A few years ago, the media was peppered with outlooks that described how the Austin-San Antonio corridor would become the nation’s next great economic powerhouse. In fact, population and job growth at the time made it the regional U.S. economy with the most potential. Few metropolises are anchored by two thriving economies like Austin and San Antonio. Both cities have populations that rank them among the largest in the country. As a result of its ideal positioning, it looks like the forecasts about the corridor are coming true.
Recently, Austin Business Journal teamed up with the Greater San Marcos Partnership and the City of New Braunfels to present the Austin-San Antonio Growth Summit. As the name suggests, the presentation outlined the initiatives that city leadership is taking throughout the corridor to generate economic development and growth. Their collective focus can be summed up in one word: downtown.
The Rise of Austin
As we’ve witnessed in Austin, revitalizing the downtown area can revive a near-dead local economy. Downtown Austin didn’t always have a reputation as one of the most popular destinations for tech companies. After overcoming a couple of its own economic setbacks, Austin successfully rebuilt itself as a tech hub. Austin’s focus on attracting more tech companies and big businesses helped to launch Austin to the top of the economic charts. Since a high tide raises all boats, it didn’t take long for the Austin-San Antonio corridor to experience its own economic stimulus as a result of Austin’s resounding success.
San Antonio’s Stunning Growth
Between 2000 and 2016, San Antonio experienced a stunning 31.1% job growth. Although slightly behind Houston at the time, it was twice that of New York and nearly three times that of San Francisco and Los Angeles. Like Austin, a majority of the job growth that took place in San Antonio happened in the STEM field. Business and professional services also saw strong growth. Now, San Antonio is not only a popular city for tech companies, but it also has earned bragging rights for its financial sector.
In between the two powerhouses are 8 downtowns that are each in their own phase of revitalization. These cities saw what happened to Austin and San Antonio and have the unique opportunity to benefit from learning from their mistakes – if one could even put it that way. Perhaps at the top of the list of challenges is the need to attract popular businesses and service providers without losing the fabric of what makes the city great to begin with.
An Expert Discussion About the Austin-San Antonio Corridor
Moderated by ABJ Editor Colin Pope, the Austin-San Antonio Corridor Growth Summit brought together a group of experts in the area.
- Andrew Douglas is President of Douglas Architects, a San Antonio-based architectural firm that specializes in urban planning and design. He has led comprehensive planning for public and private projects, with expertise in hotels, mixed-use developments and adaptive reuse projects. Some of his recent accomplishments include the South Castell Avenue plan, which spans 10 acres and seeks to convert several properties into hotel, housing, office and retail spaces. He has served on the San Antonio Historic and Design Review Commission and the American Institute of Architects San Antonio board of directors.
- Kara McGregor was elected to the Lockhart City Council in 2017 and combines a public- and private-sector outlook to development along the corridor. Currently, she leads business development for Independence Title Co.
- Thomas Tunstall is senior research director at the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Institute for Economic Development. He is the principal investigator for multiple economic and community development studies. He’s been extensively published, including op-eds in The Wall Street Journal and a monthly column in the San Antonio Business Journal. Tunstall has also testified before the U.S. House Subcommittee for the Western Hemisphere and delivered a TED Talk on sustainable community development in light of shale oil and gas development.
- John David Carson leads development and operations for Carson Properties and is a founding partner of Colorspace Architecture & Urban Design. He has been actively involved in several Central Texas development projects, including downtown San Marcos’ first mixed-use, mid-rise building, The Local: Downtown. Carson is on the boards of the Downtown Association of San Marcos and the Greater San Marcos Partnership. He is a passionate advocate for more sustainable development patterns and transportation policies.
Speakers at the event were asked questions about what they thought were the top challenges facing the Austin-San Antonio corridor. The main struggle was blending the old with the new and maintaining the identity that makes each city unique. Each speaker pointed out ways that the communities were succeeding in that aspect. They also touched on how each city’s current reputation could be why some cities struggle to attract more diverse developments.
The Corridor Cities
For years now, the city bordering Austin on the south has been undergoing a suburban revitalization that mixes the old with the new. Taking a walk through the quaint downtown, you can find historic buildings that house modern businesses. More recent developments complement the existing structures.
Some recent developments include the new municipal complex located not far from the old structure and still within walking distance to the historic downtown area. Taking the place of at least two other buildings, the new development houses the City Hall, Public Library and the Public Safety building. An art center called “Inspire Minds” will move into the building that was once the City Hall. Additionally, Hill Country Theater is in talks to move into the building. The former public library will soon be the home of the city Community Center.
Kyle has experienced a 10X population growth since 2000. According to the city mayor, suburbanization has left downtown Kyle behind.
“Kyle has suffered for the last 20 years with all of our growth because the downtown footprint hasn’t developed commercially in the way that you would think a traditional downtown would,” Mitchell said.
Downtown Kyle is somewhat cursed to be a mostly residential area because of the amount of residential development already in place there. According to Mitchell, that’s what’s kept downtown Kyle from turning into a more lively downtown area. Instead, city leadership has decided to take another approach and create a commercial-heavy development in Kyle’s uptown.
Simply dubbed Kyle’s Uptown project, the development is taking place at FM 1626 and Kohler’s Crossing near the Austin Community College Hays Campus. Mitchell said more destination retail and office space could serve both a “daytime and an evening population” in the booming city.
“The Uptown may have the traditional mixed-use and it’ll be an activity center,” Koontz said. “But I still think there’s a role for our downtown for boutique commercial.”
Having long been tied to the local university, downtown San Marcos is experiencing its fair share of challenges in addition to incredible growth.
“The proximity of the student population very, very close to downtown is what keeps it very vibrant and active day and night,” Greater San Marcos Partnership President Adriana Cruz said.
