Oct 26, 2021, 3:36pm EDTAfter his father, Bobby, died in 2008, Wayne Mueller sat on a picnic table in the dining hall of Louie Mueller Barbecue and stared at the decades worth of soot-stained business cards on the wall that accumulated over a half century.
It was a reminder of the visitors who've flocked to downtown Taylor to try the smoked brisket, beef ribs and sausage at the famed restaurant, dating back to its 1949 opening when his grandfather, Louie, used to fire up his smoker in the alley behind his grocery store.
Those were the times when bustling downtown Taylor was a place where railroad engineers, plumbers and migrant workers came for lunch and neighbors owned the adjacent drug stores, department stores and pharmacies. The streets of the close-knit community overflowed during special events such as Christmas and Trade Day.
"For the last 30 years, it’s been completely decimated. It’s been more of a ghost town. Not seeing people interact has been a real sad change," said Mueller, the third-generation owner and pit master at Louie Mueller Barbecue on West Second Street.
It has been nine months since Taylor, northeast of Austin, was first mentioned as a potential landing spot for Samsung's $17 billion semiconductor plant. With momentum building toward the company selecting the city, residents and business owners are teeming with excitement — and some trepidation — about the prospect of Taylor regaining its place as a key cog in the Central Texas economy.
Even without Samsung, there have been signs of economic activity in recent years. There are more people relocating to the suburb because of Austin's rapid growth. Long-neglected buildings in the modest downtown are being revitalized into restaurants, breweries and coffee shops. The city has improved parks, roads, schools and, ultimately, quality of life.
But the addition of Samsung would be the biggest sign yet.
Longtime Taylor locals — who have weathered multiple recessions, the departure of people and businesses to communities closer to I-35 and a decreased need for the city's prominent farm and rail industries — recognize that change is inevitable with the rapid growth of Central Texas. Their main concern is that Taylor doesn't lose its greatest asset: its small-town charm.
The Samsung project, if built in Taylor, stands to be the largest capital investment the area has ever seen and would yield at least 1,800 direct jobs. There would significant ripple effects, including billions of dollars in construction spending and thousands of construction jobs, not to mention the annual impact of the factory’s output and salaries for decades to come.
"There was going to be growth and development pressures on Taylor anyway just given the Austin metro area and just how hot this market was. It was coming, whether Samsung chooses us or not,” Taylor Mayor Brandt Rydell said. “If Samsung does select Taylor, it kind of takes it up to stratospheric levels. It's going to be a great opportunity for our community. It will certainly present its challenges, but I'm confident we're up for this."
From outlier to frontrunnerWhen Taylor first expressed interest in the next-generation factory back in January, Williamson County Judge Bill Gravell estimated the city and county were in dead last. But their pitch, which included creative approaches to utilities, collaboration between regional stakeholders and Taylor's welcoming community, has vaulted them to near the top.
"I think the Mighty Ducks have returned," Gravell said, referring to Taylor High School's mascot.
For the last several months, Samsung has been weighing sites in Austin, Phoenix and upstate New York for its factory, which promises to be one of the largest foreign investments in U.S. history. But as the search winds down, the company has made the most progress in Taylor, a city of just over 16,000 about 35 miles north of downtown Austin.
Samsung stands to receive property tax abatements from both the city and county, plus other perks, if it chooses Taylor for its 6 million-square-foot factory. Williamson County officials have approved 20 years of property tax abatements that start at 90%, later dropping to an 85% rebate. The city of Taylor has also promised abatements beginning at 92.5% of Samsung's property taxes, falling to 85% over the course of 30 years. Incentives are also possible from the local school district, the state and the federal government.
Samsung spokeswoman Michele Glaze reiterated that, by publication time, "no decision has been made" on the factory location and all sites remain under consideration.
The shock that the Samsung factory would have on Taylor's largely rural economy would be unmatched compared with the other finalists, and could potentially see businesses and residents flocking to the suburb, swelling Taylor's job market and reviving memories of the middle of the last century, when the city was the economic engine of Williamson County.
"In the latter part of the 20th century, and the early 21st, Taylor has sort of been doldrums a bit," Rydell said, pointing out that Taylor was a pioneer in what used to be considered "high-tech" industries such as rail and agriculture. "Being able to attract an economic development project on this scale kind of gets back to our early days and the roots of Taylor."
The potential job opportunities are paramount to local leaders and residents. At the Sept. 8 joint meeting of Williamson County commissioners and Taylor City Council, some Taylor residents were brought to tears talking about job opportunities for their children. Many parents noted at the meeting that their high school and college-aged kids are torn over the desire to live in the small town they were raised in and its lack of career opportunities.
