San Marcos city officials try to bring technology, sustainable jobs to community

By Victoria Robinson and Ross Griffith

Faced with a bulging population and a poverty rate of nearly 40 percent, San Marcos city officials are trying to attract companies to the area and provide job training for residents.

The city’s manager Jared Miller said more than 75 percent of the population growth in the city is attributed to domestic migration. For the third year, San Marcos was recently named by the U.S. Census Bureau as the fastest growing city in the United States.

“Recent data confirms that new residents have lower levels of education, higher poverty rates, and lower household incomes than current residents,” Miller said. “The poverty rate of in-migrants is 36.5 percent, while only 27.4 percent of those people hold a bachelor’s or graduate degree.”

So what can individuals without degrees or job training do?

San Marcos’ regional partners, including the San Marcos Consolidated Independent School District, Austin Community College and Gary Jobs Corps, all offer numerous opportunities for workforce development and education. These organizations allow individuals to train and prepare for different fields that offer competitive wages.

With SMCISD and ACC offering educational training, Gary Jobs Corps offers workforce training that allows people to continue into higher-paying jobs.

“It’s a federal job corps facility, and they specifically target at-risk youth from all over the region,” said Kevin Burke, the city’s Economic and Development Projects Coordinator. “It’s really good for members of the community that may not have graduated from high school and it also benefits the employers because (the trained individuals are) coming into the workforce equipped with these skills the company wants.”

Miller said underemployment also might play a role in why some individuals are struggling.

“San Marcos has some citizens who are educated and highly trained who are not working in their field,” Miller said. “The city is working to bring jobs to the area that enable these individuals to use their skills and education in a job that allows them to make a competitive wage and have a better quality of life.”

Burke said a recent project undertaken by the city was completed after a property tax rebate program was offered to a Louisiana-based company. The focus of the project, Epic Piping, will join the recently announced Amazon fulfillment center in bringing more than 1,500 new jobs to San Marcos.

The city’s largest employers include: Texas State University, Prime and Tanger Outlets, Hays County, the City of San Marcos, C-FAN, McCoys and Mensor Therman.

Despite being a town inundated with low-paying retail jobs, San Marcos is looking to become a major player in the growing technological boon of Central Texas.

College graduates seeking careers in STEM fields also have something to look forward to. The city has been working with Texas State University’s Science, Technology and Advanced Research Park (or STAR Park) to encourage tech startups to move their operations to San Marcos. The park’s executive director Stephen Frayser has experience with startup incubators after working for the University of Nebraska.

“I did something similar to this before I came down here and we started out almost identically in terms of space,” he said. “We had four little companies and about ten employees. Ten years later, we had 3,000 employees.”

STAR Park takes companies who want to produce a new product, process, or service and helps them grow and get to their respective markets quicker. The current focus is on tangible products: new semiconductor materials, new nano materials and new life-science materials.

“Much of the equipment here is very expensive, in fact too expensive for most startups. For example, one of our pieces of quality assurance equipment in materials development costs $500,000,” Frayser said. “Now, a small company can’t do that, but we can make it available to them. So we provide those resources, we help them to find mentors, and help them find sources of capital.”

Frayser said STAR Park currently has six paid interns from Texas State University, while seven graduates have been hired on by companies housed at the research park. The $10 million expansion currently in progress will create space for around 40 additional jobs, as well as tripling the number of interns the incubator can house.

“We’d love for companies to stay in San Marcos after they expand outside of the incubator, and stay here and build a critical mass of companies that feed on themselves. That’s the model we’re trying to follow here; slow, steady, predictable growth,” Frayser said.

However, Frayser cautions that this is not an overnight process.

“With 58 acres at the STAR Park, we could support up to a half million square feet of office, laboratory, and engineering space. But it’s going to take a minimum of 20 years to get there. The measure of our success is how many of our students are getting internships, how many are getting hired, and how much interaction there is between industry and the university to the benefit of both,” Frayser said.

Burke is confident that these advanced manufacturing and tech startups have reason to stick around after the incubation process.

“The cost of doing business is a lot lower here. If companies want to build something new in Central Austin, that’s a bit of a challenge, but we’ve got the space here to do it and much lower land costs, and a lower cost of labor, so we’re really competitive in those areas,” Burke said. “San Marcos has quite a community and we think it has a lot to offer.”

{Editor’s Note: This is the final installment of a series of four stories that examined the poverty rate in San Marcos, Texas. Our first story looked at food insecurity in San Marcos. The second story examined the resources available to youth in the community. The third story provided analysis of the housing situation in the city. This series was produced in partnership with the Austin American-Statesman and Latina Lista.}  

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