Boom rolls on north of Austin

Austin Business Journal

December 10, 2020

By Colin Pope

Despite pandemic, Williamson County economy remains hot for many

For over 20 years we’ve been shining the spotlight on economic growth north of Austin with the annual Williamson County Growth Summit.

In a year like this I expected to be the bearer of bad news — and there is a bit of that to go around. But for the most part, the growth summit we held virtually on Dec. 3 continued with business as usual — we once again talked about one of the fastest-growing, most prosperous counties in all of America.

In preparation for this event we spoke to dozens of business and civic leaders, and there is a consensus: Relatively speaking, when it comes to economic development, the Austin region has barely skipped a beat during this Covid-induced downturn.

Chalk it up to our ability to innovate, our ability to offer a lower-cost climate than you find in other coastal states, and our ability to offer a quality of life you just don’t get in many major metros.

With some exceptions, the boom continues. The cranes on all the big construction projects aren’t taking a break, and the wealth continues to pour into the region. We recently reported banks in Central Texas have 20% more in deposits than they did a year ago when we were at the peak of the economic expansion.

Housing sales and starts are stronger this year than last year in many Williamson County cities. They literally can’t be built fast enough.

In October, residential sales across the county jumped 37% over last year, and sales dollar volume skyrocketed 53% — which meant $451 million dollars worth of housing was sold that month, according to the Austin Board of Realtors.

The median price is up 11%, ABOR reports, and lack of inventory is a big reason. A healthy market should have roughly six months of housing inventory, experts contend. Williamson County has roughly three weeks of inventory.

Once a year we publish a list of the fastest-growing neighborhoods, ranked by housing starts, and no other county in the region can boast of having more neighborhoods on that list. The fastest-growing in 2019 was Sonterra in Jarrell, proving that north of Georgetown isn’t too far out for a lot of newcomers.

But the bulk of the new rooftops and commercial development are closer to Austin on the south and west sides of the county.

One of the biggest reasons why the population boom continues: jobs. Apple Inc. is a great example. It obviously isn’t backing down from its plan to build a new office campus on the southern border of the county along Parmer Lane.

Apple’s existing facilities are less than a mile from the newest Austin campus. Apple already has about 6,000 employed in the area, and its new 133-acre campus will initially accommodate 5,000 additional employees, with the capacity to grow to 15,000, leading some to believe that Apple may be the largest private employer in Central Texas soon. Right now, Dell’s local headcount is roughly 14,000 and HEB has about 15,000.

As you’ll read in the stories below, the major developments springing up are based largely on a housing component — opening up more opportunities for Williamson County residents to cut out a commute to Travis County and for businesses to open offices closer to where their employees live.

Right next to the Apple site, for instance, an office park called 7700 Parmer is in line for a major transformation. The sea of parking lots that surround the mid-rise office buildings is on its way to being transformed into 1,800 multifamily units, a 340-room hotel and a bunch of retail and restaurant space. Accesso Partners out of Florida owns the business park, which already offers 955,000 square feet leased out by tenants like Google, Paypal, Deloitte and Electronic Arts.

While the big deals roll on, betting that demand for office space and hotels will return in the coming months, the retail scene continues to roil. Mom-and-pop shops and restaurants across the board are struggling to make ends meet, and even big businesses such as Round Rock-based Flix Brewhouse are in an unfortunate spiral and holding pattern.

With revenue down 75% year-over-year, Flix Brewhouse CEO Allan Reagan could not justify keeping its movie theaters open at a time of few new releases and limited demand for the in-person theater experience.

So Flix has hit pause. The theater chain, known for serving food as well as beer that it brews, announced Nov. 16 its decision to close “until further notice.” It was started in 2011 and has nine locations, including one in its hometown.

Reagan, like a lot of business owners, is frustrated with inaction in Washington, D.C.

“A role of government is to deal with disasters, catastrophes and calamities,” he told the ABJ in November, “and we certainly have that in abundance right now.”

Covid is altering business plans across the board — but for some, it’s arguably for the better. A pandemic will come and go. Disrupters like Amazon that force business plans to constantly change are here to stay.

So a silver lining for the downtrodden may be that our bars, restaurants and shops will emerge stronger after this economic quake. On the white-collar level, we’ve learned to work in ways like never before, and we’ve proven that productivity can be mustered from some of the most unlikely places — like our living room.

Such knowledge and experience will surely alter the ways we work for decades to come.