For Gravell, the county's top elected official, he said hearing those stories made it even more clear that the project would be "transformational" for Taylor. He added that "it is possible" this isn't the only multibillion-dollar project the commission will approve this year in Williamson County, adding that the stretch of land between Taylor and Kalahari Resorts/Dell Diamond in Round Rock is some of the most sought-after land for development in the country,
"I think Samsung will do for Taylor tenfold what Dell did for Round Rock — or more," he said, pointing to the fact that the company has also agreed to provide at least 24 internships every year to area residents over the next few decades.
Gravell told a story about how during during the February winter storm, Taylor-based Texas Beer Co. helped distribute gallons of bottled water, calling it emblematic of Taylor's neighborly culture. He acknowledged the complications inherent when change comes to such a city but expressed confidence it won't lose its small-town charm.
"That's not going to change. It doesn't matter if it's Bush's Chicken or a new company at the (RCR Taylor Logistics Park)," he said.
Taylor had a population of 16,267 in 2020, a 7% increase from 15,191 in 2010, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. That was a stark contrast to the growth experienced across Williamson County, which saw its population surge 44% to 609,017 over the same time period. Cities like Georgetown, Round Rock and even Hutto have grown faster due to proximity to jobs.
The Taylor Economic Development Corp. website lists 19 major private-sector employers with a combined total of roughly 2,400 workers in the city. The Samsung factory alone would be almost as big.
Currently, Taylor's biggest primary industry employers include the Electric Reliability Council of Texas Inc., which has its operations center in the city; Durcon Inc., a manufacturer of chemical-resistant tabletops and sinks used in science labs; Floydco Inc., a residential, commercial and automotive glass company; and Burrows Manufacturing LP, a cabinet maker.
The city's corporate community also seems eager to welcome Samsung, as demonstrated by ERCOT, the largest employer in Taylor.
"Since we first located our headquarters in Taylor in 2001, we have enjoyed the unique combination of skilled professionals and quality of life," a spokesperson said in a statement. "We would be happy to welcome Samsung to the community."
John Boyd Jr., principal at Boca Raton, Florida-based site selection firm The Boyd Company Inc., said Samsung would become the most prominent employer in the Taylor area if the project lands there.
“Samsung will be the largest industrial employer in Taylor. It will be the employer of choice,” Boyd said. “Given its attractive wage and benefit practices, it'll be able to hire the best and brightest, given its dominance in that labor shed of Williamson County."
Rydell, a Taylor native who has worked as assistant general counsel for ERCOT for more than a decade, said that just being an option for Samsung has opened a lot of eyes, prompting "a lot of attention from industries and companies who wouldn't necessarily have considered Taylor."
"It would be easy to get overwhelmed and subsumed by all of that," he said. "It's just going to be critical for leadership with the city of Taylor and our city's team to be very thoughtful and mindful of how that growth occurs."
Throwing it backThe downtown Taylor of today is still populated with quaint local shops, friendly shopkeepers and vintage signage. But those who work in downtown said that wasn't the case until recently, as residents stepped in to save old buildings that grew increasingly derelict due to decades of disrepair.
Down the street from Louie Mueller Barbecue, Judy Blundell bought the 33,000-square-foot historic McCrory Timmerman Building with a partner in 2016. When renovating the building, once home to the Sturgis-Goldstein department store, they found items that dated back to 1866 and windows that were all bricked in. The building is now 100% leased, to restaurants, a brewery, a wine bar, studios, loft apartments and offices.
"Taylor was the only town that hasn't been run over with concrete, strip malls and urban sprawl," said Blundell, an artist originally from Wisconsin who studied architecture in Australia before buying land in Taylor in 2002. "It was one of the last remaining towns that still had enough substantial buildings in the heart of its downtown to probably stand on its own and not just be gobbled up by Austin."
Another example of large-scale repurposing can be found at the old Taylor High School, which is now home to a beer brewery, ice cream shop, other local businesses and a food truck park, while others are renovating the city's old mansions.
"There is a lot of money coming back into the town at the moment, and they're starting to pull it back together and renovate the old homes and a lot of the buildings," Blundell said. "I think if Taylor wants to maintain its own identity, it's essential."
JD Gins is co-founder and head brewer at Texas Beer Co., which opened in 2016 in the McCrory Timmerman Building. He and his business partner, Ian Davis, had been looking around the metro for places to open a brewery, and they were turned off by Austin because the beer industry was already crowded.
They were attracted to Taylor because of its diversity — in political opinions, population, incomes — as well as its history. They received a $400,000 economic incentives package the city of Taylor and the Taylor EDC to help start the company.
"There's a lot of history and a lot of good bones. So the revitalization of Taylor has certainly come under way. Some people say that's our fault in a bad way and some people say that's our fault in a good way," said Gins, who was formerly the director of the Travis County Democratic Party. "Not everybody is thrilled that Taylor is changing. ... As Austin grows, some people don't like the encroachment on their small town, but a lot of people — a majority of people — like the revitalization, do like seeing the restoration of these historic buildings. It's definitely underway and it's been fun to be part of."
