George Mitchell's legacy: a shale revolution, a 'revolutionary' city and a revitalized Galveston

In the early 1980s, Texas oil giant George Mitchell read an academic article arguing that economically extracting natural gas from shale rock just might be possible. But the revolution didn't arrive quickly.

"It took a decade and a half of conviction, investment and dogged determination," energy historian Daniel Yergin wrote in 2013. "But before Mitchell was done, he launched what has proved to be the most important innovation in energy so far this century." 

Mitchell is often called the "father of fracking," but fracking had actually been common for decades before Mitchell's innovation paid off in 1997. Energy industry veteran Stephen A. Holditch says it's more accurate to say that Mitchell succeeded in "combining long horizontal wells with hydraulic fracturing," which made shale gas economically viable and laid the groundwork for later growth in the domestic natural gas industry. The same techniques would also be used for oil.

"He's the father of the shale revolution," said Holditch, a retired Texas A&M petroleum engineering professor who consulted for Mitchell's company and knew him personally.

A real estate developer as well, Mitchell is best-known in the Houston area for creating The Woodlands as a forested enclave in sync with nature. The performing arts center there bears the name of his wife, Cynthia Woods Mitchell.

After selling his oil and gas company in 2002 for $3.5 billion, Mitchell focused on philanthropic efforts. He became the largest donor to his alma mater, Texas A&M, according to state Sen. Tommy Williams. He gave more than $30 million to help build the Magellan telescope in Chile.

Holditch said Mitchell's gifts to support the study of space grew out of his long-term interest; he had wanted to become an astrophysicist, but he didn't think he could make a living in the field after graduating first in Texas A&M's class of 1940.

Mitchell's funding and vision also boosted his hometown of Galveston. Starting in the 1970s, he rehabilitated historic buildings on the Strand. He would buy dilapidated properties, restore them and resell them with covenants ensuring their preservation.

While Mitchell's long and colorful career made him a billionaire, friends and colleagues said he always stayed grounded. The billionaire was often seen casually strolling through the downtown tunnels at lunchtime, and known to meet friends at a Galveston grocery store for coffee and conversation in the deli.

"His story was quintessentially American," his family said in a statement after he died at age 94 on July 26, 2013. He left behind 10 children, 23 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

His parents came to Galveston from Greece, where his father had herded goats. Mitchell's Greek legacy included the middle name his parents gave him: Phydias. 

In the New World, his father opened small cleaning and shoeshine businesses but also was a lifelong gambler.

His mother, who encouraged him to focus on education as the best way to improve his conditions, died when Mitchell was 13.

The idea for The Woodlands came after Mitchell saw the destruction of Los Angeles' Watts neighborhood following race-fueled riots in 1965, said his granddaughter, Katherine Lorenz.

"He knew he could do better. So he went to work creating a sustainable community," Lorenz told the Chronicle in 2014. 

The township had its grand opening less than a decade after the riots, in 1974.

The settlement was part of a federally funded urban-planning initiative that supported about a dozen "new towns" around the country. The concept arose in England in the 1940s and hopped the pond in the 1960s.

The idea was a bit of a stretch, said Kyle Shelton, a program manager at Rice University's Kinder Institute for Urban Research. "It was an attempt to create a different kind of city, and one that is tied to a longer history of utopian ideals: If only we could design the right type of community … then everything would work perfectly."

By 1976, The Woodlands was the only such community not entering or approaching bankruptcy, East Carolina University historian Roger Briles wrote in 1998 in the academic journal Planning Perspectives. "Only The Woodlands had established economic viability."

"The biggest difference" among the towns, Shelton said, "is that The Woodlands had George Mitchell."

The township's main backer contributed land, capital and vision.

The commitment to integrate nature - the master plan left a third of the acreage as green space - was "revolutionary" at the time, Shelton said. 

Mitchell brought in landscape architect Ian McHarg, who emphasized the need to preserve the natural watershed. That meant nearly half of the township's land would be protected from development.

Today, the area boasts 130 forested parks and 200 miles of trails. Mitchell's verdant vision has also been tested as the community grew from 30,000 residents in 1990 to 103,000 in 2014, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. And since The Woodlands Corp. was purchased in 1997 by new owners, clear-cutting was carried out in the area for the first time.

His original ideal of homes that would be affordable for a range of incomes also faces challenges today. Median house prices doubled in just a decade, from $195,880 to $412,482.

Mitchell's hometown of Galveston also benefited from his efforts and investment. "The Strand had other investors, but Mr. Mitchell was the most significant one, and he certainly brought the most vision," said Dwayne Jones, executive director of the Galveston Historical Foundation. "His presence, his efforts, his investment and his vision really began to transform the island into a higher-quality, greater-visibility tourist entity."

As with his business efforts, Mitchell was involved in the details. Former Galveston Mayor Jan Coggeshall told the Chronicle in 2013, "On Saturday morning he would be checking out things like the light switches."

He also gave 135 acres on Pelican Island to establish Texas A&M University at Galveston.

Mitchell's commitment to Galveston's revitalization helped the city recover from Hurricane Ike. After the 2008 storm, he spent $24 million to renovate three of his hotels on the island.

Just a year or two before Mitchell died, Jones said, he bought buildings on Hendley Row at the end of the Strand. 

"He took a declining, slow area of the Strand and he has made it into a really top-notch property," Jones said. "And it's a really beautiful building."

Mitchell Historic Properties will finish that rehabilitation in the next few weeks, meaning that George Mitchell's legacy keeps growing years after his death.

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