Almost five years ago, I spent a few weeks planning an edition of our newspaper that would focus on the future of this community – our beloved Heights, Garden Oaks, Oak Forest and the neighborhoods of North Houston, which you see published at the top of our front page every week.
The edition was called “The Vision,” and I asked some really smart people who understood the development of a community what they saw happening in our area of town. What kind of stores would move here? What would happen to all the used car lots dotting our main thoroughfares? Were we going to become the restaurant capital of Houston?
The answers I got back were standard: The demographics will determine what happens. Developers, these professors told me, will study all the data available to them and make decisions on what kinds of businesses can be successful in the area.
Apparently, the data says we sleep on pine straw and have the worst teeth in America.
If you’re confused, take a ride with me along Shepherd Drive, 43rd Street and Ella Boulevard.
Back in 2015, I wrote one of these journalistic masterpieces about the onslaught of mattress stores invading our neighborhoods. In a 9-mile radius of The Leader’s office, I discovered there were 32 mattress stores ready for our business. In fact, if there happened to be a new retail development on any street in 77008 or 77018, we could bet a sleep number that a new mattress store would lease space.
The burgeoning mattress industry has not slowed, though you don’t see as many of them pop up these days. That’s probably because the dentists are growing like plaque around here.
Don’t believe me? Numbers don’t lie.
In the main ZIP of the Heights, 77008, there are now 21 dentist offices ready and willing to fill whatever holes you have in your teeth. In the Oak Forest/Garden Oaks ZIP, 77018, you have another 18 dentists holding miniature spears ready to scrape some tartar.
If your math is off this morning, that means we have 39 dentists in an area that takes about 15 minutes to drive in any possible direction. By my best estimation, we have 39 dental offices in a 22-square-mile radius. And that doesn’t even include the new ones opening soon.
At the new development at Ella and 34th called 33 1/3, the marquee proudly boasts that a new dentist is opening there.
And with the developments all throughout the Heights, I’d wager a gold crown another two or three will set up shop.
During my research in 2015 on the mattress stores, I learned something fascinating: Most of those stores don’t care a bit if they barely move a Tempurpedic off the shelf. Instead, these stores lease small spaces and pay about $3,000 a month in rent, which is about the same as leasing billboard space on the main thoroughfares of an area like ours. The lights to their signs never turn off, and if they can get roadside advertising at such a cheap cost, it doesn’t really matter how much product they move.
That kind of make sense, if you think about it. But dentists? Are they moving in just for the sake of promotion? Not hardly.
In my 14 minutes of online research (which is a lot, these days), I found absolutely no alternative reasons for opening a dentist’s office other than to build a patient base and charge out the wazoo for bleaching teeth.
There’s a website called “How to Open a Dental Office,” which must get a million page views a day. They say it costs somewhere between $350,000-$550,000 to just open one of these offices, depending on the cost of real estate. Our property isn’t cheap, anymore, so it’s a safe bet they’re in the half-million range for every new dental office in town.
Because my research didn’t lead far, I decided to call an established dentist in the area who might offer some sort of explanation that justified this infiltration of teeth scrapers.
Dr. Chase Baker bought the longtime practice of Dr. Stephen A. Buehler on Ella Boulevard. Baker took over about six years ago, but the practice has thrived for 60 years. In other words, Dr. Baker had a built-in customer base when he acquired the practice.
Surely, if anyone understands why all these dentists are moving to town, it is he. Nope.
“I wish I had an answer,” he laughed. “I don’t know what the banks are thinking, lending all this money.”
Baker checked off the normal boxes.
“I assume the revitalization of this area has helped, and there are a lot of new people moving here,” he said.
“Do they all have just the most terrible teeth?” I asked him.
What baffles Baker the most is how these new dentists are building a new customer base. They don’t advertise, so he’s not sure how they draw in new patients.
“A lot of them will take just about every insurance under the sun, but that’s not always smart,” he said.
While some of the new dental practices are local, many of them are national chains, he told me. But even that doesn’t explain why, for instance, there were once just four dentists in the entire Oak Forest area. Now? There are 10 dentists and three dental labs within one mile of his office.
“I’m sorry I’m not much help on this,” he chuckled.
Well, that makes two of us. And while this whole thing may sound like a big, old joke to most of you, there’s a reason we should be interested.
As our area continues its growth, and as new retail space becomes available on a weekly basis, we’re overloading on businesses that, by sheer volume, can’t exist for long. You all see how many restaurants open and close, leaving barren buildings behind. It won’t be long until half of these dental offices will have a “For Lease” sign on the front door. Maybe mattresses will make a comeback.