Monday, 07 February 2011
Town reaches for retail, biotech, movie filmers
Premium content from Austin Business Journal - by Francisco Vara-Orta , ABJ Staff
Date: Friday, February 4, 2011, 5:00am CST
Bastrop Economic Development Director Joe Newman is preparing his town to capitalize on the next wave of growth.
The small Central Texas town of Bastrop wants to boost business in four specific areas, some of which may come as a surprise to outsiders: retail, biotechnology, filmmaking and tourism.
The city has its council members, chamber of commerce and economic development office pushing on all fronts. They’re marketing its industrial park as free land to companies, specifically hoping for more biotechnology businesses. They’re reeling in big-box and regional powerhouse retailers such as Buc-ee’s, which will open its largest travel center ever there. They’re forming a film commission and improving the historic downtown.
The population of Bastrop — about 30 miles east of Austin — is estimated by most to be about 9,000 today, but it pulls business in from the 80,000 surrounding residents in the county and Bastrop County has been among the nation’s fastest-growing counties in the U.S. since 1990.
Economic Development Director Joe Newman sees the next wave of Austin’s economic progress reaching Bastrop’s proverbial shore.
“We know at some point more people are going to have to move eastward,” Newman said. “Austin has developed already a lot in every other direction but ours.”
As massive residential and commercial development is still halted, for the most part, the hope now hinges largely on shopping.
Retail real estate brokers said Bastrop is the ideal location for a national or regional retailer that wants to set up between Austin and Houston because of the road system. Highway 71 funnels people from Austin, and other routes running north and south pull from the rest of the county, said Lance Morris, president of the Weitzman Group’s Austin office.
Bastrop has started bringing in a few big names in retail. Staples opened last month, Panda Express is under construction, and Buc-ee’s hopes to break ground before the end of March. Buc-ee’s owner, Beaver Aplin, plans to open a 40,000-square-foot travel center on about 13 acres at Highway 71 and Highway 95.
“We’ve had our eye on Bastrop for years,” Aplin said, adding that he anticipates hiring at least 100 employees for the store, which is slated to open in early 2012.
Staples opened at Burleson Crossing, the city and county’s largest retail hub along Highway 71 with 600,000 square feet total, including Best Buy, Petco, Lowe’s and Spec’s. But as in Austin and nationwide, other retail construction projects have frozen. For example, a 100-acre site proposed for 1 million square feet of development across from Burleson Crossing halted. It’s gone through five developers over the years — all touting the boom and all failing to come through.
“You get used, over time, to things taking a long time. We started [on] Panda Express back in 2005. And [only after] you see dirt turn and stores open — and stay open — can we say it’s truly a boom,” Newman said.
Newman’s demeanor is markedly different from the development mindset. He calls himself an optimist but tempers that outlook with cautious, conservative predictions when looking at projects reaching fruition, and even jokes about how he’s got to carry himself humbly in Bastrop.
“I’d say 40 percent of people want unbridled growth, the other 40 percent want it to slow down and worry about traffic and losing its small-town essence, and the remaining 20 percent think I’m doing a great job,” Newman said, adding that he has been invited into the fold of Opportunity Austin recently.
Bastrop officials have put up a billboard advertising “free land” at the Bastrop Business and Industrial Park across from the planned Buc-ee’s. The way the deal works, Newman explained, is that a company buys the land, builds its facility, hires people, remains for at least two years, and then gets it money for the land back from the city.
“When’s the last time the city of Austin gave away land?” Newman asked. “This is our way of getting more employers here so its residents don’t all have to commute, and also to draw in new talent.”
Less than half of the 263-acre site is being used by a handful of businesses at the park, zoned for light industrial use.
Bastrop is home to a cluster of biotechnology businesses, such as Agilent Technologies, The Coghlan Group, a 300-person office for the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, and the University of Texas’ research park for veterinary services, so Newman hopes to build on that.
Another boost to Bastrop’s biotech efforts could actually come via the Central Texas Airport, a planned airport north of the city intended to house up to 250 aircraft. Its developer is situating the airport within the proposed Eco-Merge Green Corporate Center complex made up of clean-tech businesses, and has signed four tenants. No dirt has turned yet.
Filmmaking and tourism
Bastrop has hosted more than three dozen movie crews since the 1970s, when it played a role in the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” according to Newman. Last year, the cast and crew of the movie “Bernie,” starring Matthew McConaughey, spent $171,000 with local businesses for hotel rooms, police help, food and equipment. “When Angels Sing,” starring Willie Nelson and Harry Connick Jr., will start filming there this month.
Last July, the city approved the creation of the Bastrop Film Commission under the chamber of commerce. The three-person commission has recruited advisers from nearby Smithville, a town that has become a filming hotspot in its own right, and from Austin, said film commissioner Judi Hoover.
The group hopes to get $10,000 from the city to fund the cost of gas, taking film executives for meals while in Bastrop, and equipment for marketing. The council has said it supports the idea but hasn’t voted on the issue yet.
Tourism helps Bastrop, too, as it gets revenue through hotel occupancy taxes, mostly from the Hyatt Regency Lost Pines Resort and Spa, where national conventions and film crews often stay. The city has used its hotel tax revenue for its first convention center, a $3.8 million, 26,000-square-foot project with 1,000 seats now under construction.
The city’s downtown is the main draw for tourists, with longtime local merchants embodying old Texas retailers on Main Street. Some streetscape work along its main streets is under way, and there are plans for an arts complex. Bastrop Independent School District also built a new performing arts center, something Austin ISD has stalled for over a decade on, to hold concerts open to the public.
Some challenges do remain. Newman said retailers want more homes before opening stores, but homebuilders have been slow to react as a whole, in turn asking Bastrop to get more employers to relocate there and bring jobs. It’s a common domino effect for cities of Bastrop’s size.
Also, Bastrop ISD opened a second high school, Cedar Creek, to accommodate the population growth, but higher education is nearly nonexistent. Bastrop voters rejected joining the Austin Community College taxing district to get a college campus, but ACC does offer a few classes at a local high school.
“Anyone wanting to go to college has to leave, and they shouldn’t have to, so we hope to correct that,” Newman said. “Central Texas is known for having an educated workforce, and we want to support that.”
Newman said economic development group Opportunity Austin has invited him on tours to get business elsewhere, joining them last month on a trip to California.
“Austin supports us and will share more than in the past when they were more protectionist, even passing tips to us,” Newman said. “You know, Bastrop lost out on being the state capitol by one vote, so we could have been Austin. But we’re working well with what we’ve got.”