Grants put new face on Leander's Old Town

Thanks to Leander's Old Town Incentive program, an eclectic mix of small businesses have opened up shop


When Linda Costa was looking for a site for a new bakery, a new grant program helped seal the deal on a location in Old Town Leander. 

Costa was the first recipient of a grant under the Old Town Incentive Program, first approved by the city council in 2015 as a way to help revitalize the old downtown area west of U.S. 183 between Hero Way and South Street. 

The Casa Costa Bake Shop received a $30,000 grant to help with relocation and site acquisition costs, and eventually opened in August 2017. The bakery now employs seven people. 

Costa said she first heard about the program while attending a Living Leander Expo event.

“The president of the Chamber came up to me and said ‘Linda, we have what you need,’” she said. “It was a real motivator to get us going. It pushed us forward.”

Complying with Leander’s new Smart Code — a requirement for all businesses coming into Old Town — meant that Costa had to negotiate with city planners for the location of her parking lot and the width of sidewalks around her corner lot. But she said those delays were a small price to pay for being able to finance her project.

“We would still be scrambling to come up with the extra money for the downpayment without the city grant,” she said.

The incentive program is designed to support businesses that will add to property values and sales tax receipts for the city. Applicants submit a rough business plan to allow the city to estimate the amount of a grant.

Mark Willis, Economic Development Director for the city, said the idea is for Leander coffers to grow at least as much as the amount of the grant within five years. Only about $37,000 of the council’s original $250,000 budget for the grants remains available.

“The council said when they approved the program to spend the budget on good projects and come back for more funding,” