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By Laura Landsbaum

The Woodlands Area Chamber of Commerce – which was founded as the South Montgomery Woodlands Chamber of Commerce in 1978 – began operations in the most humble of ways. Winn Sharp served as the lone employee, serving as the Executive Vice President of an organization that started four years after the founding of The Woodlands itself.

“They started with some businesses in Oak Ridge North, because that’s where the businesses were,” says Karen Hoylman who served as both Membership Director and President and CEO of The Woodlands Area Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Karen Hoylman says. “Former U.S. Congressman Kevin Brady came from South Dakota and Louisiana, and he was a small business person.”

Brady ending up leading the Chamber from 1985 through 1996.  

Hoylman moved to The Woodlands in 1992, when her husband transferred from Tulsa to work with an oil company.  

Kevin Brady and Karen Hoylman
Pictured: Kevin Brady and Karen Hoylman

“I had volunteered with the downtown chamber there,” Hoylman says of Tulsa. “And I volunteered here for the Chamber for a couple of years before they hired me as their membership director.” At that time, the Chamber offices were located right off I-45. Hoylman remembers everyone who worked with the Chamber back then coming from somewhere else. This reflected the reality of how much George Mitchell’s master planned community was growing.

That transient background paid off in those early days too.

“It was a huge part of our Chamber — it brought in all these people who had been other places,” Hoylman says. “And they’d seen things that worked in their community and things that didn’t.

Community founder George Mitchell’s emphasis on the biotech sector played a role in the early days of the Chamber. “We thought it was going to be a scientific community,” Hoylman says. “So that was our emphasis. We created the Education for Tomorrow Alliance, and CISD [Conroe Independent School District] partnered in that.”

In 1996, Holyman became president of the Chamber of Commerce, stepping in after Kevin Brady’s term as President and CEO. Hoylman said there were several defining moments for the Chamber. An early one was in 1997, when The Woodlands Area Economic Development Partnership was created.  

“People started coming in looking for office space, or a place to locate their business,” notes Hoylman, who’d end up serving the Chamber for more than 20 years. “They wanted to know about the schools. They wanted to know about the tax rates. And it was too much for our staff people to handle.”

The Economic Development Partnership was developed at a leadership retreat, and stayed part of the Chamber until 2016.  

“It operated with its own board of directors and independent program,” Hoylman says. In 2016, The Woodlands Area Economic Development Partnership got spun off with the creation of its own 503 (c) 6 corporation.

In 2012, the Chamber changed its name to The Woodlands Area Chamber of Commerce.

2024 Economic Outlook Conference
2024 Economic Outlook Conference

Game Changers For The Woodlands

The next defining moment for the Chamber of Commerce came with the opening of The Woodlands Mall.

“The mall changed our direction,” Hoylman notes. “Because it allowed us to bring tourists here and the developer and Town Center Improvement District (TCID) at the time started promoting our communities in Mexico, and to people who wanted second homes.”

Another defining moment in the Chamber development came with the opening of The Woodlands Waterway, a project developed by The Woodlands Development Company (now Howard Hughes) through a public private partnership. It opened in 2002 and became fully completed in 2018.

“It took tourism to a whole new level,” Hoylman says. “The whole scene got a lot of publicity and people wanted to film here. And there was no plan for that. So we sent a staff person to the Texas Film Commission in Austin, and with the Township and the TCID, they created forms and processes.”


Advocacy stands out as another mission of The Woodlands Area Chamber of Commerce Chamber, serving as a key part of its community-building strategy for many years.

“We joined the Texas Association of Businesses and the US Chamber of Commerce,” Hoylman says. “We went to Washington DC and took our board members — and learned about how to work with legislators.” 

Another legislative success was creating the Montgomery County Day at the State Capitol in Austin.

The Woodlands Area Chamber of Commerce of Today

The Woodlands Area Chamber of Commerce offices relocated to their current location at 9320 Lakeside Boulevard in 2014.

Julie Ambler and JJ Hollie The Woodlands Area Chamber of Commerce
Current Chamber President and CEO J.J. Hollie with former Chamber Chairman of the Board Julie Ambler of The Woodlands Christian Academy.

Stepping in to fill a need has been the hallmark of the Chamber since its inception, and that has continued with J.J. Hollie, who became Chamber President and CEO in 2015.

“If we are the same Chamber that we were five years ago, we’re not doing the right things,” Hollie says. “In 2018, we completely redid our strategic plan. We have over 1,300 member organizations and are the largest business organization in the entire Houston area.”

Chamber events like Taste of the Town, which started in 1996 with 10 restaurants at The Woodlands Resort, and the Economic Outlook Conference, developed almost forty years ago, are two of the ways the Chamber facilitates the marketing of the community.

“It’s much more than just exchanging business cards,” Hollie says. “It’s creating a relationship which builds community. The Woodlands still has a small town feel even though we have 123,000 residents. They want to do business with people that they know.”

That community building is critical, something of the secret sauce that keeps The Woodlands founder George Mitchell’s original vision going and The Woodlands growing.

“We all have to work together,” Hollie says. “When we talk about our tagline ‘The Pathway to Opportunity’ — it’s an opportunity professionally, personally, and financially. 

“If you engage with the Chamber, you’re going to create relationships, you’re going to get embedded into the community.”


Many thanks to The Woodlands 50th Anniversary Sponsors:

FOUNDING – Howard Hughes

PRODUCER – The Woodlands Township

LEGACY – Woodforest National Bank

HERITAGE – Waste Connections Inc.

GOLD – Entergy Texas, Houston Methodist The Woodlands Hospital

SILVER – SVN/JBeard Real Estate, The John Cooper School