Plano, Texas Strives to Be a ‘City of Excellence’ as it Manages Rapid Growth

PLANO, Texas — There are so many businesses in this bustling North Texas city that the municipal government gets more than half of its revenues from companies, allowing it to keep taxes low for residents. The median household income is $94,300, one and a half times the state average. Plano hosts 210,000 jobs, according to officials — one for every adult in this city. It has received national plaudits for its parks, and repeatedly is honored for its affordability and livability.

The “City of Excellence,” as Plano bills itself, is not just lucky, officials say. The city’s success is all about very careful planning — decisions to manage the city’s tremendous growth in a way that promotes economic development while keeping a sense of community. And it’s a model, Planophiles say, which other growing cities can adopt to achieve a sort of civic work-life balance.

“We have a unique value of being a very strong business community that also has a very strong small town, community focus,” says Shannah Hayley, Plano’s director of marketing and community engagement. “It’s a weird mishmash.”

Plano, which started as a cotton-industry community in the 19th century, saw its population double in the 1960s, reaching 3,000, and then continue to increase with the growth of Dallas to the south. Now, as home to corporate offices of such marquee companies as Frito-Lay, Toyota, Pizza Hut and NTT Data, Plano has become the 69th biggest city in the nation — and the ninth largest in Texas, with a population of 286,000. The Dallas-Plano-Irving area was named by Forbes this year as the third fastest-growing metropolis in America. No longer a bedroom community for Dallas and Ft. Worth, Plano has become a destination in its own right.

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The city has more restaurants per capita than San Francisco, city officials say proudly, and chain eateries are being replaced by chef-driven establishments offering eclectic and international fare, like the Indian-Mexican fusion burritos found on one menu in town. The mix reflects the city’s diversity: 1 in 4 residents is foreign-born, an increase of 30 percent in the immigrant population between 2007 and 2017, says Christina Day, Plano’s director of planning. Among ethnic minorities, Asians are nearly a fifth of Plano’s population, followed by Hispanics, who make up 15 percent.

Plano is big on services for locals. No resident is more than 10 minutes from a park, officials say. The Dallas Area Rapid Transit, or DART, train stops in Plano, easing commutes for those who travel in to and out of Plano for work each day. The fire department will visit residents’ homes, for free, to change smoke detector batteries and to do fire safety audits. The police department does the same, evaluating homes to see if locks are secure and other safety measures are in place to ward off intruders. It appears to be working: Outlets such as WalletHub, SmartAsset and Niche have ranked Plano as among the safest cities in the nation.

Plano also gets plaudits for its green initiatives. In 2017, WalletHub named Plano as one of the top 100 greenest cities in America, while SmartAsset called it one of the best cities for green jobs. Got extra paint from a home improvement project? Plano collects it, mixes it and offers it, for free, to nonprofits so they can renovate their facilities as well.

Part of the secret to Plano’s success is managing development so the city is livable for people of all ages, city officials say. For example, housing cost increases have outpaced inflation, but property taxes are capped for people 65 and older to keep them from being forced out the community. Older people are also given discounts on water and sewer bills.

The big employers, including several tech firms as well as Toyota Motor North America, have drawn millennials to the region — while the city’s median-aged adult population (35- to 54-year-olds) has dropped in the last decade, the number of 20- to 34-year-olds has jumped 7 percent.

Moving from Toyota’s Southern California operations to Plano as part of the company’s relocation of its North American headquarters was a bit of a culture shock, says Mark McLaughlin, 28, but it was worthwhile. Here, McLaughlin says, he can someday own a home and can even drive into Dallas for dinner if he wants. “Can you imagine doing that in L.A.?” he marvels, speculating it would have taken him hours on Interstate 405 to meet friends for dinner in his old home outside the California city.

At the heart of making Plano affordable and attractive to newcomers was creating a strong commercial base to pay for it, Evans says. But at the same time, Plano didn’t want to become some sort of massive corporate park with lots of jobs but no place for people to raise families or have fun. And even when it comes to recreation, Plano tailors the details to the resident consumer. The new pool at the Carpenter Park Recreation Center, for example, is heated a few degrees warmer than usual to accommodate senior citizen water aerobics and youth swimming classes, says Peter Braster, Plano’s director of special projects.

Such amenities would not be possible without corporate tax revenues. For example, Plano lobbied hard to sell the city to Toyota and its workers, sharing specialized marketing pitches, highlighting school districts to people with kids and the nightlife scene to young adults. And the city offers tax abatements, economic development grants and training grants to attract businesses like Toyota, which received $6.75 million in incentives from Plano, not including other grants and incentives from the state, to move about 4,000 jobs to the city.

But while “Plano is clearly a success story,” incentives aren’t a key part of that story, says Nathan M. Jensen, a government professor at the University of Texas Austin.

“The majority of incentives are going to companies that were coming anyway,” says Jensen, coauthor of “Incentives to Pander: How Politicians Use Corporate Welfare for Political Gain.”

Plano is appealing because of its skilled labor force, quality of life and relatively low costs of living, he adds.

While politics and climate may make some people settle elsewhere, “I really think the city’s a model” for other communities, says Pat Evans, who was mayor of Plano from 2002 to 2009. Evans, who has lived in Plano for 46 years, notes that people have come from as far away as Kazakhstan to see how some of the city’s programs work.

“We’re on the cutting edge of everything,” she says. “Nobody wants to move away. It’s really a great place to be.”

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Plano, Texas Strives to Be a ‘City of Excellence’ as it Manages Rapid Growth originally appeared on usnews.com