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Lockhart hopes to cash-in on foreign-owned toll road

Category: Public Private Partnerships

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Lockhart hopes boom follows 85 mph tollway

By Ben Wear

Austin American Statesman, September 23, 2012

LOCKHART — Barbecue can only take a town so far.

This city's signature culinary product, of course, was featured prominently when about 250 local business and political leaders gathered recently for an "economic development summit." But the real subject of what organizers dubbed the "Race to Lockhart" was speed.

Speed in the form of an 85 mph Texas 130 tollway extension opening as soon as next month. And the potential speed of development, fed mainly by the tollway, in a quiet county of 38,000 up to now mostly bypassed by the Central Texas population boom.

Community leaders believe the four lanes of Texas 130 will spur growth — despite what is expected to be a charge of about 15 cents a mile to drive on it. The tollway, which will link Lockhart to Austin to the north and will provide a much faster route to San Antonio to the south, has drawn the attention of a handful of developers, but no dirt has turned yet.

"We can only imagine what fruits it will bear for Caldwell County," County Judge Tom Bonn told the crowd at the summit. "We are ready for industry. We are ready for development. We are ready for jobs."

But as shown by the short history of the existing 49 miles of Texas 130, which loops east of Round Rock and Austin and opened in sections between 2006 and 2008, the presence of a tollway does not guarantee instant development. Drive that road today and, aside from concentrations of housing and retail in Hutto and Pflugerville and the nearly finished Formula One racetrack, most of the road is flanked by empty land.

And those two communities, given their proximity to Round Rock and the thousands of Dell Inc. jobs, were already booming before Texas 130 and nearby tollways Texas 45 North and Loop 1 opened. Caldwell County, at least at this point, has no such employment base. Not yet, anyway.

Caldwell County Commissioner John Cyrier, who runs an Austin commercial construction company, said bringing that first big employer to the county is the key. An 85 mph tollway could help with that, officials say.

"We're trying to attract a business," Cyrier said. "Then the rooftops will come, and the retail. We're hoping for at least 10,000 rooftops."

Those rooftops, of course, would come with people, and traffic, and all sorts of change. Lockhart, at least compared with the astonishing growth of other towns ringing Austin, has been a tranquil island of stability. Its population grew just 9 percent between 2000 and 2010, to about 12,700. And the biggest reason to visit Lockhart remains its brisket, ribs and sausage.

"I think people are very optimistic about it," Cyrier said of the expected growth. "They're wanting the quality of life, and the jobs to come. They're tired of their grandkids going away.

"I've been very surprised with it. I thought maybe people would be upset with it, fighting it."

Jeff Gibeaux, a civil engineer and downtown Lockhart developer who has lived in the city for 20 years, said the more dominant reaction among locals is skepticism that significant change is on the way. After all, Lockhart is about the same distance from downtown Austin as Hutto, Georgetown, Leander and Bastrop, yet unlike those towns has never taken off as a bedroom community.

Which is precisely why, Gibeaux argues, that with Texas 130 in place, his town and Caldwell County probably are about to boom.

"As I tell people, it's the last piece of pie in the dish," Gibeaux said. "You can't go anywhere else" with development.

Ambitious plans

Developers already have come, though at this point what they have in hand is vacant farm- and ranchland, along with websites featuring ambitious plans.

Centerpoint at Lockhart, owned by a partnership that includes John Trube, the former Buda mayor, comprises 271 acres on all four corners of Texas 130's intersection with Texas 142. That highway becomes San Antonio Street as it moves eastward into Lockhart proper, and the land, long since annexed into the city limits, is just two miles from the town's main square and all those iconic barbecue joints, Kreuz Market, Smitty's Market and Black's Barbecue among them.

Trube said the property is zoned, variously, for retail, industrial facilities and residential. Connections to water, wastewater and electricity are handy, he said, and the city has an ample utility capacity to expand.

"We have a couple of serious travel centers, kind of like a Buc-ee's, talking to us, as well as hotels," he said. "And a small restaurant."

And he said that suppliers for Caterpillar Inc., which has an engine manufacturing plant in Seguin near the south end of Texas 130, are looking at his land as well. He wasn't ready to announce any signed deals, but he didn't seem worried.

Lockhart, he said, "is very well-positioned. The topography of Caldwell County and the City of Lockhart really show well. It's just pretty. And the taxes are low. I think it's going to hit its stride."

Five miles south at Texas 80 and Texas 130, Canderel Management Inc., a Canadian company, is sitting on more than 3,200 acres alongside the tollway. The parcel is dubbed Cherryville, for its main developer Jason Cherry, who works for a Dallas-based Canderel subsidiary. The website features specific intentions for the land, including a YMCA, a car dealership, even a university.

The 5 square miles is roughly equidistant from the downtowns of Austin and San Antonio, which means that the land is either perfectly positioned, or in the middle of nowhere. Cherry, looking at the high-speed roadway that is about to open, takes the first view.

"We're excited about the 85 mph speed limit," he said. Cherry said they're talking to "national headquarters-type groups." He declined to speculate on how fast development might get going on his land, or elsewhere along Texas 130.

"We're not going to build it all out next year," he said. "But we're talking with several residential developers right now."

Another Canadian company, Walton Development and Management, owns more than 7,000 acres between Lockhart and San Marcos, Trube said, including a parcel on Centerpoint's west border. Walton officials could not be reached for comment. But a 2010 company prospectus online shows several parcels in development between Lockhart and San Marcos, and the company is in negotiations with San Marcos and Martindale for a subdivision along Texas 142 called Cotton Center, which would have up to 2,700 homes, said San Marcos spokeswoman Melissa Millecam.

And Sandra Mauldin, Lockhart's economic development director, said yet another company has 50 acres alongside the tollway on the city's west side for what would be a mixed-use development called Maple Park.

Rising enthusiasm

Javier Gutierrez, chief executive officer of SH 130 Concession Co., which is building the tollway under a 50-year lease agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation, came to the economic development summit to thank community leaders "for putting up with us for three years" during construction. And he joined in the rising tide of enthusiasm about what the tollway will mean to the county.

"We really believe this area is going to explode in the next year," Gutierrez said.

Maybe it will take longer. But Gibeaux, the Lockhart developer, said it is inevitable.

He lives not far from the courthouse square, in a renovated three-story building.

The old, quaint Lockhart, he and others say, will be able to sustain its charm and character when that onslaught of development does arrive. The aroma of barbecue, he said, "comes in my windows from four different directions.

"The whole third floor smells like Black's. Life is good."