NEW BRAUNFELS, Texas (AP) — A divorce, the prohibitive cost of California housing and family living in Texas convinced Kathy Terry to say goodbye to the West Coast and head to the Lone Star State, where she settled in a new suburban neighborhood off Interstate 35 on what once was rolling farmland.
But Terry didn’t gravitate to San Antonio or Austin, two of the country’s fastest-growing large cities. Instead, she chose New Braunfels, a place she’d never laid eyes on but that’s gaining residents like Terry at a faster clip than either the Alamo City or the state capital.
Terry made her decision based on the hunch of her younger son, who lives nears Corpus Christi.
“‘Mom, this is a cute little town, it’s growing, and it’s got the river, and you’ll love it,'” she recalled him saying.
Appropriately, on her first day here, Terry drove around and spotted tubers in a river below. She illegally parked on the bridge, hopping out to take some photos.
“That’s really cool, to have something like that in my backyard,” she told the San Antonio Express-News (http://bit.ly/29k9ncC ).
While San Antonio officials have lately focused on how to deal with an expected 1.1 million more people in Bexar County by the year 2040, their neighbors along Interstate 35 — New Braunfels, San Marcos, Schertz and Selma — are booming as well. One day, they will form a tightly packed megalopolis from San Antonio to Austin, with no distinction from one city to the next.
“If you never leave the (New Braunfels) city limits here, you would think, ‘Oh man, this growth is terrible,'” Greater New Braunfels Chamber of Commerce President Michael Meek said. “But it’s happening everywhere. We’re in one of the fastest-growing mega-regions in the nation.”
This closely follows nationwide trends: more people drawn to suburban areas on the edges of big cities where there is ample land for single-family homes, a community-minded environment that families crave and lower housing prices. Plus there’s proximity to a major interstate for easy access to the benefits of big cities.
The I-35 corridor — starting in San Antonio at Loop 410 and extending up toward New Braunfels — accounted for nearly a third of the new housing starts in the San Antonio region between the third quarters of 2014 and 2015, said Jack Inselmann, regional director of Metrostudy, a national home construction researcher.
Of the 15 fastest-growing cities in the U.S. from 2014 to 2015, four of them — Georgetown, first, New Braunfels, second, Frisco, fourth, and Pflugerville, 11th — were on or near I-35, and all were on the fringes of bigger cities. Together, those places are beginning to merge into an even larger megaregion that connects San Antonio and Dallas, and that’s part of the still larger Texas Triangle that takes in Houston as well.
Despite all the rapid growth along the corridor, there is little in the way of planning for these superurban areas. San Antonio and Austin each has its own metropolitan planning organization that focuses on transportation, but on separate parts of the I-35 corridor. The region shares, among other issues, the chronic problem of traffic congestion on the interstate, yet one possible solution — a commuter rail line — has made little progress. In April, for the first time, several mayors from cities along the corridor, including San Antonio’s Ivy Taylor, met to discuss the region’s growth challenges. They plan to make it a regular meeting.
The infrastructure strains being felt all along I-35 affect New Braunfels residents every day. The city’s population has almost doubled since 2000, ballooning from about 39,000 people to more than 70,000 last year, the U.S. Census reports. It ranked as the second-fastest-growing city in the U.S., with a population gain of 6.6 percent, from July 2014 to July 2015. By comparison, San Antonio inched up by 2.2 percent.
Comal County, which encompasses most of New Braunfels, has jumped from about 79,000 people to more than 129,000 from 2000 to 2015; from July 2014 to July 2015, it was the eighth-fastest-growing county in the U.S.
Terry is among the hundreds of thousands of Californians who’ve relocated to Texas in recent years: More people moved from California to Texas, about 62,000 in 2013 alone, than from any other state, a report from state demographer Lloyd Potter says.
Her new, suburban neighborhood bears little resemblance to the recreation summer spot of river rides and beer and sausage festivals with which New Braunfels often is associated.
