Cherry Creek Catfish Restaurant opened Oct. 26 in northwest Leander, but the new restaurant has seen more demand from hungry diners than local responses to now-hiring announcements.
Owner Danny Lenertz said many of his 52 employees live outside of Leander.
“We have a couple coming from Georgetown, and we actually have someone who comes every day from Temple,” he said. “[Eight] of the kitchen staff carpool from South Austin every day.”
Lenertz said he expected to have hiring challenges in part because other restaurants in Texas are having difficulty finding workers. But he said most Leander residents are not seeking jobs in restaurants or other service-industry businesses, leaving owners scrambling to find help.
“We reached a point to where we would hire just about anybody who would walk in and serve,” he said.
Leander Economic Development Director Mark Willis said the city’s employee shortfall is likely related to Leander’s growth of high-earning residents and the city’s emphasis on development of single-family homes. The city’s growth attracts families who want houses and earn higher incomes but does not attract many residents who need apartments while they begin jobs in service industries, he said.
Building higher-income housing
About 12,000 single-family houses are located in Leander, Assistant City Manager Tom Yantis said. As of Nov. 3 the city had issued permits for 991 more single-family homes, compared with 1,142 permits in 2014 and 666 in 2013—an average of more than 900 new houses every year. Another 2,000 vacant lots are ready for new homes, and 13,500 lots are in earlier planning stages, according to city documents.
“These are high-end homes,” Willis said. “They usually have two [residents] with a college education. One of them may be the primary breadwinner and may be commuting into Austin. They chose [to live] here because of the school system, and they wanted to commute, maybe use the rail. But you’ve got another spouse who is underemployed or not employed who would like to have a job but would like to be able to not have to make that commute.”
Willis said the forthcoming higher-earning residents will want new big-box stores and restaurants located near their homes. Developers will meet that need with projects such as the new Randalls shopping center that is expected to open in late 2016. Willis said he expects Leander to gain a Wal-Mart and additional small shops by 2020.
He said those businesses will seek to hire employees who are paid minimum or entry-level wages, such as from $7.25 an hour to about $10 an hour.
“[Hiring employees] is going to be a challenge for them to some degree,” Willis said. “We’re really happy with the $350,000 single-family housing, but the mix is needed. … We probably have one of the smallest amounts of multifamily units in [the Austin area].”
Existing business owners are already looking outside Leander to find potential new hires, said Bridget Brandt, president of the Leander Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Center.
“We spend a lot of time trying to help [local businesses] recruit employees,” Brandt said.
Chamber efforts include a job-seekers page on its website as well as the annual Living Leander Community Expo job fair, she said. But often those efforts raise awareness for job availability without gaining actual applicants for the positions, Brandt said.
Mouton’s Southern Bistro owner Ben Mouton said he has posted help-wanted ads on several job-seeker websites but waited weeks without seeing a single applicant. He said most potential lower-income employees are not able to live in Leander.
“There’s no [place in Leander] where you can get a one-bedroom apartment for $400 or $500 a month, or even a two-bedroom apartment for $800 to $900 a month like you have in Austin,” Mouton said. “Most of the people that I can afford to pay can’t afford a single-family home.”
He said some of his employees try to move to Leander but can only rarely find rentable rooms.
During an Oct. 15 meeting, Bill Shea, the former owner of the now-closed Shea’s Place restaurant, told Leander City Council he believes the city can do more to promote development of housing for residents with entry-level jobs.
“It’s necessary to accommodate people from all backgrounds and all economic strata if the city is to succeed and be vital in the economic sense,” he said.
Brandt said many apartments in Leander have no vacancies.
“I’d like to see some more affordable housing options,” Brandt said. “I think that would help.”
Finding lower-income living spaces
Willis said more apartments might arrive in Leander in the next few years.
On Oct. 15, City Council approved the city’s updated comprehensive plan that outlines a vision of city growth. The plan includes a land-use map with areas that are set aside for certain development, including areas set aside for multifamily housing.
City leaders also promote a transit-oriented development district, or TOD, in the center of Leander. The district is intended for development that includes mixed uses, such as ground-level businesses with top-floor apartments.
Outside the district about 427 acres are available for multifamily development. However, city residents sometimes oppose the construction of multifamily housing because they are concerned about neighborhood safety and building quality, Willis said.
“A lot of residents hear ‘multifamily,’ and they think ‘six-story apartment complex,’” he said.
The updated plan defines diverse multifamily uses in Leander such as townhomes and duplexes. Those are usually more acceptable to neighboring homeowners, Willis said.
Some developers are eyeing land for multifamily housing around the Austin Community College property, he said. The 100-acre ACC site is located northeast of the Mel Mathis Avenue and Hero Way intersection. ACC expects to open the school in summer 2018 and initially enroll about 2,000 students.
Brandt said she hopes ACC students will help fill the void of job candidates. Students with evening and weekend availabilities would be good candidates for service-industry jobs, she said.
Mouton said college students’ schedules would make them ideal employees in restaurant and other service jobs.
“If we do get a lot of students up here, then that would definitely help as long as we have someplace for them to live,” Mouton said. “The housing that builders do develop here [in Leander] is going to have to be considerably cheaper than in Austin to motivate people to stay this far out.”