Quality of life spurs migration to Williamson, Travis counties

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When former Washington, D.C., resident Sherri Farias went searching for a new place to live, she looked for a town that was up-and-coming. With a first- and third-grader in tow, she and her husband wanted to find a community their family could grow up alongside.

“We wanted to be a part of it and contribute our ideas to it,” Farias said. “We are community-oriented, and we wanted to be in one where we could establish ourselves.”

Farias found that community in Leander, and in 2017 she and her family traded the D.C. area for the Crystal Falls neighborhood. She is one of thousands who have flocked to Central Texas from all over the country in recent years.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 to 2015 American Community Survey, or ACS, which estimates the number of people moving into and out of counties each year, Travis and Williamson counties experience a combined net migration of about 22,860 each year. That number represents the number of people moving to these counties from elsewhere in the U.S., minus the number of people leaving these counties for other places in the U.S. Enticed by myriad factors such as affordability and quality of life, people and businesses continue to spur growth in the region. Leander and Cedar Park have both seen the effects.

MIGRATION NUMBERS

Residents moving to Central Texas from within Texas lead the migration trend. The ACS data shows that most people moving to Williamson and Travis counties are from Harris County, Bexar County and Hays County respectively.

ACS estimates show people are moving to Central Texas from across the nation. Two California counties constitute a large portion of migration into Central Texas: 1,313 people from Los Angeles County and 1,084 residents from Orange County move to the region each year. Rounding out the top three out-of-state counties people are moving from is Maricopa County in Arizona, where Phoenix is located. Other top counties include Cook County and Clark County, home to Chicago and Las Vegas respectively.

In all, ACS approximates that 62,046 people combined move to Travis and Williamson counties from other states and countries each year. The Texas Department of Transportation charges a $90 “new resident” tax for new Texas residents registering cars with the state. If all of those out-of-state and foreign residents register cars and pay this tax, the state would collect about $5.58 million in revenue from Central Texas alone each year.

RESIDENTIAL GROWTH

Those moving from out-of-state counties may not be moving to find a more affordable place to live. Median home values in Maricopa County, Cook County and Clark County are less than the median home value in Travis County and comparable to the median home value in Williamson County, according to the Census Bureau 2016 estimates.

The same can be said for those moving from other parts of Texas. The Census Bureau shows median home prices are lower in Harris County, Bexar County and Hays County than in either Travis County or Williamson County.

These comparisons suggest people are moving to Williamson and Travis counties for reasons other than affordability. Still, within Central Texas, some pockets are more affordable than others. Leander and Cedar Park draw people who see them as affordable alternatives to Austin. ACS data shows each year Travis County loses about 17,625 people to Williamson County, where most of Cedar Park and Leander lie, whereas Williamson County loses about 10,951 to Travis County.

Leander and Cedar Park have boomed in recent years. Cedar Park’s population grew about 24 percent from 2012-2017, according to the city of Cedar Park’s estimates.

Leander grew by about 83 percent from 2012-17, according to estimates from the city of Leander.

For Farias, part of Leander’s appeal was its proximity to Austin. She wanted to live in a community atmosphere but also be part of a large and diverse metro. She could also have land in Leander, so her children had space to run around.

“Leander is affordable,” she said. “You get more bang for your buck than in Austin.”

Stephanie Bodungen and her husband lived in Austin apartments for a few years before affordability became an issue. Their solution was to move to Cedar Park, where they lived for five years before moving to Leander this summer.

Bodungen said she wanted to live in a place with a small-town feel, like she was used to in her hometown of El Campo. She said Leander’s locally owned businesses and welcoming community gave it that feel. Since moving out of Austin, the couple has started their own realty company KTB Real Estate Services. Being near toll roads, Bodungen said, has enabled her to live in a smaller town but still work in the city.

“As a Realtor, I have to get everywhere within 30 minutes,” Bodungen said. “The toll [road]is so important.”