Her home sits just beyond what is called New Braunfels Town Center at Creekside, a suburban bevy of restaurants, clothing stores and other retailers that’s become an engine of new development east of I-35 and northeast of New Braunfels’ historic downtown. Work is rapidly under way on more commercial sites around Creekside, including medical offices and apartments, eating up what once was rich farmland.
Across I-35, at the corner of the access road and FM 306, construction is beginning on a third H-E-B in the city, this one a larger “Plus” store.
“When you go from one to three” H-E-Bs, Meek said, “you know you’re growing.”
Even more development is coming, as work begins on Veramendi, with housing and retail planned, just outside New Braunfels’ northwestern city limits. Over the next 25 years, more than 12,000 to 15,000 people could move into Veramendi, essentially the equivalent of adding another town on top of New Braunfels.
That is a dramatic change for a relatively small, summer tourist town with long-running ties to German culture. While the strength of those ties has gradually been withering for many decades, the increasing rush of newcomers can bring the change into sharper relief.
“It feels like we’re losing our small town, German quaintness,” said Mary Irwin, who teaches German language classes to children in the summer and is a member of the city’s German American Society. “It’s becoming more of a San Antonio suburb.”
A word occasionally heard among the city’s German old-timers is “auslanders,” meaning outsiders, foreigners. People from an alien land.
New Braunfels is full of auslanders these days.
“We’ve said it before to people who’ve just moved here, ‘Here comes another auslander,'” joked Diane Moltz, Irwin’s sister, who helps organize the German classes for children in the summer and for adults in the winter. “I think it’s kind of regretfully said sometimes. ‘Here goes our city.'”
For centuries, different cultures have been drawn to New Braunfels, for the convergence of the Guadalupe and Comal rivers and the availability of spring water.
The town as it’s known today was founded in 1845 by immigrants fleeing political strife in Germany.
Mills were built along the banks of the swiftly flowing Comal River, producing goods like cotton, wool, grain and eventually electricity, said fifth-generation New Braunfels resident Myra Lee Adams Goff, who writes a history column for the city’s Sophienburg Museum and Archives. That kind of manufacturing, and New Braunfels’ position between Austin and San Antonio, eventually made it a commercial center for a rising agricultural industry.
The town’s German heritage, much of which was subdued after two wars with Germany, was embraced with renewed vigor in the 1960s, around the time city leaders began to focus on creating a tourist economy, sparked by the construction of Canyon Dam and, subsequently, Canyon Lake. The lake launched the river tubing industry. Wurstfest, New Braunfels’ answer to Germany’s Oktoberfest, started in 1961.
Today, New Braunfels’ spot on I-35 is driving much of the population growth.
About 1,400 homes were built in New Braunfels between the third quarters of 2014 and 2015, double the number from just four years ago, Inselmann said.
The median price for a home in New Braunfels was $223,700 earlier this year, higher than San Antonio’s median of $195,619, according to the San Antonio Board of Realtors. But it’s lower than the median prices in popular Bexar County suburban neighborhoods like Alamo Ranch and Stone Oak, $258,210 and $265,250, respectively.
New Braunfels is a great place for households where one person works in San Antonio and another in Austin, Inselmann said.
“That’s just a matter of running out of land in Bexar County,” he said.
To Terry, the Golden State native, New Braunfels is a wonder compared to cash-strapped California: there’s no trash on the streets, the highway department mows the highway medians. The lines at the grocery stores aren’t always 15 people deep.
The Texas economy has been a welcome surprise. Terry’s older son Kyle moved with her from California. He quickly found a job.
Also enticing, Terry found the housing costs in New Braunfels and Texas to be dramatically cheaper than California. Her old house in San Jose, which was a little more than 1,100 square feet, had no central air conditioning and was equipped with a tiny master bathroom, sold for $800,000.
Her 1,900-square foot, KB Home in Texas would have cost “well over $1 million” back in California.
In New Braunfels, it was $230,000.
“My master bathroom here is as big as one of my bedrooms that I had over in California,” Terry said.
