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Ranking Texas' biggest economic events in 50 years

Economist Ray Perryman this morning at a Fort Worth meeting of economic development officials offered his version of a Top 10 list: the state's most influential events since 1961. Perryman is a Texas native whose professional life has revolved around regional economics and forecasting, so he's probably as qualified as any to expound on the topic. Perryman divided the selections into 10 major categories, then decided on the most significant development within each. Here are his picks, with his own caveat that such a ranking leaves plenty of room for discussion. (That's what that "Comments" button is for, folks.)

1. Democraphics/sociological -- Air conditioning. Without AC, you don't have people relocating to the South, or moving to the suburbs and spending all that time driving into work.

2. Energy/natural resources -- The 1973-74 OPEC oil embargo, which pushed crude oil prices from $3 in the 1960s to $35  in the 1970s. As Perryman put it, "When the thing you sell the most increases in price by 1,200 percent, that's good."

3. Defense/aerospace -- Texas defense contractors landed plenty of big contracts during the Vietnam War, such as Bell Helicopter's Huey and General Dynamics' F-111. But the selection in 1961 of Houston by NASA as home of the manned spacecraft center tops the rest. When Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969, "Houston was the center of the world," he says.

4. Transportation -- Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. Interstate highways are important, but the airport allowed the area to advance its position as the center of commerce and finance in the Southwest.

5. Tourism and culture -- TV's "Dallas?" The movies' "Urban Cowboy?" Willie Nelson and the Texas music outlaws? All good stuff. But Perryman picks the Astrodome's completion in 1965. Architects still vote it one of the most recognized structures in the world, he says.

6. Laws and regulations -- This one gets a little wonky. The move to branch banking in the 1980s and tort reform in the 1990s were major, but Perryman gives the nod to a state constitutional amendment in 1989 that declared economic development "a public purpose" that qualifies for public dollars, paving the way for city sales taxes for economic development.

7. Electronics -- Austin is the state's silicon center, and it started with two research consortiums: the Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corp. (MCC) in 1983, and the Semiconductor Manufacturing Technology (Sematech) in 1987. They marked a change in attitude in state leaders from depending on petroleum to pushing new technology as an economic driver.

8. Healthcare and biomedical -- The heart advances of Drs. Michael DeBakey (first coronary bypass) and Denton Cooley (first artificial heart) established the reputational foundation for the Houston's huge Texas Medical Center complex.

9. Corporate relocation and recruitment -- Alliance Airport. Perry says that in 1987 Ross Perot Jr. invited him for a helicopter ride above the north Fort Worth prairie, pointed to Interstate 35 and a major Santa Fe Railroad line, then asked: "What if we put an airport right here?" 

10. Globalization -- Texas had few exports in 1960, but now ranks No. 1, accounting for 14 pecent of all U.S. exports. A big reason: the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Texas' trade just with Mexico is bigger than the total trade of most of the world's nations, Perryman says.

-- Jim Fuquay


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