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Real Estate / Neighborhoods

Under-the-Radar Houston Couple Gives $10 Million to Memorial Park

Remarkable Gesture Helps Revamped Green Wonderland of the Future Take Shape

BY // 07.09.18
photography Jenny Antill Clifton

Stepping out from the comfortable shadows of modest anonymity, philanthropists Emily and Robert Clay are crossing the threshold of notoriety with their contribution of $10 million to the Memorial Park Conservancy — a major gift for continuing development of the park’s Master Plan. Though the pledge was confirmed a month ago, official announcement is being made today as the Clays hope to provide inspiration for future giving from their brethren among the ranks of low-profile, wealthy Houstonians.

On May 3, Houston City Council approved a public-private funding model which would accelerate progress on the Master Plan, which was finalized by Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects in 2015. The Clays’ gift comes on the heels of that vote, which opened the doors for broader giving.

“We like it that way,” Robert says of the couple’s previously under-the-radar existence. “There are a lot of low-profile people in the city that can afford to contribute. You don’t have to be a  billionaire to support the city . . . We hope to serve as a catalyst for giving, motivating others to support the park.”

In some ways, the Clay’s path to making this remarkable gift began with a flier that arrived in the mail at the offices of his Clay Development & Construction Inc. As a regular jogger in Memorial Park, Robert was happy not only to sign up for the annual Brunch Run advertised in the flier but also to sign on as lead sponsor of that fundraiser.

Little did Memorial Park Conservancy president and CEO Shellye Arnold realize, this was the beginning of a long and, indeed, beautiful friendship.

“It’s just incredible,” she says. “This is going to really catalyze our work for the next five years . . . Their passion and their enthusiasm will help in bringing people, in bringing in new blood and new excitement.”

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(In April, the Kinder Foundation announced a lead $70 million gift, the largest single parks grant in the city’s history, that would push the project into high gear.)

A Gifting Foundation

Fifth generation Houstonian Robert and second-generation Houstonian Emily recall their middle class childhoods visiting the park for family celebrations, volleyball games and the like. As a member of the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo Salt Grass Trail Ride, Robert Clay has been among the trail ride cowboys overnighting the park in preparation for the rodeo parade.

Houston has been good to the Clays and they are intent on returning the favor. Robert’s business success — CDC was just named the 15th largest developer in the country with more than 14,800,000 square feet of industrial and office facilities in its portfolio — has afforded the couple generous amounts of discretionary income for charitable purposes.

“Our philanthropy has always been Catholic Schools — Strake Jesuit, St. Agnes, St Thomas,” he says. “We were 100 percent Catholic Schools. Now that our kids are grown we started looking for our next focus.”

Emily will tell you that 20 years ago when strolling her then-babies through Hershey Park, she actually commented to a friend that some day she would like to get involved in parks.

“It’s all coming together, all the little pieces,” she says. “It’s been more of a journey of different experiences and points of life that brought us to this moment.”

The Clays’ commitment provides sponsorship for the 100-acre Eastern Glades project, the first phase of which is expected to be completed this summer. That will include a relocated and upgraded section of the Seymour Lieberman Exer-Trail on the east side of the loop, added parking, a new restroom station with water fountain, new plantings and lighting and the beginnings of a healthier ecology on the site.

“Our gift for this 100 acres builds toward opening up the entire 1,500 acres to the public,” Robert says. “I want everyone in Houston to be able to use the park.”

When the Eastern Glades segment is completed in 2020, park-goers will find a large lake and wetlands system, trails and boardwalks weaving through the site, picnic pavilions, a second rest station, eight acres of forested area at the edge of the park, several plazas and a shaded area designated for food trucks.

Arnold sees the Clays’ gift as the beginning of a necessary fundraising boost. “Memorial Park Conservancy remains committed,” she says, “to continuing to raise the annual operating funds to care for the 1,100 acres of Memorial Park’s for which we are responsible.”

The cost of park maintenance and operation is $2 million annually.

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