Editor’s Note: The following story is the latest in a periodic series exploring regional issues of interest or importance outside San Antonio.
The Austin-San Antonio Growth Summit held Friday at a San Marcos hotel on I-35 was a celebration of a region that is one of the fastest-growing in the United States, an occasion to highlight record population, job and tax base growth.
More than 350 people filled a ballroom at the San Marcos Conference Center at the Embassy Suites.
Some topics, however, were not on the agenda: I-35 traffic congestion, declining Central Texas air quality, sustainable transportation alternatives, and the long-term costs of unplanned sprawl development.
“San Marcos was the fastest-growing city on a per capita basis in the United States for the last two years,” said Adriana Cruz, president of the San Marcos Partnership and one of seven panelists representing the seven cities sandwiched between Austin and San Antonio. “Being located between No. 11 and No. 7 is key,” a reference to the respective city rankings in population.
The event, sponsored by the Austin Business Journal, featured a panel of local government leaders from Buda, Kyle, San Marcos, New Braunfels, Seguin, and Schertz. Boerne, located farther west along I-10, also participated.
“We’re located on the San Antonio to Comfort corridor,” joked Jeff Thompson, deputy city manager for Boerne. “Like everyone else up here, however, we are a city in transition.”
The seven panelists shared similar stories of record growth as they responded to questions posed by the event’s two moderators, Austin Business Journal Editor Colin Pope and District 9 City Councilmember Joe Krier, who was elected chairman of the board of the SH 130 Concession Company, the private company that operates Texas 130, the privately managed 90-mile toll road between Georgetown and Seguin that was designed to move truck traffic out of the I-35 corridor.
“How many of you have had as much fun as I’ve had driving 85 miles per hour on I-30?” Krier asked the audience after taking the stage. “It’s still the highest speed limit in North or South America.”
As his comment drew applause, he asked, “How many of you think this region is the best place to do business in the United States?
That comment drew even louder applause.
Pope then asked each of the panelists what their cities need to be successful.
“Economic diversification,” said Kenneth Williams, the Buda city manager.
“We’d like the people of Kyle to work in Kyle,” said Todd Webster, Kyle’s mayor. “We’re looking to create opportunities for people who live in Kyle so they don’t have to drive down I-35 to get to work.”
New Braunfels City Manager Robert Camareno said his city also is turning into a bedroom community where residents leave each day for jobs mostly in San Antonio.
“We’re like the other communities: We need jobs so people who live in New Braunfels can work in New Braunfels,” he said. “We have a historic downtown and we need a hotel there to serve the historic area and the adjacent civic area.”
Seguin Mayor Don Kell described a different kind of problem.
“We’ve been fortunate to attract some great companies to Seguin: Caterpillar, Continental. Unfortunately, it’s a small town and a lot of people from outside don’t want to stay in a small town,” Kell said, saying many executives and their families choose to live elsewhere. “People move out, the community loses.”
Kell said Seguin’s stock of affordable “early 20th-century bungalows” are a bargain for home buyers.
Schertz Mayor Michael Carpenter ticked off the corporate names attracted to Schertz and its fast-growing industrial park complex.
“Cisco, Caterpillar, Amazon…what we’d like to see is innovative retail, and in particular, mixed-use development,” Carpenter said.
The conversation turned to population growth, which is projected to continue at record rates, with some communities growing by as much as 7-8% annually.
“Boerne has 5,000 houses today and 12,000 people,” Thompson said. “There are 5,900 homes under construction in 12 new subdivisions. What’s happening in Boerne reminds me of the bumper sticker: ‘I want to be unique, just like everyone else.’ We are so close to San Antonio, we can’t compete. We have to find a niche.”
One such niche is Boerne’s charming Main Street and its busy retail and tourist economy, which is why, Thompson said, local government leaders listened to residents and rejected efforts by Pilot Flying J, of West Knoxville, Tenn., to establish a large truck stop and overnight plaza on the edge of Boerne on I-10. Kyle’s mayor said the city also rejected efforts by Pilot Flying J to establish a truck plaza there along I-35.
Neither official named the company, but a previous story by the Rivard Report talked about Pilot Flying J’s failed efforts to locate a truck plaza in Boerne and Comfort and its eventual success locating a new plaza in Junction near the Llano River.
(Read more: Truck Stop in Hill County Threatens Llano River.)
Cruz said San Marcos’ population grew by 8% in 2013, driven by Texas State University and its 35, students, a growing role as a research university, and as a source of college-educated workers.
“A lot of those individuals are coming from Travis County, a lot are coming from Central Texas and a lot are coming from four counties in California,” Cruz said. “Our housing in San Marcos is 38% less expensive than Austin. Texas State is the economic driver of everything.”
Seguin Mayor Kell touted his city’s location.
“We are right at the intersection of I-10 and I-35, the two most important highways in the U.S.,” Kell said. “I can get to the Austin airport from my house in 40 minutes, and on a good day, 40 minutes to the San Antonio airport.”
Panelists were asked what challenges they face, and a few said water was an issue. None mentioned I-35 congestion and accidents, declining air quality, the failure to win funding for light rail along the Austin-San Antonio corridor, or the high infrastructure costs as sprawling development places new demands for road, water, sewer, public safety, and new schools.
Several of the leaders expressed the importance of protecting their city’s historic districts and their way of life, yet none seemed interested in carrying those same values of neighborhood, public parks, green space, walkability, access to retail without a vehicle, and other amenities to their new development.
Friday was a day for the seven cities that form a part of the larger Austin-San Antonio metropolitan area to tout growth and economic development without any examination of the real long-term challenges each community and the region will face.
Today’s event seemed disconnected from the work of the Great Austin-San Antonio Corridor Council.