As a result, the demand for student housing continues to grow. However, downtown San Marcos is struggling to attract more employers to take up space downtown. Although there has been an influx of retail and restaurants in the area, a corporate relocation could make the downtown San Marcos area stably thriving ecosystem.
“We’re having a lot of demand for student housing but we’re trying to get young professionals and professors and people like that living in the downtown area,” Parker said. “We haven’t reached that [point] yet.”
Another city that’s balancing the old and the new in the Austin-San Antonio corridor is New Braunfels. Civic leaders and entrepreneurs are challenged to deliver new urban spaces that blend with the century-old structures that characterize downtown New Braunfels. To help with the challenge, the New Braunfels City Council approved the South Castell Avenue visioning plan last November.
The plan is the culmination of an 18-month process to create a well-articulated vision of what the downtown area will be. Stakeholders envision for the area is a mix of new multifamily and office space. There’s also the possibility of a new hotel to complement the city’s pursuit of increased convention business.
“This all began in 2009, when the city started a process to look at how we could make our historic downtown more sustainable,” said Michael Meek, president of the Greater New Braunfels Chamber of Commerce and executive director of the Greater New Braunfels Economic Development Foundation. “The potential upside to the community is worth doing this right.”
A statement from Lockhart Economic Development Director Mike Kamerlander best sums up Lockhart’s success story: “As people continue to get priced out … Lockhart is a very attractive location.”
Lockhart’s Commercial Central Business District is about nine city blocks roughly outlined by Walnut, Colorado, Prairie Lea and Blanco streets. Like other county seats in Texas, Lockhart is famous for its historic county courthouse that anchors downtown. Though maintaining its small-town feel, downtown Lockhart is packed with retail and restaurants. Many of them were opened by former Austinites who were priced out of the city.
In addition to being very affordable, Lockhart boasts a picturesque downtown that allows for a walkable lifestyle.
“We’re seeing less people leaving for work every day, more people who live here and stay here for work and more people coming to town for work,” he said.
But Kamerlander said the city still needs to diversify the downtown area with more “primary sector” employers, such as software and information technology companies. He’s hoping to get a tech employer to see the value in outfitting a historic structure into a commercial office space. Since Lockhart allows easy access to Austin, San Antonio and San Marcos, the city is well-positioned to grow its employee base.
“It’s taken years to get here but we’re in a good place,” Kamerlander said. “As long as we maintain our square and the identity of what made Lockhart great … we’ll be fine.”
Roughly 15 miles from I-35 and near the southern terminus of the State Highway 130 toll road, Seguin is also attempting to maintain a vibrant downtown.
In the late 1970s, Seguin was chosen as a pilot city for the national Main Street America program. Although the city left the program, it rejoined in 1996 and has used some of the program initiatives to help form the current development strategy. Focused on four main points, the current development strategy intends to That has led to the lowest vacancy rate in two decades, said Kyle Kramm, director of Seguin’s Main Street Program and Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Some major projects include the Guadalupe County courthouse, which recently received a $5 million dollar renovation investment. It’s ideally positioned next to the Seguin town hall. And in 2006, city voters approved some quality of life tourism bonds to renovate downtown’s Walnut Park, general infrastructure and the main plaza’s gazebo.
“In the last four years, we have had $20 million in improvements in our downtown. We recognize that we still have a lot of work to do, but we are proud of what we have done,” Kramm said.
Downtown CIBOLO is fighting for attention from I-35 in the Austin-San Antonio corridor. Developers have favored the interstate corridor and a surge of retail, residential and entertainment businesses have moved to the area. Cibolo leaders are working to direct the flow of new residents, visitors and investors into the city’s downtown area.
“People who have lived here for years still don’t know much about downtown,” said Tony Catalano, co-owner of Emily’s Place Coffee Shoppe on North Main Street. “Trying to get people downtown is a challenge.”
The city has been working tirelessly since 2014 to craft the right plan to invigorate downtown Cibolo. It included employing the help of outside consultants and conducting a separate comprehensive economic development strategic plan addressing market strengths, weaknesses and opportunities for redevelopment in the downtown area.
“We have a plan,” said Mark Luft, director of the Cibolo Economic Development Corp. “It’s about entrepreneurism and collaboration.”
In the 1970s, downtown Schertz was considered an epicenter of commerce and social activity. Since then, however, the city has struggled to maintain the vibrancy of its Main Street. Civic leaders are engaging in actions that will capitalize on the significant population growth the city has seen.
“There are fewer obstacles in assisting with development on I-35. Development is happening naturally there,” said Brian James, Schertz’s assistant city manager who oversees the city’s planning department. “A lot of people are not aware of Main Street in Schertz.”
To try to restore the economic power that downtown Schertz once had, city leaders have initiated a preservation incentive program that provides matching funds of up to $20,000 to improve and renovate existing properties and businesses. The local flavor economic development program provides small businesses various Chapter 380 general fund grants of up to $20,000 per year for signage, facade, site or capital improvements.
Other initiatives that Schertz has taken include ordinance changes that have made Main Street a mixed-use district. It provides fee waivers to local businesses, and because most of Main Street is on a floodplain, it also provides up to 50% of the appraised value of a building per year to conduct “substantial improvement” to those that are deemed unsafe to live in or to make alterations to historic structures within the historic designation boundaries.
Nick Marquez, the owner of the Bar House and the Old Main Ice House in Cibolo, told the Austin Business Journal that he remains hopeful about the planned growth of Main Street.
“I have plans to grow and expand. It really is about staying local and providing a variety of options for locals to not have to leave to San Antonio, New Braunfels or Austin to get their entertainment needs,” Marquez said.
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