A History of Stafford
In 1820, when the land that is now Texas was under the rule of Spain, Stephen F. Austin took advantage of a Spanish offer to settle a vast area of the territory in exchange for expansive land grants. William J. Stafford became intrigued with the offer and was one of Austin’s “Old 300” families that made the migration west and settled here.
In 1824, Stafford was granted a league-and-a-half of land, which became known as Stafford’s Point, and aided by a horse-powered cotton gin, began farming on his plantation and operating the gin to bale his and other farmers’ crops in the area. It marked the beginning of the business friendly climate that remains as a trademark of Stafford today.
The prominence and influence of Stafford’s Point flourished until 1836, when General Santa Ana, leading the Mexican Army, continued his invasion of Texas. After overrunning the Alamo in San Antonio, he headed for San Jacinto. He and his troops stopped in Stafford’s Point for the night, and before departing on their incursion, pillaged and burned this thriving community.
By 1840, settlers had returned to begin to rebuild the town. Sugar cane was gaining in stature as the preferred economic product and replaced cotton as the primary source of income for the revitalizing economy. Attracted by this expanding community, Stafford´s Point became the terminal point of the first railroad tracks built in Texas. On September 1, 1853, the Buffalo Bayou, Brazos and Colorado Railroad made its maiden twenty mile trip from Harrisburg to Stafford’s Point. After a couple of years, the rails were extended westerly. Today, there are over 12,000 miles of railroad tracks in Texas.
The Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation resulted in a dynamic shift in the direction and economy of the area. By 1869, a U.S. Post Office was established bearing the new name of Stafford. Freed slaves, who established numerous small farms, became the dominant landowners. By the turn of the century, the population rose to around 300, but then began a significant decline. By 1914, only about 100 people called Stafford home.
Over the next four decades, immigrants turned the tide and began to filter in. Led by a contingency of Italians looking for both business and farming opportunities, the future of Stafford began to take shape. However, sandwiched in was a raucous and, in retrospect, somewhat humorous period during the infamous Prohibition Era which featured widespread bootlegging and gambling that gave the town an image throughout the area that is still remembered with a wry smile by some of the surviving old-timers.
After World War II, the townspeople began to organize. They played a prominent role in obtaining authority from the state legislature in 1946 for the creation of the Fort Bend County Water Control and Improvement District No. 2, which provided safe drinking water and proper disposal of sanitary sewage. A year later, the Stafford Volunteer Fire Department was born. Today, the outgrowth of that organization is ranked as one of the top firefighting units in the nation.
The Fifties pointed to a new direction for Stafford. With the people voting to incorporate the city in 1956, a storied series of notable and unique accomplishments were initiated for this new municipality.
Long-time businessman and the inaugural fire chief of the Stafford V.F.D., Chester A. Wright was the first to wield the mayor’s gavel. He presided over a newly-elected six-man City Council. In spite of very limited resources, a signal was sent that Stafford, in contrast to many of the cities beginning to form around Houston to protect against annexation, would promote commerce instead of concentrating solely on residential development. It was during this period that construction on U.S. 59 started, thus sparking the slow but sure transition from an agrarian to urbanized community.
In 1964, the citizens elected its second mayor, A. J. “Tony” Jebbia. The aggressive approach of Mayor Jebbia resulted in several significant changes including imposition of the first property tax in 1965 and passage of the initial bond program–for streets and drainage improvements. He was instrumental in enticing Texas Instruments to locate here in 1967, which ushered in an influx of businesses. A controversial de-annexation of 147 acres fronting on the new freeway led Jebbia to resign his position in 1969. Julius M. “Mac” Ruffino served as acting mayor during the nearly two month period required to call and hold a special election to fill the vacancy.
On September 4, 1969, Leonard Scarcella took hold of the reins of the city and continues to serve as its mayor to this day. During the many terms under his leadership, Stafford has undergone an incredible transformation. The tax base of the city when he became mayor was less than $100 million. Today it exceeds $2 1/2 billion.
Even more impressive have been the unique achievements which have garnered widespread state and national attention. Leading that list is the 1977 creation by the citizens of the Stafford Municipal School District, a breakaway school district from two parent entities that, following years of litigation, gained an order of implementation in 1981 from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, the only such order sanctioning a breakaway school district ever issued by the federal courts. SMSD, with an impressive single pre-K through 12 campus, is widely noted for its extremely diverse student body of 3,000. It stands as the only municipal school district in Texas. Despite the sometimes contentiousness pitting the SMSD Board and administration against City Council, this special status provides educational opportunities for Stafford children unavailable to those in other districts of the state.
