“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.”