BUSINESS GROWTH

Overall, 264 companies have either expanded or relocated to the Austin area since January 2013 from outside of Texas, according to figures from the Austin Chamber of Commerce.

Ryan Pendleton, who left Southern California for Leander in 2015, opened Pendleton Orthodontics in Crystal Falls in June. He said he was first drawn to Texas while visiting family members who had moved to the state.

“I fell in love with everything about Texas—the food and people were so nice,” Pendleton said. “The cost of living was more appealing.”

Pendleton went looking for job opportunities  in Texas and found an orthodontist who was going to retire in Leander. He decided to take over the practice and moved to Leander, but the business plan fell through. Rather than move back to California, he chose to stay in Leander and open his own practice.

Several factors led to his decision to stay. Here, he was able to build a house on an acre of land, something he said he could not afford in Southern California. He was also able to eliminate his commute. Now he lives six minutes from his office. He said growth in the area encouraged him to open a business here.

“Across the U.S. it seems like every few decades there are hot-spots, and this is one right now,” Pendleton said.

Eric Zeno, economic development manager for the city of Leander, said companies are drawn to Leander because they can afford to build and own their own property in Leander, whereas in Austin or other cities, they may only be able to afford to rent.

Leander Mayor Troy Hill said Leander still has work to do in making the area attractive to businesses. Hill said many restrictive ordinances, such as SmartCode, which regulates the city’s Transit Oriented Development, prevent businesses from coming to Leander.

“If we don’t change things now, I think we’re going to see a lot of this commercial growth bypass us and go to Liberty Hill or go to competing towns like Georgetown or Round Rock,” Hill said. “I think we have to be very intentional about going after business.”

Cedar Park has seen several new businesses move to the area from outside of Texas. Voltabox, a Germany-based company that manufactures lithium-ion battery systems, opened its North American headquarters in Cedar Park in 2014. Visual Lighting Technologies, an LED and fiber-optics manufacturer, expanded to Cedar Park from California in 2017.

Dana Corp.—a Fortune 500 company based in Ohio that supplies automotive drivetrain, sealing and thermal-management technologies—opened its 16th technology center in Cedar Park in 2014. The Cedar Park location is its only facility in Texas. Jared Bryan, a communications specialist at Dana, said some of the factors in the company’s decision to expand to Cedar Park were the growth in the automotive industry in the region and the availability of a strong workforce. Bryan said the company saw a strong talent base in engineering and software.

“The proximity to the city of Austin and its focus on tech was a strong draw,” he said.

Randall Malik, assistant director of economic development for the city of Cedar Park, said the city has seen businesses move to Austin from inside and outside the U.S. because they are drawn to the state’s pro-business and low-regulatory environment. Texas doesn’t have personal income or corporate income taxes. The Tax Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based tax policy research think tank, lists Texas 13th on its 2018 State Business Tax Climate Index.

Malik said Cedar Park itself is a draw for businesses because it is a family-friendly environment with good public schools.

EFFECTS OF GROWTH

The growth has encouraged some people to leave the city. Stacey Calabretta and her family lived in Cedar Park for about 12 years. A little over a year ago they moved to Liberty Hill, a smaller town northwest of Cedar Park. Calabretta said in the decade they lived in Cedar Park, she saw their neighborhood double in size and traffic continue to increase.

“The overcrowding and cost of living in Cedar Park was so much higher than some of the communities out of Cedar Park,” Calabretta said. “We have always wanted to live in a neighborhood or home where we’re not right on top of our neighbors.”

Sherry Rhoden and her family also left Cedar Park recently for Liberty Hill. In 2017 they moved from their quarter-acre property in Cedar Park to a property on 4 acres of land in Liberty Hill.

Rhoden said her family originally moved to Cedar Park in 2000 because they felt like it had a small-town feel, but they saw that change over the years with the city’s growth and development.

“We’re more comfortable in a small city,” Rhoden said. “We felt the city grew up around us and noticed the traffic and noise just got worse.”

Reporting contributed by Iain Oldman

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