When Bob Bennett came to visit his friend who was city manager of a small town called Round Rock, he was less than impressed.
“I felt so sorry for him,” he said. “It was like being in Siberia. There was no traffic.”
Still, it was not long until Bennett was convinced to leave his position as a Houston city planner and move to the town with a population of less than 4,000.
In 1976, Bennett started as a city planner in Round Rock. Almost 30 years later, he ended his career as city manager of a community that now has nearly 90,000 residents. Under his watch, Round Rock became home to Dell Inc., Old Settlers Park, Dell Diamond and St. David’s Round Rock Medical Center.
Yet he is quick to attribute the city’s explosive growth to the city council and his fellow city employees. His predecessor, Jim Hislop, had a vision of Round Rock that at the time seemed improbable.
“I thought he was out of his mind,” Bennett said. “He would try to take me to the fields and show me what he saw. We spent a day digging out of the mud when he was trying to show me his future city—but it all came true.”
Innovative approach to growth
It quickly became apparent to Bennett that the city of farmers did not have the infrastructure in place—or the resources to build the infrastructure—that would handle the spillover coming from Austin. So when the city staff could not finance something from the budget, they tried to find reasons for someone else to fund it.
“The story really has never been told,” Bennett said. “There were so many creative things that were done to sustain growth.”
To get the city’s first hospital, St. David’s Medical Center, Bennett and his colleagues looked for a private non-profit entity that would finance the project. At the time, most cities avoided the process because of the challenges of working with the Texas Health Commission for a permit or license. At first, their application was denied, but Round Rock litigated the case and won.
He also remembers how the city encouraged developers to build most of the community’s parks with prime land as an amenity to a project—rather than using the cheapest and less workable property, which was the typical practice.
That is also how they built the city’s first golf course that would draw high-end real estate growth from the west side of Austin. Developers donated the land, with the city adding 15 acres. A wealthy tax base moved to the area, as a result, which justified the money invested.
The Forest Creek Golf Club community had just been developed when some secretive representatives of an unnamed technology company came to visit Bennett and some of his colleagues. They wanted to research the possibility of moving to the pro-business city, but were not ready to reveal their identity.
Bennett sent his son Brooks, who liked to hang around the office, to write down the men’s license plate. He tracked the information to Minnesota and thought the men worked for 3M. They were actually from Dell Computers, a company that would redefine Round Rock’s economy.
A place to stay
When he began working in Round Rock, Bennett remembers the council envisioned creating a community where children could grow up, find jobs and stay.
“It is a goal we realized,” he said.
His own son, Brooks, works in the city’s communications department. While his daughter has left for now, Bennett expects she will move back. Even as children they never wanted to stay away too long from their parents’ downtown house, where Bennett and his wife still live.
“They would say, ‘We’ve got to get back to the Rock,” he said. “That’s how I feel. Things ain’t right until you get back to the Rock.”
It was not easy to convince Bennett he should move to Round Rock in the ‘70s.
“Now you couldn’t move me out of here with dynamite,” he said.