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FAST FORWARD: How Central Texas’ growth will shape our region’s future

0811
 2015


Like several others in the area, the Manor school district is bracing for growth. A 2014 bond issue includes plans for a new elementary school, new middle school and expansion of the high school. Teacher Kerri Kirby, left, and Robert Andrews, teacher and head basketball coach, lead Manor High students into the June 5 graduation ceremony. (Photo by Shelly Hoffman Photography)

By Kathy Warbelow 
 
The growth boom transforming Central Texas is leaving its mark on the Bluebonnet region. You can see it in the new national retailers that have flowed into Bastrop, the new Walmarts in Manor and Elgin, and expanded H-E-B stores in Elgin and Bastrop. Housing developments are cropping up along the Texas 130 toll road corridor, new schools are being built and an Austin Community College campus has opened in Elgin. 
 
And you can see it in the growing traffic along Texas 71, U.S. 290 and other roads, which gives everyone a headache. Where did all the people driving those cars and trucks come from? 
 
The growth is more evident in the Bluebonnet region’s communities closer to Austin. The city of Bastrop, for example, had a 16 percent growth spurt from 2000 to 2010 and grew by the same rate from 2010 to 2015. Today’s city of 8,400 residents is 35 percent bigger than the town of 6,220 just 15 years ago. Growth has been more modest in areas farther east of Bastrop, Manor and San Marcos.
And more growth in the Bluebonnet region is coming. U.S. Census population projections show Central Texas as a continuing growth hub for the state. 
 
Hays County, for example, is the fifth fastest-growing county in the country, and the fastest in Texas, according to Census data. Its 2014 population of 185,205 was up 4.8 percent from 2013. By 2025, the Texas State Data Center projects it will grow to 241,000 people. Five years later, it could be home to nearly 274,000. So if you think traffic on Interstate 35 is bad now, just wait. 
 
In 2012, San Marcos had 50,001 residents — just one person above the 50,000 mark the Census uses to define a large city. It proceeded to be the fastest-growing city in the country, in percentage terms, for 2012, 2013 and 2014. It now has nearly 59,000 residents — an 18 percent increase. 
 
While growth rates will differ, the region’s cities and counties face many common challenges, including how to make room for new residents without losing their community’s unique characters. A challenge confronting many community leaders is how to attract high-quality jobs that would reduce residents’ need to commute to work in Travis or Williamson counties. Communities want their retail sectors to grow in order to keep more sales tax money at home. 
 
In the coming months, we’ll examine aspects of the growth coming to the Bluebonnet region and the ways in which it will impact the region: from traffic and roads, schools and jobs, housing to shopping and access to health care. Let’s start with forecasts for the 14 counties within Bluebonnet’s service area and some of the forces driving that growth. 

 
Where are the new people coming from? 
 
Texas will have 30.7 million residents by 2025, a 22 percent increase from its count in the 2010 national Census, based on forecasts from the Texas State Data Center. 
 
The forecasts are midrange estimates that assume growth will be half the rate of the past 10 years, which has been a period of extraordinary growth in Central Texas and many parts of the Bluebonnet region. Under an “extreme growth” scenario, which assumes that growth would continue at the same rate, Hays County would have more than 302,000 residents in 2025, and Bastrop County would have 119,000, according to the State Data Center. 

Youngsters and seniors 
 
With Texas State University in San Marcos, it’s no surprise that Hays County has the youngest population by percentage in the region. But Texas State students who are from outside the county aren’t counted as Hays residents in the census. 
 
So in 2025, Gonzales County will edge out Hays County in percentage of residents younger than 18 — 28 percent versus 27 percent for Hays County, based on State Data Center projections. 
 
In Travis and Williamson counties, about a quarter of the population will be younger than 18. 
 
Fayette County will have the highest proportion of residents older than 65 — about 30 percent. The smallest percentages of the AARP crowd? Travis County, with about 12 percent; Hays County, 13 percent; and Williamson County, about 15.5 percent. 
 
More school bells will ring 
 
School districts in active home-building areas are bracing for growth. 
 
Surrounded by new and growing subdivisions, the Manor school district has seen enrollment surge 22 percent since 2010, to 8,889 students. Manor schools will have 10,000 students by the 2017-18 school year, according to a report the district commissioned from Templeton Demographics, a Southlake-based company that specializes in demographics and planning for school districts. 
 
Enrollment in the early elementary grades is one indicator of more crowded buses to come in Manor. Since 2010, those grades have been the largest classes each school year. In 2014-15, for example, the largest class was second grade, with 706 students — 22 percent more than in 2010-11. 
 
