cards to their essential employees throughout the program.”
The program saved Sebek’s escape room business, bridging the gap of lost revenue during the slow pandemic summer.
“I think it has had a big impact,” says Sebek. “It made it so that people who want to help local businesses had a way of doing it.” And help they did, adding $206,000 to the city’s economy just when local businesses needed it most.
“People help each other here,” says Apinya “Bell” Lin, who owns three local sushi restaurants with her husband. “All the local businesses were buying gift cards for each other. We trained all our staff to let our customers know, had a sign up in our store, and promoted the social media hashtag, #AllInForSLTX.”
Locals cite the town’s great diversity as one reason everyone is so eager to help out. Sugar Land is the biggest city in Fort Bend, one of the most ethnically diverse counties in America. Couples in search of a good date night can drive down Highway 6 and find restaurants representing dozens of cultural cuisines, from Mongolian to Asian fusion to Cajun.
“I would say melting pot, but that’s a tired colloquialism,” says Sebek of the town’s community, about 44 percent White, 35 percent Asian, and the rest a mix of Black, Hispanic, and other races. “But there’s a balance of people. Everyone’s got different viewpoints and different ideas and it feels like everyone’s just here to help each other.”
When the pandemic hit, driving people inside and shuttering local businesses, the City of Sugar Land, Texas, just outside Houston, launched into action to do what they could to keep the beloved shops and restaurants of Sugar Land open. The City, through the Sugar Land Office of Economic Development, devised the Sweet Cash program: anyone who bought a gift card from a local business would get a free gift card from another local business in return and the city would gift an additional free gift card to a frontline worker on their behalf. The community rallied to support their favorite local businesses and while the financial impacts were measurable, the way the community came together was priceless. The City invested $100,000 of public funds to buy gift cards from local businesses, and through local shoppers buying their own gift cards, the program injected a total of $206,000 into the local economy when Sugar Land businesses needed it most and distributed more than 1,700 gift cards to frontline workers. The program ran in the summer of 2020, again during the holidays of 2020, and will launch for its third round in June 2021.
After the first two rounds, local business owners expressed their deepest gratitude for how the community supported them during tough times. Yvette Muller, owner of Baby’s and Kid’s 1st, said, “I have nothing but positive things to say about the Sweet Cash program. In times like these, supporting small businesses in Sugar Land is a top priority, especially for those of us who depend on our hometown shoppers. The investment of local dollars in Sugar Land businesses is an important initiative in helping one another.” Another local business owner, Tracie Whitacre, owner of Escape Again Rooms, said, “I’m glad Escape Again Rooms is included as a Sweet Cash participating business. The pandemic has been tough on us as an in-person experience, but through the Sweet Cash program we’ve seen the local investment in our business and anticipate a positive impact as more people buy gift cards and participate in the program.”
Sugar Land, Texas began as a home to the Imperial Sugar Company in the early 1900s. The city grew on the sugar trade and diversified over time. Although sugar is no longer one of Sugar Land’s largest industries, it is known as the Sweetest City in Texas, exemplified by its residents and its homes to its downtown and its government. Sugar Land has a small-town vibe with big-city amenities like the Smart Financial Centre, featuring performances by world-class artists, to Constellation Field, home of the Sugar Land Skeeters, recently made the Triple-A affiliate to the Houston Astros. The city has a globally diverse population as part of the most ethnically diverse county in the nation and is home to a robust small business community with representation across races and genders. People love living in Sugar Land – the local government invests in the community, responsible for funding the development of many of its most popular entertainment venues, and is a huge supporter of local business. In Sugar Land, the living is sweet.