WilCo summit explores challenges to growth

Updated 10:05 a.m. CST May 20, 2014

Policymakers, nonprofit representatives and local leaders gathered April 22 for the Community Impact Summit that addressed how to meet the needs of Williamson County residents during a time of swift population growth.

Speakers at the event in Round Rock said social- and human-service agencies must work together to address the needs of their current and future neighbors.

"In the not-too-distant future, we're likely to be twice the size or larger [in population] than Travis County," Cedar Park City Councilman Don Tracy said. "And it's also no secret ... that those who are moving to Williamson County—not all of them are high wage-earners. In fact, life will be tough for many of our neighbors in the future."

Brian Kelsey, principal at the Austin-based Civic Analytics research firm, told more than 200 summit attendees that Williamson County draws newcomers chiefly from other counties in Texas and not out-of-state.

"The county is growing by about 16,000 people per year, and you're gaining about 30 residents every day," Kelsey said. "Like it or not, Williamson County is starting to resemble Travis County in a lot of important ways."

One difference between the two counties though is that most Williamson County newcomers earn less than existing county residents. Many of the new high-tech jobholders who are moving to Travis County earn an average annual household income of $240,000, he said.

"Living-wage job growth [is needed]—I cannot emphasize this enough," Kelsey said. "This by far has to be the No. 1 economic development priority, in this county, in Travis County and every other county that's experiencing the rapid rise in cost of living."

Most working adults in Williamson County do not have college degrees and will have difficulty finding local jobs that pay at least $17 an hour—the living wage for one adult with one child, he said.

Such underemployment contributes to the growing nationwide problem of poverty in suburban areas, said Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution and co-author of "Confronting Suburban Poverty in America." Williamson County will need higher-paying jobs and must improve residents' access to public transportation, workforce training and nonprofit resources, she said.

LeAnn Powers, chief professional officer for the United Way of Williamson County, which co-sponsored the event, said a half-million new neighbors with transportation and job needs should be a concern for all residents.

"We cannot neglect this reality," Powers said.

During a panel discussion, local nonprofit representatives shared their challenges and discussed how the community can cooperate and advocate for solutions. Panelists said residents need transportation not only to Austin, but also within their cities. Panelists also said resources and infrastructure are key to serving current and future clients.

Kneebone said several community-wide programs in the U.S. such as Neighborhood Center Inc. in Houston are positive examples of cooperation that bridge gaps in communities.

"If we don't adapt to the changing geography of poverty and opportunity, we run the risk of creating a lot more entrenched problems and generational problems that cities have been dealing with for decades," she said. "It really is an urgent call to action."

Editor's note: This story was modified from its original version. Brian Kelsey said job holders moving to Travis County earn an average annual household income of $240,000, not median household income.
By Stephen Burnett
Stephen Burnett has been a community journalist since 2005. He joined Community Impact Newspaper as a reporter in November 2013. For the cities of Cedar Park, Leander and northwest Austin, he covers city and county government, business, development, events, transportation, utilities and more.


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