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September 2009

By Clint Shields

Country Oases

Welcome to Llano County

Four rural counties thrive on their own.

Texas is an overwhelmingly urban state — and getting more so. According to the Texas State Data Center, more than 87 percent of us lived in metropolitan areas at the beginning of 2008. Most of the state’s rural counties are experiencing little growth, and those that are generally owe it to their proximity to urban centers.

But four truly rural communities in Texas — Gillespie, Llano, Jeff Davis and Presidio counties — are bucking the trend. These counties are the only ones experiencing significant growth without a nearby metropolitan area. They’ve parlayed natural advantages such as landscape, a relaxed lifestyle and a quirky sense of community into prosperity.

Rural oases face a constant challenge in their distance from the amenities of urban areas.


“We’ve always had a large retirement demographic [in Llano County],” says Tony Griffith, executive director of the Llano Chamber of Commerce. “But we’re also seeing a bit of a lifestyle change, with folks wanting to get away from the city for a different quality of life, and to raise their kids here.”

Llano County’s population rose by an estimated 12.8 percent from 2000 to 2008. Many new residents come from East Texas and the Houston area, Griffith says, buying large-acreage tracts and putting down new roots. A few make substantial contributions to the local economy, moving or reestablishing existing businesses in the area.

Looking for you in Jeff Davis County

“A lot of them have been through here or visited before and loved the area and love the people,” Griffith says.

Further west, Jeff Davis County’s population has risen by more than 23 percent since 2000, buoyed by the attractions of Fort Davis, which offers scenic mountain surroundings and, at about 5,000 feet in elevation, a healthy and (for Texas) temperate climate.

“We’re the coolest town in Texas,” says Lisa Nugent, executive director of the Fort Davis Chamber of Commerce. “Due to the low humidity, doctors have for decades recommended the area for persons with respiratory problems.”

New residents from California, Florida and Ohio have joined relocating Texans in the area, many of them referred by acquaintances, Nugent says.

Rural Challenges

Daniel Browning left Austin and followed the lights to the West Texas oasis of Marfa, and found the change he and his family were seeking. Presidio County’s population has risen by nearly 11 percent since 2000, largely due to the rising popularity of Marfa as a tourist destination and a rising center for the arts, with numerous galleries that have won praise in major national media. [see Fiscal Notes, October 2008]

Wilkommen! Gillespie County

Four rural Texas counties are experiencing significant growth without a nearby metro area.

But rural oases face a constant challenge in their distance from airports, large hospitals and the other amenities of major urban areas. Browning says he sees quite a bit of fluctuation as new folks move in and move out.

“We notice what we call the six-month Marfan,” says Browning, who is president of the chamber of commerce as well as owner of a local laundry and a coffee shop. “People do it for six months and then realize they can’t do without what they’re used to. But there’s also a steady stream of folks who do stay.”

Interestingly, the slowing economy has increased the flow of people through Presidio County. Revenues at hotels and other area businesses were up 15 to 20 percent in the first quarter of 2009, Browning says, as people take more driving vacations and stay closer to home.

Greetings from Presidio County

Fredericksburg, one of the state’s most popular tourist destinations, “is outside of commuting distance for Austin and San Antonio,” says Tim Lehmberg, Director, Gillespie County Economic Development. “But that’s one of our saving graces, too. It keeps us from too much growth.”

Gillespie County’s population has increased more than 16 percent since 2000, and it has long been a haven for retirees, Lehmberg says. But a younger crowd is emerging.

“We’re seeing more and more younger people who are able to work remotely and realize that now is the time to make the move,” he says. FN

Postcard photos: Presidio and Jeff Davis counties courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, Gillespie County courtesy of Mary Ann McClain

Easy Going in Marfa

Away, All the Way

Four of Texas’ fastest-growing rural communities are relatively far from metropolitan areas, surviving and thriving on a mix of tourism, retirement and recreation.

CountyPopulation Growth
2000-2008
Jeff Davis23.6%
Gillespie16.7%
Llano12.8%
Presidio10.9%

Source: Texas State Data Center


Background photo of Big Bend State Park courtesy of Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

One advantage of rural oases is a low-key lifestyle, says Daniel Browning, president of the Marfa Chamber of Commerce. Making a living can be a challenge, he says, but an interesting mix of folks is doing it.

“There’s not much industry out here other than tourism,” he says. “But you have engineers working as waiters, semiconductor specialists doing laundry and so on. We give up larger paychecks for a relaxed way of living.

“I wear flip flops pretty much every day of my life,” Browning says. “There’s not a lot to worry about.”

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