Sugar Land Has No Equal!

The city of Sugar Land’s “unofficial” motto.

When I moved to Sugar Land in 2007, I chuckled when I heard our “unofficial” city motto: “In Sugar Land, our Imperial Sugar is so sweet that we have no Equal.”  Making fun of a sugar substitute was a witty way to remind the entire world that Sugar Land’s and Fort Bend County’s prosperity will always be tied to our Imperial Sugar Refinery off of U.S. 90A at Brooks Street.

In the old days, if you worked for Imperial, you didn’t need cash for groceries – they were free at the Imperial Grocery.  The hospital was the current PARQ building that still stands across the street from First United Methodist Church Sugar Land on Eldridge Road. My dental hygienist was born there!  Most Imperial employees and families received health care for free.  Most of the housing in an area known as “The Hill” (just north of our sugar refinery) was provided to Imperial employees by the company.  This neighborhood, with many of its original homes, is still very popular today.

The Imperial Sugar Refinery was closed when my family moved here. The Imperial corporate headquarters building had been torn down.  It’s been a vacant slab of concrete and weeds for nearly two decades.  A large part of the sugar refinery was demolished in 2010. All that remains is the refurbished water tower, a few support buildings and the iconic, eight floor Char House with a “cross of lights” shining brightly most nights.

Our city leaders have worked for years to find a way to repurpose the Imperial property.  The Fort Bend Children’s Discovery Center, a branch of the Houston’s Children’s Museum, put their first facility in the Houston suburbs in one of our Imperial buildings.  The Sugar Land Heritage Museum opened in another Imperial building.  Sadly, it’s been a struggle to find a viable use for the Char House.  The first developer selected encountered too many problems and pulled out of the entire redevelopment.  Our city leaders announced the selection of a new developer in late 2022.  The first city public briefings have been positive, but there are still more questions than answers.  And the clock is ticking.  A recent study concluded that without refurbishment, our Char House will be permanently uninhabitable in less than ten years.   At that point, it will be likely torn down.

Our struggles with the Char House remind me of Houston and Harris County’s problems with the obsolete Astrodome.  The easiest solution is to tear the Dome down.  But, our pride in our vision and fortitude to build the world’s first indoor stadium, combined with incredible memories, such as Bum Phillips/Earl Campbell/Luv Ya Blue, Billie Jean King/Bobby Riggs “Battle of the Sexes,” University of Houston vs UCLA in the basketball game of the century, have made many very reluctant to destroy the renowned building.  Similarly, feelings in Sugar Land over tearing down the Char House are met with fierce resistance, because the Char House is even more significant.  Houston would still be Houston without the Astrodome.  Sugar Land and Fort Bend would be NOTHING without the Char House and Imperial Sugar.  The Char House is our heart and soul.

This recent Christmas season provided perhaps the best example of the importance of the Char House to our daily lives.  My family now lives in a neighborhood near the Char House.  I bike ride for exercise. After Thanksgiving, I rode past the Char House and saw something that is the best example of Sugar Land’s love for our Char House – an anonymous person put an artificial Christmas tree at the Historical Marker for the Char House.  It was bare except for a red ribbon and a star on top. Inspired, I came back with an ornamental red ball and took a photo of the anonymous Christmas tree with my ornament. I posted this photo on Facebook and asked others to put an ornament on the tree.

Pete’s inspirational first ornament to spread holiday cheer at Sugar Land’s historic Char House.

Pete’s inspirational first ornament to spread holiday cheer at Sugar Land’s historic Char House.

My Facebook posting went viral.  There were at least fifty ornaments on the anonymous Christmas tree before Santa Claus came to town on December 25th.  Here are a few examples of the incredible love and pride we have for our history in Sugar Land.  Most of the postings come from “The Friends of Old Sugar Land” Facebook page.  Wayne and Michele Boehm hung their homemade ornament and posted, “Decorated the Imperial Sugar Christmas Tree with ornaments to honor my family.  My parents, Wayne and Jean Boehm, worked here for 40+ years and made it sweet for me!”  The Boehms are Fort Bend Strong!

Wayne L. Boehm, Jr. placing an ornament on the tree at the Char House in honor of his parents.

Wayne L. Boehm, Jr. placing an ornament on the tree at the Char House in honor of his parents.

Another homemade ornament, a star, was added by the Mike and Frances Rychlik family, including Terry, Charity, Will, Grace, Gage, Gavin, Anthony, Jomaire, Daisy, Colt, Lily, Diana, Justin and Elijah.  The Rychlik Family makes us all Fort Bend Strong!

This anonymous “Imperial Sugar Community Christmas Tree” gave the Blair family a chance to celebrate nearly one century of life on “The Hill.”  Randy Blair posted, “There have been Blairs on the Hill for the last 90 years in Sugar Land, Texas for Christmas. Well, the days of Blairs being on the Hill will come to an end. Billie Blair will be going into the hospital for another transplant surgery in the morning.  The ornament that seemed fitting for this occasion is a roll of medical tape for Mom’s bandages. If you use your imagination, it’s almost a Christmas wreath.  Merry Christmas for the last time, from Buddy, Billie, Ann, Andy and Randy Blair.”  I haven’t had the joy of meeting Billie, but I know she is as beautiful as she was sixty years ago when she and Andrew became husband and wife.  The Blair family is the epitome of Fort Bend Strong! 

The Rychlik family’s homemade star ornament.

Longtime “Hill” resident Billie Blaire and her family’s tribute to the Char House Christmas tree: a roll of medical tape from her bandages.

It wasn’t just local neighbors who visited this special tree and felt the overwhelming power of love and giving at Christmas time. Do you remember the notorious character who actually tried to stop Christmas from coming in a town called Whoville by stealing all of the Christmas presents in town?  He said things like, “This whole Christmas season is stupid, stupid, stupid!  I must keep Christmas from coming!”  When he heard the people of Whoville singing after he thought he had stolen their Christmas, his heart grew three sizes.  Everything is bigger in Texas.  When the Grinch heard that a Christmas tree had been mysteriously put up beside our Imperial Sugar Char House, and the people of Sugar Land were spontaneously hanging personal ornaments on it, he paid an unannounced visit.  As a result, the Grinch’s heart grew TEN sizes that day! I spotted the Grinch putting an ornament on our tree to “Support Our Troops.”  The Grinch is Fort Bend Strong!

Pete “Claus” spreading holiday cheer at Sugar Land’s historic Char House.

These are just a few of the incredible, heart-warming, faith-inspiring stories I learned from our anonymous Christmas tree.  Not only has this tiny tree provided a unique opportunity to unite our Sugar Land neighbors, it has added to our community’s strength by encouraging debate and civic involvement in the Char House’s future.  That is the real gift of our anonymous Imperial Sugar Char House Community Tree.  Please get involved.  We are guaranteed to make big mistakes unless WE THE PEOPLE are active in the discussions of our future.  Active citizens are ALWAYS Fort Bend Strong!

If you have comments on this column or ideas for a future column, I want to hear them –  The only comments that are rejected are comments about politics – transgressors will receive a bag of coal from Santa. That’s what he told me when he visited our community Christmas tree.