When Neil Armstrong made his one small step for mankind on July 20, 1969, residents of El Lago looked skyward as the moonlight bathed this tiny slice of a town packed with neighbors, news crews and spectators. Armstrong lived in El Lago when he made his historic Apollo 11 flight and literally put the city on the map. A lot has changed since then and much of the hoopla has faded, but this tight knit community stays committed to maintaining the best quality of life possible in their city of 3,000 and counting.
Clad in Bermuda shorts and Crocs, Mayor Brad Emel greets me in the main chambers of City Hall with casual flair and a homey handshake. Living just three houses away from the office means he’s about as eco-conscious and green as you can get since getting to work means hopping on his bike or just strolling down the street a few hundred yards.
The City Hall walls are not only plastered with framed photos of former mayors, but photos of 49 astronauts who have lived in El Lago (or presently living in El Lago). Known as the “Astronaut Wall of Fame,” the space heroes far outnumber the mayors. A few minutes chatting with Emel makes it obvious why astronauts and other savvy citizens choose this one square mile to call home.
High on community spirit and bounded on two sides by Taylor Lake and Clear Lake, El Lago is lagging in economic development compared to other Bay Area cities. “Our sister cities have hotels, which provide money for lots of economic development,” says Emel. “However, many of those cities are not part of Metro, but we are, along with 13 other multi cities.” Emel went on to say that Metro operates with a half cent of sales tax revenue and in turn writes El Lago a check every year. “All cities use Metro in some form,” says Emel, “whether it be buses, HOV lanes, the Park and Ride – those are all Metro dollars,” he adds. The tax money in other cities that are not part of Metro goes toward their economic development giving them more of an advantage.
El Lago is indeed pretty much built out, but does have potential economic prowess because of real estate that may become available soon. The fate of The Landing condominiums is still in limbo and tied up in the court system since a few of its homeowners have filed a lawsuit to keep the structure from being demolished. As we go to print, the fate of The Landing is still undetermined and Emel could not comment due to legalities.
Celebrating 50 years in 2011, El Lago is building a 50th Anniversary Commemorative Brick Walkway which will extend from the south side of the McNair Park Pavilion to the planned El Lago Community Center at the El Lago Swim and Racquet Club. Citizens are encouraged to support this endeavor by purchasing a brick that will have their name or special message inscribed and become a permanent part of the city’s future.
El Lago has their very own newspaper (La Ventana del Lago, which means the window of the lake) that is printed nine months out of the year. Sales of luminarias at Christmas time are the main source of funds for the paper and the tradition was started as a way to send a Merry Christmas message to space shuttle astronauts on Christmas Eve.Sidewalks become aglow with candlelight, and if you get enough households to participate, you can actually see them from space!
El Lago shares their police department with Taylor Lake Village (called Lakeview Police Department) and contributes 17% to the Seabrook Volunteer Fire Department’s budget enabling El Lago to have an accessible fire department.
Even though just one square mile, El Lago made sure there would be plenty of park space for its citizens. Witty Memorial Park, named after former El Lago mayor Robert D. Witty, is located on Hickory Ridge Drive, is outfitted with playground equipment for the younger set, and a bench was recently added in memory of former Mayor Elizabeth Lenoir.
Armstrong Park, of course, is named after former El Lago resident and astronaut Neil Armstrong. It is the newest member of the park system and is located east of City Hall.
McNair Memorial, the largest park, and named after Space Shuttle Challenger Astronaut Ronald McNair, is located at the north end of Lakeshore Drive. With large-scale play equipment, this park has undergone major improvements and contains covered picnicking areas, a bicycle-BMX track and baseball field, and an open-air pavilion. But an even bigger facility for this park is on the drawing board.
“Council just approved plans for a 6,000 sq. ft., 1.7 million dollar building (approximate figures) that will house a community center, fitness center, bath house and other amenities,” says Emel, “and we are in the process of interviewing architects.” Emel adds that it will raise taxes a bit, but will be worth it. A name has not been chosen for the new center and Emel is hoping to find a sponsor for the facility soon.
Other than parks, another important criteria for this city is trees. “We’re constantly planting trees and this month (in participation with Taylor Lake Village) we are going to be giving free trees to any of our citizens who want them,” says Emel. It is mainly to help those who lost trees to Hurricane Ike, plus trees are beneficial for air quality and certainly dress up the neighborhood.
Emel’s vision is that El Lago and Taylor Lake Village eventually join together and become one city. “We could call it Taylor Lake City,” he says. “Then we’d be known as TLC, and have a big sign that says, ‘Everybody needs a little TLC.’” Economically it makes a huge amount of sense says Emel, but like he says, it’s a vision.
Saying that El Lago may one day look like West University in Houston (with tasteful new construction springing up as older homes come down), Emel is just happy to be a part of a township where everyone knows not only his name but everyone else’s too.