GREGORY – Signs of new Gregory are everywhere.
Construction of apartment buildings and houses, businesses — none bigger than the massive ExxonMobil-SABIC facility that promises to pump billions into the local economy in the near future — and of course the seemingly ever-present road construction that is a distraction at the least, and often disruption to trying to get anywhere.
In the shadow of all the construction and traffic that offers a glimpse into the future are the signs of old Gregory — the stately buildings that have stood for decades as a testament to prosperity of the past, the small homes located by an increasingly close road offering its promise of progress and the quiet areas tucked aware from all the noise and constant motion of machinery.
You can still find pockets where there is an occasional lull in the traffic and you can hear the trill and chirping of a variety of birds that offers a little slice of the country in what is increasingly becoming the city.
But those country-like settings in the city are becoming fewer and farther between. Nowhere is the situation illustrated more clearly than a two-mile stretch of Farm-to-Market Road 2986 — or Wildcat Drive — across from what will become the ExxonMobil-Sabic facility.
Just outside the construction zone in Portland is Gregory-Portland High School. The far end of the road leads to Highway 181.
In the middle, Texas Department of Transportation workers are transforming what was once a quiet, two lane road into the entry way to mega industry.
That has led one of the homeowners on that stretch to place their home on the market. In front of the home, workers are installing a sidewalk and heavy machinery continues the work of progress.
Just down the road, one of the beneficiaries of the major construction is the Glades of Gregory Apartments, owned by S.S. Solis Properties.
The apartment complex opened in 2017, not quite two years ahead of the ExxonMobil plant’s announcement of its location.
If location truly is the first tenant of real estate, the Glades has it in spades.
The apartment complex will more than double in size this year. When it opened, the apartments had 72 units, and a majority of those are reserved for low to moderate income residents in a two-story layout.
Five new buildings are being constructed and will be three stories tall.
“The new addition will provide 144 units, and they will be conventional market properties,” said Tiffany LaBrenz, community manager for the apartments.
“I think this is a great central location. It’s not even half a mile from (the upcoming ExxonMobil facility). The Cheniere (Energy) plant is about two and a half miles away and the Kiewit (Offshore Services) facility is not that far, either.”
The apartments are occupied at 98 percent capacity, LaBrenz said, and there’s a waiting list for the new properties to open this spring and summer.
This April is the target date for the first of the new properties to become available, with a new building expected to open every 45 days until all five are ready for occupancy.
While the original phase of the property largely focused on accommodations only, the new phase of the Glades will offer a swimming pool and other amenities. That’s just one example of the booming real estate market.
Gregory Police Chief Juan “Tony” Cano, who came out of retirement in 2018 to fill a leadership vacancy in the department, has seen a lot of changes in the small community over the past 41 years.
“After I got out of the Navy, I chose a career in law enforcement because I like to help people,” Cano said. “My first job in law enforcement was right here in Gregory in 1979.”
Cano moved to the Portland Police Department, where he worked for 37 years before retiring in June 2017.
“This job came open and I decided to apply for it, to throw my hat in,” he said.
Cano’s familiarity with the area, and his long tenure of police service, led the Gregory Council to hire him as the city’s chief.
That familiarity with the area also gives him a unique perspective on the city’s growth.
“Our traffic volume has increased so much over the years,” he said. “I’ve seen a huge increase in traffic just in my two years of being back with the department.
“There has been an increase in vehicles of all types on our roads, but the number of trucks going back and forth can get pretty extreme at times. There are times of the day when it can be difficult to get out of the (police department and city hall) parking lot. I’ve heard that there are 4,000 or more vehicles a day passing by. The numbers are extremely high.”
Road construction is compounding the problem, but offers a more long-term solution.
“Whenever they finish (U.S. Highway 181), I’m sure that will solve a lot of issues,” Cano said. “That still won’t alleviate all the traffic on (Texas Highway) 35, but it should help with overall traffic.”
Gregory was a sleepy community with little traffic in the late 1970s, Cano said, but it has now grown into an area befitting of its moniker, “Pathway to the Future.”
Gregory is front door of the area’s booming growth, a far cry from yesteryear.
“When I first came here, Loop 202 was two lanes and you might see four or five cars go by in an hour,” Cano said. “Now you’ll see four or five cars whizz by in 30 seconds. The numbers are incredible. It will blow your mind.”
Local business owner Sochetra Chansan said he noticed a high number of cars traveling through the area when he opened the Donut Shop Cafe in May 2019.
“Traffic is crazy, but so far business has been kind of slow,” he said. “I’m hoping it will pick up when the Exxon plant opens.”
Peter Patel, owner of La Tienda convenience store in Gregory, says his store sees a steady stream of customers, and he has already noticed an increase in customers.“It stays pretty busy,” he said. “It’s in a good location, so hopefully we’ll see even more customers with all the growth coming.”
(This article is part of a series on San Patricio County growth, new businesses and how the communities are managing the major changes in the area).
Jeff Osborne is editor of the News of San Patricio and the Refugio County Press.