- Addie Broyles American-Statesman Staff
The posted population of Dripping Springs — 1,788 — belies a boom.
More than 15,000 people live just east of the city limits in sprawling subdivisions along U.S. 290 running toward Oak Hill. And many of the new residents, ex-Austinites drawn to the reputation of the public schools and a quieter life, bring with them a taste for the Austin vibe they left behind.
The highway that links the former ranching outpost to Southwest Austin is now home to yoga studios, a gluten-free commercial bakery, a branch of the quintessentially Austin restaurant Trudy’s and an artisan pizzeria that sells house-made pastrami worthy of a New York deli.
The transformation of Dripping Springs — the population of the area has doubled since 2000 — is happening in fast-growing bedroom communities across Central Texas. Towns like Pflugerville, Bastrop and Georgetown now boast craft beer bars, farmers markets and tattoo parlors.
As the Austin metro area has expanded, Austin is no longer the only place to get a chai latte from a locally owned coffee shop or pad thai from a food trailer. The creative quirkiness and affinity for homegrown products and services, long hallmarks of the Texas capital, have spread far beyond the city limits.
But in the small towns-turned-suburbs such as Dripping Springs, home of the “Keep Drippin’ Normal” bumper sticker, longtime residents warily embrace the changes as they worry that the way of life that drew them there could be slipping away.
Still, the new businesses have meant fewer trips to Austin on traffic-choked highways. Dripping Springs, as in other booming suburbs ringing Austin, is now home to offices for physicians, dentists, chiropractors and acupuncturists, as well as an H-E-B. And residents don’t even have to drive far for live music — the Nutty Brown Cafe, a longtime restaurant on U.S. 290, now has an amphitheater that can hold 4,000 people.
Newcomers and old-timers mingle on Mercer Street, the town’s once-overlooked main street, where newly opened bars serve craft beer and wine, and a dance hall packs them in on Saturday nights.
Herbs and spices
Few places in Dripping Springs feel more like Austin than Sacred Moon Herbs, an herb and tincture shop at 305 Mercer St. that is housed in a 1937 rock building that was once a barber shop and a post office.
Owners Tara Tetreault and Beth Ebbing were both looking to leave corporate jobs in Phoenix when they met in herb school.
Tetreault left Arizona in 2006 and moved just north of Dripping Springs. She started a tincture business and was one of the first vendors at the weekly farmers market, which started five years ago at the intersection of U.S. 290 and Mercer Street.
In the beginning, Tetreault had to explain to many customers what tinctures were (a homeopathic remedy in liquid form), but after three years, she realized that there were enough “holistic and health-oriented” people living in the area to support a health store with a New Age bent.
Ebbing, who had since moved with her husband to Oak Hill, and Tetreault opened the shop in April 2012 during Founder’s Day, Dripping Springs’ annual celebration of its founding in 1850.
Having 5,000 people walk by your the business on its first day of operation certainly helped sales, but both owners say that the response has been even better than they expected. “The community has really come out to support us,” Tetreault said.
The store features more than 200 dried herbs, spices, teas and salts, a selection that most grocery stores in Austin, including Whole Foods and Central Market, can’t rival, as well as an array of tinctures, candles, incense, cards, books and gifts.
Coffee and Wi-Fi
Vicky Lewis had never heard of Dripping Springs when she was working at Microsoft and living near Seattle.
About 10 years ago, she still loved her job but was ready to live in a sunny place, preferably near a college town, where she could enroll her kids in good schools.
She started researching Central Texas and North Carolina and sent her husband to both places and let him choose. He picked Austin, and she homed in on Dripping Springs.
“I wanted a college town with affordable housing and a good business climate, but I didn’t want to live in the city with kids, so we looked at the suburbs,” she said.
In 2004, they moved their family into one of the area subdivisions, and, after a stint at another tech company in Austin, Lewis decided it was time to get into the coffee business.
“We’d never run a coffee shop,” she said, but they knew that there were enough people who live around Dripping Springs to support a shop with high-quality coffee, not to mention Wi-Fi for working remotely.
They opened Mazama Coffee Company, which is next door to the herb shop on Mercer Street, in November 2012, and Lewis says residents have come flocking for the coffee and maybe something a little more.
Next door to the coffee shop is a meeting room, which the Lewises rent out to a local youth group, book club, the Lion’s Club, PTA and weekly yoga classes. “It’s become a community hub,” she said.
But initially, some customers were wary.
“The two questions they ask: ‘Are you local?’ I say, ‘Yes, we live in Dripping Springs. We’ve been here for nine years. Our kids went through the school system.’ The second question: ‘Is this a chain?’ I take it as a compliment now.”
The new business boom is built partly on the shoulders of some pioneering locally owned businesses, including the eclectic bakery, coffeehouse and plant nursery Rolling in Thyme & Dough and the Creek Road Cafe, an upscale restaurant that opened in 2008.
Dripping Springs residents might moan about some aspects of growth, such as rising property taxes and congested roads, but few seem to mind the expanding options for retail and recreation.
“It keeps people in Dripping spending money in Dripping,” said Mary Clarkson, who has lived in the area for almost 20 years and owns a bed-and-breakfast east of town called 3 Dawg Nite.
Clarkson says that the wedding and tourism industries are also an important piece of this economic puzzle. Dripping Springs has become a hub for destination weddings, even for couples from outside Texas, and the new Sleep Inn, which opened last fall, is just the first of several hotels opening in the area.
The city has long marketed itself as the “Gateway to the Hill Country,” but now, with more attractions, city leaders hope to entice visitors to stay awhile.