Last year, local voters approved a $124.9 million bond package to handle some of that growth, including building a new elementary school and middle school, expanding Manor High School and buying land for future schools. 
 
The Del Valle district has been on a similar growth pace, with enrollment up more than 24 percent since 2007, to 12,000 students. The district also asked voters last fall to help pay for the future. A $134 million bond package will pay for a ninth elementary school and plans for a 10th, new facilities at Del Valle High School and sites for future campuses. 
 
The Bastrop district, now at nearly 9,000 students, expects to add 1,500 students by 2019.
 
Growth forecast for the Bluebonnet region
 
Population and job growth combined mean more employment in the Bluebonnet region. That includes people who collect paychecks from companies or government agencies or who are self-employed. One downside: more people on the roads, commuting to and from work. Williamson County will lead the region in job growth through 2025, according to forecasts by EMSI, based on an analysis of Texas Workforce Commission data. Burleson, Caldwell and Lee counties are right behind, though from much smaller employment bases.


Cities fuel region’s growth
 
The fastest-growing city in the country, three years in a row, has been San Marcos. Its population has grown 31 percent since 2010, to nearly 59,000 people in 2014, according to census data for cities with populations above 50,000. That’s double the growth rate for Austin in that time. 
 
Contrary to what many people think, Texas State students were a small factor in the growth, accounting for about 12 percent of the increase, according to a report from the Greater San Marcos Partnership. 
 
Among small cities, Manor’s population ballooned by 37 percent, to 6,920. 
 
Just east of Manor on U.S. 290, Elgin grew by just 6 percent, to 8,600, from 2010 to 2014, but it’s primed for more growth and has added two new key employers in the past few years — Walmart and ACC. 
 
“We’ve never seen this number of developers looking to do new subdivisions,” said Joe Newman, executive director of the Elgin Economic Development Corp. He estimated eight projects are underway in the city or its extraterritorial jurisdiction — the surrounding areas where Elgin has some control over development. 

Housing development will keep moving 
 
The Texas 130 toll road has lured development east of Austin, including hundreds of new homes in the Bluebonnet area, with many more to come. 
 
Housing growth in Manor, Hutto and Pflugerville — all in the Texas 130 corridor — is evidence of the shift, said Eldon Rude, principal of 360 Real Estate Analytics in Austin. The toll road provides access for those newcomers to many major employers. 
 
The high cost of land and housing in Austin will continue to pull residential projects farther from the center of the city, he said. Developers and house hunters are being drawn to areas that include eastern Travis County, Elgin and the Bastrop area, where first-time buyers can find more affordable homes than in Austin. 
 
“It’s all about the cost of land,” Rude said. Some communities must figure out how to add to their housing mix to attract move-up buyers, not just first-timers. 
 
The 8,600-acre XS Ranch, northeast of Bastrop with frontage along the Colorado River, is the biggest planned project in the region. While there is no specific time frame, plans call for 10,000 residential lots, as well as commercial space and parks. The main entrance to the development will be via a bridge over the Colorado River at FM 969. 
 
John Landwehr, a vice president of developer Coast Range Properties, said the project is in the final design stage and the company hopes to get approval from Bastrop this summer. Work on the bridge could start later this year, with marketing to prospective buyers coming about a year after that, he said. 
 
ACC plants seeds for Elgin growth 
 
Austin Community College’s Elgin campus is just 2 years old, but it’s already expanding, adding more options for young people who want the education it takes to succeed in today’s job market. 
 
A new building, approved in last fall’s ACC bond election, will house the veterinary technician training and sustainable agriculture programs. 
 
Those programs start this fall, although the new building is not expected to open until fall 2018, campus manager Betsy Erwin said. The school is building a small farm, opening this year, for the sustainable agriculture program. 
 
ACC Elgin had 383 students last fall, up 13 percent from the year before. It has the capacity to serve 1,500 students, Erwin said. That may not take long: Erwin said other ACC campuses quickly exceeded their capacities. 
 
More power for more people 
 
Matt Bentke, Bluebonnet’s deputy general manager, said Bluebonnet has taken several important steps to ensure it is prepared for the projected growth in the counties and cities it serves. The co-op updates its five-year strategic and business plans every year. 
 
“The plans project growth in residential, commercial and industrial sectors and the increased number of meters and demand for electricity that growth will bring,” Bentke said. “We plan for everything, including the electric grid needed to serve our members now and in the future, rapidly changing technology and the employees we’ll need to provide the level of service our members expect and deserve.” 
 
This is the first in an occasional series about projected growth and its challenges and opportunities in Bluebonnet’s region.
 
Find out more about growth in the Bluebonnet region under the Economic Development tab at bluebonnet.coop.

 

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