The city´s focus on education has not been confined to elementary and secondary instruction. In 1985, a builder’s warehouse on five acres that was the original school house of SMSD was revamped into a facility for the Houston Community College. Initial expectations of a student enrollment for the college were 500. Stafford then increased its stock in the community college system by becoming the first area outside of Houston to annex into the system. A major development in the evolution of this campus occurred in 1995. As a result of the deft political maneuvering by the legendary Lt. Governor Bob Bullock, who “rammed through” a bill in the final hours of the legislative session, the city was able to build an impressive science and technology facility and lease it to HCC on a buy back arrangement, thus covering the full cost of the project, sparing city taxpayers of all expenses, greatly expanding the land area of the campus and increasing enrollment to more than 7,000. With the recent opening of a new modern student complex, the 70 acre HCC-Stafford Campus has expanded enrollment to more than 10,000 students, and has become the largest and most populous of the more than thirty HCC campuses.
A move that has gained recognition, and in many instances awe, was the elimination in 1995 of the city property tax. The bold and, at the time, highly questioned action, had, and still has commentators from across the nation asking how it was possible, and what would be the effect. To the surprise of the public, pundits, and most governmental officials, the results have been astounding by spurring the city on to exceptional financial successes and producing a series of continuing achievements. It has allowed citizens to make lower home mortgage payments and has enticed many businesses to locate in the city. It has also allowed the city to pursue a “pay-as-we-go” policy which has everyone from financial advisors to credit rating agencies acknowledging, somewhat reluctantly, the now obvious benefits in an economic climate that is staggering under the weight of ill conceived debt.
The city has seen many impressive infrastructure additions over the past four decades. These improvements have been highlighted by the building and expansion of U.S. 59, the extensive widening of F.M. 1092 and the construction of the recently completed major highway improvements to U.S. 90A encompassing an elaborate landscaping enhancements program through the heart of town. A host of successful street, drainage, water and sewer projects have been added. Several attractive and efficient public buildings, including a revamped City Hall, a police and fire station public safety complex, the WC & ID administrative offices and a well utilized civic center have been constructed. The facility that has gotten rave reviews, and national recognition, is the Stafford Centre. This combination of a most impressive performing arts theatre with a highly functional convention center has garnered many accolades and caused leaders in other communities to attempt to duplicate it. Now just completing five years of operation, the array of outstanding performances and successful events continues to impress.
The Stafford Economic Development Corporation instituted by the City in 1999, with funding from a voter approved 1/2% sales tax, has provided resources necessary for the construction and maintenance of the Stafford Centre and the underpasses and landscaping enhancements to the U.S. 90A highway project. These are the initial impacts of a financial vehicle that should produce many more outstanding endeavors for the city and citizens in years to come.
Starting in the early Eighties, several attempts were made to develop and gain approval for zoning in the city. Finally, in 1997, City Council adopted a comprehensive zoning ordinance. Although not without detractors or imperfections, City Council continues as this story is being written to refine this “living document.” A couple of significant overhauls have been made since its enactment, including one late in 2008. Few question the value of zoning to the city. The question now asked by most is: “Where would the city be without zoning?”
Another huge step was taken in the upward mobility of the city in 2004, when the people voted to approve the Home Rule Charter presented by a 15 member commission. This too was not without opponents or objections. But in the nearly five years since its adoption, this document has proved to be a guiding declaration for the future direction of the city.
As referenced above, the city has cultivated what many believe to be one of the strongest economies per capita in the state. With over two thousand businesses and 50,000 employees, the business community generates the resources for the city to function in the manner it does. The 20,000 citizens of Stafford benefit directly in everything from lower taxes to elevated services as a result of this strong, and in many instances, sophisticated business climate.
Speaking of the people of Stafford, that too has changed dramatically. From a mostly Anglo population, with a smattering of Hispanics and African-Americans when it was incorporated, the city has seen an evolution of diversity in race, color and creed. The forthcoming 2010 census is expected to show minorities, comprised not only of Hispanics and African-Americans, but also those of Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, Filipino and other ethnic backgrounds, far exceed the number of Anglos. From a religious perspective, Christians still predominate; however, the number of Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists continues to grow. What is most impressive is the manner in which these citizens from extremely diverse backgrounds work, play, study and worship together in harmony. It is truly one of the great strengths of Stafford.
A quotation by Mayor Leonard Scarcella summarizes it well. “The people of Stafford and their leaders have compiled a growing list of impressive and unique accomplishments. They have taken a fledging agrarian city with a few stores and many farms and transformed it into a respected, culturally diverse, well financed urbanized suburb. They have fought the powers in the state capitol, federal courts and public forums to create innovative educational, economic, social and cultural opportunities, that have gained attention, and in some instances, notoriety for doing the unpredictable. They have overcome numerous adversities and many doubters, and steadfastly pursued their stated goals. In doing so, they have adequately equipped the City of Stafford with the ability to continue to set standards for other cities to emulate, and often envy. They have built a city that runs a fiscally responsible ship, provides outstanding services, enhances a prominent infrastructure and plans and prepares well to address the many challenges that the city is likely to face in the coming years and beyond.”