Despite the changes, Dripping Springs is still overwhelmingly white. The Hispanic population in Hays County, for instance, increased to 35 percent in 2010 from 29 percent in 2000, but just 11 percent of the Dripping Springs area was Hispanic in 2010, up from 7 percent in 2000, and fewer than 3 percent of the population is black or Asian.
With average incomes topping $100,000 in some of the subdivisions east of town, both Lewis and Tetreault say that the affluence in Dripping Springs means they can run successful businesses you might expect to see in a more urban setting but that Dripping Springs isn’t becoming Austin.
Dripping Springs has always had its own population of artists and back-to-the-earth types, Lewis said, and “we don’t see ourselves as part of Austin.”
But Austin is still a magnet for jobs for people living along U.S. 290.
“Development is happening, and the people here are interested in having some say in that,” Tetreault said, but there still aren’t enough local jobs, and perhaps never will be, to support the people who live there.
Dripping’s tipping point
“In the early 1950s, when I was a young man here, Dripping Springs was still a truly rural community,” said Hays County Commissioner Ray Whisenant. “The majority of people made the majority of their living by some agrarian means, but by the time I was in high school, that was not true. The majority of incomes came from commuter income.”
Now, Whisenant says that not a day goes by when he doesn’t see people in cars with out-of-state license plates driving through the subdivision where he lives, looking at houses. He and his wife have land in San Saba County, where they visit as a reminder of what life was like in Dripping Springs when they were younger, he says.
For people who have lived in Dripping Springs for more than a decade, the town really started to change when the old rodeo arena was torn down to make way for an elementary school. Others say that it was when infrastructure and access to water improved, notably with the Lower Colorado River Authority water pipeline along U.S. 290, while others argue that the biggest change was when the H-E-B finally opened in 2010 and residents no longer had to drive to Oak Hill to buy groceries.
But one of the most significant developments came nine years ago, when voters in the northernmost precinct of Hays County decided to allow sales of alcoholic beverages.
Dozens of breweries, distilleries, wineries and bars in the area provide not only jobs and revenue for local residents, but they also draw countless visitors, who city officials and business leaders know are also potential future residents.
“I really wasn’t sure I’d live to see the day when you could walk in and order a cold beer or alcoholic drink in downtown Dripping Springs,” Whisenant said.
Park, events center
In coming weeks, construction will begin on a $400,000 revitalization project along Mercer Street that will bring sidewalks, street lamps and better-defined parking spaces. And residents have been participating in the Sustainable Places Project, an initiative from the Capital Area Texas Sustainability Consortium, a partnership between local city governments funded in part with federal money, to help quickly growing area towns, including Elgin, Hutto and Lockhart, think about innovative approaches to growth.
But the shining civic jewel in this part of Hays County is the soon-to-open Dripping Springs Ranch Park, a 110-acre park with a 166,000-square-foot special events center a couple of miles north of town on RM 12.
The first phase of the $6 million project will open this week, in time for a Sept. 7 citywide grand opening celebration and the Sept. 14 Dripping with Taste, the sixth annual food and wine event that last year drew 2,500 people to its previous home, the Texas Hill Country Olive Co.
In January, the Ranch Park will host the Hays County Livestock Show, which previously took place at the Hays County Civic Center in San Marcos.
Whisenant says that the events center is a perfect example of how the town’s city and county planners are striving to meet the changing needs of the community while keeping the rural roots alive.
“Our ability to build a good economy creates as many opportunities as it does challenges,” Whisenant said.
The watering hole
It’s ironic, or maybe fitting, that common ground for Old Dripping and New Dripping and everyone in between seems to be the Barber Shop, an old gas station-turned-barber shop that Dripping Springs native John McIntosh has turned into a craft beer bar.
McIntosh, who is on the historic redevelopment committee for the city, knew that unless people who lived in the area had a reason to go to Mercer Street more often than once a year for a parade or to stop in at Rippy’s Ranch Supply, the longtime feed store, the street would fade into obscurity.
“I’m not arrogant enough to say that I got the ball rolling, but I just happened to be the one to take the plunge first,” he said. Then came Dudley’s Wine Bar and Tap Room, which brings in local musicians for live music most nights of the week, the coffee shop, the herb shop and the Mercer Street Dancehall. Within a few months, a new restaurant called Miss Kitty’s Saloon will open on the west end of the street.
“When the wine bar opened, everybody goes, ‘Well, they’re going to take all your business, are you worried about that?’ I had to tell them, ‘That’s not how it works,’” McIntosh said. Having seen restaurant and bar districts thrive in Austin, McIntosh knew that the more businesses that opened, the more likely people would be to come to downtown Dripping Springs rather than head into Austin.
“It’s a place where old and new come together and can cohabitate,” he said. “I think that strengthens the community because then it’s not this polarizing ‘them’ and ‘us.’”
But as property taxes and commercial rental rates continue to rise and the commute to workplaces across Central Texas grows even longer, not everyone is tolerating this 21st century version of Dripping Springs.
“People get tired, and they move a little further west,” said Gary Hale, who moved from South Austin to the Sunset Canyon subdivision in the 1980s to enroll his kids in Dripping Springs schools. “We all know people who have left.”
Pam Owens, who moved to the area in the 1980s and now works at the Dripping Springs visitors’ bureau, says that some people also move back to Austin once their kids graduate from high school.
“Just like in Austin, there’s the sentiment of wanting to put up a roadblock and stop more people from moving out there,” Owens said. “Everyone wants to be the last ones in.”