New Braunfels’ building explosion perhaps is best personified by the area around the Creekside shopping center, a smorgasbord of big-box retailers like Target and Best Buy and smaller ones just east of I-35 on the north end of town.
A few years ago, there was nothing here, not even a road. Now, the most recognizable marker is a 67,000-square-foot Buc-ees convenience store and service station, an armory of 120 gas pumps and travelers’ vehicles, big rigs and RVs. Farther down Creekside Crossing, the road named for the shopping center, is Resolute Health Hospital, a 128-bed, for-profit hospital that opened in 2014.
Much of the development in New Braunfels is happening here, east of the Balcones Escarpment, a geological fault zone that divides the rich, blackland prairie from the rocky soil of the Texas Hill Country. The fertile farmland makes development easier and so the land costs are cheaper, said Mark Hampton, a Realtor with Century 21 Randall Morris & Associates in New Braunfels.
Terry’s home is just east of the shopping center, in a new KB Home community called West Village at Creekside. The initial development, which opened just last year, was so successful, KB officials added another 135 home sites, for a total of 469, KB spokeswoman Cathy Teague said.
Twee Cortez and her husband, Samuel, moved into the KB development in September right next door to Terry. The Cortezes were one of the first families in the development, where home frames are going up all the time.
“Houston was just so packed and crowded,” Twee Cortez said of the city where she grew up and where her family lived for years. “I wanted it to be relaxing and quiet.”
Moving east away from Creekside, the road dramatically narrows, and the rural character of New Braunfels and its surroundings shows itself again, in the open fields and older, tiny farmhouses. The pastureland outside town, fresh off an unusually rainy few months this year, unrolls like lumpy, green carpet dotted with black Angus cows.
Comparing Creekside to the rural properties beyond, it is as if two completely different places — one suburban in character, one old town — were stitched together.
It’s here, just beyond the city limits, where Nathan Dolle makes his home, on a rural, woodsy, 10-acre property less than 3 miles from the KB neighborhood.
A fourth-generation New Braunfels resident, he’d fit in perfectly in a Laura Ingalls Wilder pioneer novel: he grows his own crops and keeps chickens that lay eggs for the family. He was born in 1972, but his wife, Lonnie, tells him he should have been born 100 years earlier.
“I’m tight. I’m German. I’m frugal,” Dolle said. “I don’t want to pay for anything I don’t have to.”
Though Dolle remains just outside the city limits, development has found him, too. Creekside has opened the door to more of just about everything in the area. The Stars & Stripes Drive-in Theater opened in April last year on Kroesche Lane, not even a mile from Dolle’s property. On a busy night, Dolle, said traffic gets backed up all the way past his house, onto FM 1101 and then toward I-35. After the movie, Dolle said the road in front of his house will be strewn with a trail of popcorn boxes and soda and beer cans.
“We moved out here, and there wasn’t nothing. We were in the country, and now the city’s coming to get us,” Dolle said. “My wife said, ‘Everybody wants to move to a small town, but everybody’s moving here, and it’s not a small town no more.'”
The grain business is booming at the Producer’s Co-op in New Braunfels, which specializes in feed for show livestock. But in the past, most of the feed sold at the Co-op was made from grains grown in and around the city. Now, most of it comes from towns farther away, said Horace Luensmann, general manager for the Producer’s Co-op Marketing Association. Farmers either can’t afford to keep producing or the owners from whom they rent the land sell it out from under them.
“Are these guys losing farm ground? Yes,” Luensmann said. “All day long they are losing farm ground.”
Ryan Smith, president of Stars & Stripes New Braunfels Inc. said he specifically chose New Braunfels to build his second drive-in theater because of the rural feel, in addition to the centralized location and the convenient access for families. Although Smith’s company owns the property, he still allows a local farmer to plant on part of it; this past summer, the movie theater had its own corn crop.
“We liked the town, and it’s got a nostalgic feel to it, just with all its history,” Smith said.
“We think the same things that were attractive to us about New Braunfels are attractive to a lot of people.”
