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Riding the growth wave

0423
 2014


Go Green International owners Dennis Parker and Shea Menchaca have gathered mountains of trees for their 80-acre operation in Paige. The company will turn the wood into pellets that will help fuel a large biomass power plant in Europe. (Photo by Jay Godwin)

Multiple large companies, business expansions and housing and retail developments are coming to the Bluebonnet region this year

Story by Kathy Warbelow
Photos by Jay Godwin

    When the U.S. Census Bureau last summer named the fastest growing city in the United States, it wasn’t Houston or Boston or some city in the Silicon Valley.
    It was San Marcos, whose 4.9 percent population growth outperformed every other city.  
    The city will have another reason to celebrate this spring, when Corvac Composites LLC opens its 100,000-square-foot plant to make parts for Toyota’s pickup truck plant in San Antonio.
    Corvac, based in western Michigan, is refitting a building not far from San Marcos’ outlet malls to make heat-formed plastic parts for its No. 1 customer, said John Huber, vice president for manufacturing.
    San Marcos’ proximity to San Antonio was an important factor in the decision to open the plant there, he said, because it reduces Toyota’s cost of shipping parts from Midwestern plants.
    “It’s a little bit of a risk to invest in bricks and mortar for only one customer. But Toyota was all for it,” he said. While Corvac will hire 30 workers for the Toyota business, the plant has plenty of room for more equipment and workers, Huber said.
    When Corvac starts operations in April or May, it will be the latest example of a new burst of economic growth in eastern Central Texas, rippling from Manor to Luling. New developments this year in manufacturing, energy — renewable and conventional — retail, health care and housing will bring hundreds of new jobs to this part of the Bluebonnet service area and diversify the area’s economy.
    Central Texas’ economy has moved out of the recovery stage and into the takeoff phase, said Madison Inselmann, Austin market director for MetroStudy, a Houston-based housing research firm. And the momentum is region-wide, not just in Austin.
    The new Manor and Elgin Walmarts, which added about 400 jobs when they opened last month, signal more development to come in that area, aided by the completion this year of the new Manor Expressway, a six-lane toll road paralleling U.S. 290 East between U.S. 183 and Texas 130.
    “As we see more and more retail destinations along the Manor Expressway, that will help that area become more well-rounded,” Inselmann said.
    The region’s shortage of lots for affordable new homes will spur more developers to look east of Austin for possibilities, he said. Over time, that will mean worsening traffic in Austin — a potential plus for cities such as Bastrop.  
    “You can get from Bastrop to downtown Austin as easily as you can from Cedar Park,” Inselmann said. “It is on the path to becoming a full-fledged residential community.”
     Coast Range Investments is banking on the eastward spread of growth with XS Ranch, 9,600 acres north of Bastrop. Planned for that development are 7,000 homes and 300,000 square feet of retail space. The New Mexico-based company acquired the land in 2009, and has said it is “in a likely path of growth” for the region.
    Now Coast Range is moving forward with development. The first lots have been platted, as well as a planned bridge over the Colorado River, said Melissa McCollum, director of planning and development for the city of Bastrop.
    H-E-B, which expanded its Elgin store last year, plans to start work in April on an expansion that will turn its 10-year-old Bastrop store into a 119,000-square-foot  H-E-B Plus, manager David Seeker said. That will make it one of the largest H-E-Bs in Central Texas.  
    “We were hoping to do it a couple of years ago, but then the (2011 Bastrop County) fires hit and we decided to wait and see,” he said. “The area has bounced back so well, we felt that this was the time to do it.”
    The makeover will expand most departments and add new ones, including “healthy living,” with bulk foods; an expanded entertainment section with televisions, tablet PCs and phones; expanded outdoor grilling supplies, and Mia’s Mirror, which will carry jewelry, handbags and other accessories.
    Seeker said the store will remain open while construction is under way; employees in orange shirts will help shoppers find what they need as some departments are moved temporarily. The work should be done by November, he said.
    The project will add about 100 jobs, including managerial positions, he said, bringing the store’s total workforce to about 300.
    On the other side of Texas 71, Lone Star Circle of Care is building a 25,000-square-foot medical center on land donated by Seton Hospital. The clinic, paid for in part by a $5 million grant from the federal Affordable Care Act, will be able to serve 17,500 patients a year, with an emphasis on underinsured and uninsured clients, the clinic’s representative Rebekah Haynes said. The center should open late this summer, she said.
    In Paige, Go Green International is starting to turn thousands of trees killed by drought and the 2011 fires into wood pellets, destined for a large biomass power plant in Europe.
    The company has been clearing trees in the area for months, stacking them in high piles that surround the entire 80-acre site on U.S. 290 East. The operation includes super-sized equipment that can turn trees as large as 38 inches in diameter into piles of chips, which are then processed into pellets the size of animal feed, said Dennis Parker, co-founder of the company.
    Parker got the idea from his other enterprise, a Midland-based oilfield services company that does work including clearing rights of way for drillers. While he was working in Colorado, Parker was troubled that the trees his company cut down were often buried or left in piles. In researching alternatives, he learned that there is a shortage in Europe of wood pellets used to fuel some power plants — a technology far more common there than in the U.S.
    Parker saw an opportunity to turn dead trees in Central Texas into fuel for generating electricity across the Atlantic. The only other large-scale wood pellet plant in Texas also sells its product in Europe.
    The process is similar to how animal feed is made, but on a larger scale. The chips are dried, milled into a powder, then compressed into pellets. Trucks can drive right into the silo to be loaded for trips to shippers on the Gulf Coast.
    Parker said some mulch will go to Cemex to fuel its cement kilns; dust from the pelleting process will be collected for on-site fuel use.
    “With operating costs, the equipment, everything, this is a $30 million operation,” said Parker, who runs the company with his wife, Shea Menchaca. Along with a bank loan, he is backed by Austin and Dallas private equity firms.  All told, the operation will create about 100 jobs, he said.
    Parker has a 20-year lease on the site from the Bastrop Independent School District. He’s not worried about running out of raw material, given Texas’ history of recurring droughts. “Realistically, we can go as far as Tomball and Cypress to get dead trees,” he said.
    The region has seen the early signs of a revival of its decades-old oil industry, and that will also accelerate this year.
    North South Oil LLC is ramping up operations in the Luling/Lockhart area, where it has dozens of permits to drill in the Salt Flat and Luling Branyon fields, according to Texas Railroad Commission records.
    Both fields were discovered in the 1920s, but production later fell sharply. Horizontal drilling and other advanced technologies have allowed companies to re-enter mature fields and profitably get at oil that was beyond the reach of conventional approaches.
    The Colorado-based company’s name is drawn from United North and South Oil, founded in the 1920s by Edgar B. Davis, the entrepreneur whose discoveries turned Luling into an oil boomtown in that era.
    Adriana Cruz, executive director of the Greater San Marcos Partnership, the economic development agency for Caldwell and Hays counties, said the area’s momentum shows no sign of slowing.
    “We had about 90 inquiries last year” from companies looking for places to expand, Cruz said. “At one point, we were getting a site visit every week for five or six weeks in a row,” including a German company and two from Japan.
    Regional draws include Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas 130 and the Formula One race at the Circuit of the Americas, east of Austin. Cruz’s agency took several site selection consultants on a helicopter tour last year that included Texas 130 and the F1 race.
    She said her area is shortlisted “on a number of very exciting projects.”
    With the region’s strong workforce, Texas State and the toll road, she said, “we are able to compete on a significant number” of projects. 


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