Blundell said many business owners are excited about the prospect of Samsung coming, but are "a little bit concerned" it could mean more big box stores, which could always result in small local shops going under.
"Taylor was almost untouched until about five or six years ago as far as people moving out there," she said. "It's going to be interesting, that's for sure."
The excitement even prompted Gins' co-founder, Ian Davis, to promise to make a Samsung-inspired beer if the project lands in Taylor.
Mueller — who moved away from Taylor for more than two decades to work in professional sports, returning to take over the barbecue restaurant for his dad shortly before his death — said, for a long time, many in the city resisted change. But that changed with the replacement of what he called the "old guard."
“I think the new ideas, the new energy will all be beneficial on some level of pushing change. Is it change everybody is going to agree with? I think the disagreement is a smaller faction than it used to be, which is allowing things like the Samsung deal to get done," he said.
Pushed out Samuel Adams, owner of thrift store Trade Up on West Fourth Street, said he's noticed a change over the last few years, and pinned it on the opening of the brewery, after which he said his sales doubled overnight. Business is still hard to predict, dependent on events like a bike race or a concert bringing in tourists. But Adams said he now meets people daily who moved to Taylor from places such as California or New York.
Adams moved from Arizona to Texas in search of a more rural lifestyle, ultimately settling in Taylor with his wife and buying their first of two homes in 2005. He joked that his property tax went up about $200 the first decade, before sky-rocketing about $2,000 in the last three years. He said he's had friends who have been priced out of Taylor.
"If you’re going to sell, you’re going to have to move out to the boonies or to a different state, and we’re not willing to do that," said Adams, who opened Trade Up six years ago and, despite the changes, is still excited about the prospect of Samsung coming.
Housing prices have traditionally been much lower in Taylor than the rest of the Austin metro. Median sale price on 26 homes was $210,000 in January 2020, compared with $308,000 across the metro, according to Austin Board of Realtors data.
As of January 2021, the median price in Taylor was $218,150 on 21 sales — an increase of 4% from the same month a year prior. That was the same month Taylor was first publicly tied to the Samsung search by the Wall Street Journal.
As of July, median price had spiked to $314,000, a 44% increase from the first month of the year. At the same time, the median home price in Williamson County climbed nearly 40% to $445,000. It's impossible to separate the effects of the Samsung search from the wider frenzy in metro Austin housing, but a huge factory and a new No. 1 largest employer in Taylor would certainly add pressure to the market.
Taylor Median Sale Price
Infogram"You can speculate whether the Samsung expansion had anything to do with it, or if it was the overall demand for housing," said Romeo Manzanilla, broker in charge for Realty Austin and past president of ABOR.
From Q2 2020 to this year's second quarter, home starts increased 58% to 210, according to data from housing market research firm Zonda.
"It’s still a relatively small submarket, but to be fair to Taylor, that’s been a bit by design," Zonda Senior Vice President Bryan Glasshagel said. "It’s in the path of growth, but they’ve maintained a bit of that small-town charm."
The experience of Gins, the Texas Beer Co. co-founder, encapsulates why many people move to Taylor — and what's at stake if a wave of redevelopment transforms the town.
"It's definitely a change of pace, but I really enjoy my time here," he said. "I live in a little Bermuda Triangle: my house is a mile away, I have a production brewery which is a mile away from our taproom. I average five miles a day of commuting. It's different but it's great."
Gins has found the city of Taylor's approach to planning encouraging. He said, unlike some other places on Austin's periphery, Taylor has been able to evolve without totally turning into suburban sprawl.
"You can reject the growth and change, or you can have a proactive approach and try to build something that maintains good character and also allows for growth and change," he said. "I think Taylor is doing a pretty good job striking that balance."
Blundell thinks that the city has been able to maintain its charm.
"I think that's what sets Taylor apart ... is that we don't have a freeway yet we can be on a freeway in any direction in 10 or 12 minutes," she said. "So the lifestyle is a lot better. If you want to raise a family or start a business, it's very much a community where the people matter more than the cars."
With Samsung nearing a decision, Rydell said he can't go out in Taylor without someone asking when the company is going to make an announcement.
"There's an excitement in the community. There's a sense of pride that Taylor is in the mix for something that is just so critically important, from a national standpoint, because we know that the chip shortage is causing a strain on the economy," he said.
He is the first to acknowledge that if Samsung picks Taylor, things are going to change. More housing. More businesses. More developments. But to him, it would be worth it.
"There's a reason we all live in Taylor right now and it's because we love the community and we love the feel of Taylor right now. I understand people when they express a reservation and uncertainty about what this could mean," he said. "But overwhelmingly there's an excitement, enthusiasm about this project. I'm very confident that a project like this can work hand-in-hand with the kind of demand we can all be proud of."
Michelle Pitcher contributed to this article.
What would Samsung plant mean for Taylor? Main Street business owners react - Austin Business Journal (bizjournals.com)