How this nonprofit works to make Houston a more beautiful place

By   –  Managing editor, Houston Business Journal

The first experience Heather Houston ever had with Scenic Houston was as a guest at their annual dinner — a  moment emblazoned in her mind.

When she entered the room, she said had never seen so many of the Bayou City’s most powerful movers and shakers in one place. Many of the dinner’s guests are long-time supporters of Scenic Houston, a behind-the-scenes nonprofit dedicated to beautifying the city.

Houston is quick to admit she had never heard of Scenic Houston prior to 2019, but after that first dinner, she knew she had to be a part of it. So, in March 2020, Houston joined the team as executive director — right when the world shut down.

Like every nonprofit leader, Houston has had to make several key pivots. The first was to turn the nonprofit’s annual end-of-year dinner into a virtual event. The second was to start an educational series called Scenic Mornings, in which experts are invited to discuss how major projects to beautify the city came about. Both were successful moves.

In fact, Houston intends to keep Scenic Mornings going. And this year, Scenic Houston’s annual dinner was held in-person on Nov. 2. Houston said the event raised just over $400,000 and had 350 guests.

Talk to me about what Scenic Houston is. Scenic Houston … started as a dream for some business leaders in Houston to eradicate billboards — they were fighting billboard light.

These businessmen … for years were fighting billboard light, and they finally found a champion at City Hall — the late Councilwoman Eleanor Tinsley. In 1980, they finally passed a sign code for the city of Houston that still stands today.

Scenic Houston’s roots are an advocacy, so we’re consistently advocating for clutter-free streets, highways, and roads.

The billboard companies don’t ever stop knocking at the city’s door. They’re always trying to put up more billboards, whether they’re static or LED billboards. So, there’s always something to be battled there.

A couple of years ago, Scenic Houston had done a couple of capital projects where they improved or beautified certain streets in Houston — one of them was Texas Avenue. They did a lot of work to make that sort of a historical street.

And in 2017, when the Super Bowl was coming, Scenic Houston partnered with the city and the Hobby district to improve the Broadway corridor between the Hobby airport and I-45. That’s why it looks so beautiful today.

The city went in and spent millions of dollars improving the road, but they didn’t have enough money for beautification. So, Scenic Houston went and raised all the money to create an inviting thoroughfare to and from the airport now.

You were at the Texans for about eight years before shifting over to the nonprofit space. Why the change? As a mom of two young boys, I couldn’t figure out how to make all that work because there’s a lot in sports. There’s a lot of weekend work — it’s not 9-to-5 job.

When I looked around at the other women … they were all a lot younger than me or older than me, like their kids were already in college. It was just hard to figure out how to make it all work there. And I think it would be that way with any sports or any entertainment industry because there’s so much you have to do on the weekend work.

 How have you marketed Scenic Houston? I tried to create more opportunities for businesses in Houston to interact with us — not just at our dinner. That’s a very expensive table and ticket to buy. I went about trying to figure out how to include businesses that are not necessarily on a smaller scale by any means, but at a different price point.

We’ve also created a neighborhood program, so we’re not just focusing on highways, but we’re focusing on streets. A couple of years ago, back in 2013, Scenic Houston developed this beautiful bound book called “The Streetscape Resource Guide.”

Lots of folks on our board of directors were involved in creating this book that is used by developers, builders and the city to really think more visually about streetscape design. That way it’s more thoughtfully planned, instead of just putting a very small sidewalk and a couple of bad crosswalks.

Through that streetscape resource guide, we’ve launched a Scenic Neighborhood program to help neighborhoods empower themselves, especially in some of the underserved areas where they don’t get a lot of funding or attention. We can help them take the blueprint of what we’ve done … and help them make their own scenic changes in their own neighborhoods.

You started at Scenic Houston in March 2020, right around when the pandemic took hold of the country. What was that like for you? I came in guns blazing for a week. I had all these ideas and was ready to go raise all this money.

And then it came to a screeching halt. It really did. It was scary. There are only three of us — we’re a really small nonprofit with three staff members.

The pandemic made it so we could not do the events that we typically do. The dinner that we normally do raises like $400,000 or more. When you have a year that you can’t do that, it’s a struggle. It’s tough for a small nonprofit.

I had to pivot just like everybody else did and had to focus a lot on the relationships that we had. Instead of trying to go get new supporters, which just wasn’t going to happen, our focus changed on really trying to build the relationships that we already had.

That was really tough.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Closer look

Heather Houston, director, Scenic Houston

Age: 50

Family: Married, two children ages 12 and 9

Education: Bachelor’s Degree, Southern Methodist University

Hobbies: “Walking, reading, yoga and watching a million children’s sporting events.”

Favorite Houston restaurant: “My husband and I love eating at Ostia, but more times than not, you will find us at Taqueria Tapatia or Goode Co. Taqueria eating steak tacos and queso with our kids.”