Relatively speaking, business is strong in New Braunfels. In the past, the town had one major employer, Mission Valley Textiles.
Now, the city has 50 separate primary employers, who manufacture or produce a good or a service in New Braunfels but sell it outside of the trade area, said Meek, with the chamber of commerce.
The potential for even more large-scale residential and commercial development is on the horizon.
In May, construction began on the first project in Veramendi, a 2,400-acre master-planned community and mixed-use development west of I-35. This is the half of New Braunfels that’s home to Schlitterbahn, Landa Park, New Braunfels’ historic downtown, the heart of the city’s bustling tourist industry.
The development sits just north of where Loop 337 and Texas 46 meet and part of it borders the Guadalupe River. The project will be developed over 15 to 25 years and eventually could include more than 6,000 dwellings, a town center, a resort, public park space, a college campus and two elementary schools, said Tiffany Lacey, vice president of design and approvals with Australia-based ASA Properties, the developer who partnered with the landowner.
“It’s literally another city,” Meek said.
The first project is on its way: New Braunfels ISD broke ground on a new elementary school in Veramendi in May.
To prepare for a potential 40 percent to 50 percent increase in traffic over the next 20 years, the Texas Department of Transportation plans to convert Loop 337 from a two-lane, undivided road to a four-lane, divided corridor between I-35 and Hillcrest Drive, a $45 million project.
New Braunfels officials point to the project as an example of how to do growth well. Developers will pay for flood control infrastructure up front and then be paid back by taxes collected from the new lot owners. Water detention facilities in the development will help ease flooding problems in the city as a whole.
It’s designed to have more sidewalks, narrower streets and more trees, traits New Braunfels’ current zoning codes don’t encourage, said Christopher Looney, the city planning director.
City leaders say the compromises negotiated with Veramendi reflect a pragmatic tactic: you cannot control growth, Meek said, but, you can “manage it to your benefit.”
Moltz, the German language teacher, still has her doubts.
“I would rather see . nice forest land, Hill Country land,” Moltz said. “We have no voice in that. It just seems like all of the nice Hill Country is being developed.”
Once a week, Dolle takes his entire family to the opposite end of New Braunfels, to a nondescript building that contains more than 100 years of German heritage.
This is the Solms Bowling Club, one of several traditional, German nine-pin bowling organizations in the county. Until a recent renovation, two of the lanes were original, installed when the club opened in 1898.
Dolle’s father, Oscar, set pins here as a child and bowled here, as did his grandmother before him. Now, Dolle’s son, Logan, plays in the junior league. When he was little, Dolle used to sleep on the club benches, fashioned out of church pews; now his young daughter Summer uses them to snooze.
History matters to Dolle, the club president, and his fellow members, whose club T-shirts say, “The tradition rolls on.”
Dolle worries about how those traditions will continue as New Braunfels keeps growing, even though he understands its necessity, and that it can’t be stopped. He sees it every day, working for the Comal Independent School District, where enrollment has about doubled since 2000. New Braunfels ISD, the smaller city school district, is expected to double in size over the next decade.
When Meek, with the chamber, moved here in the late 1980s, close to a third of the population seemed to be descended from the town’s original German settlers. Now, he estimates it’s closer to 6 or 8 percent of people who have that tie, judging from residents’ surnames.
Children still can take German-language classes during a two-week summer camp sponsored by the German American Society and the Heritage Villages’ Museum of Texas Handmade Furniture, Moltz said. From January to March, Moltz organizes a German class for adults. Many of the participants, she said, are newcomers.
More than a dozen students sat recently in the adult class, held at the Cross Lutheran Church and School, learning the German alphabet, several phrases and various tidbits of German culture and history.
Goff, the historian and New Braunfels native, is pragmatic about the whole thing, even if she misses the familiarity she once knew. The purpose of the Sophienburg Museum isn’t to keep things from changing. It’s trying to “to hold on, so people remember what was.”
“I’m not one that says, ‘Oh no, we have to go back to the old days,'” Goff said. “My husband said one time, ‘The old days are now.'”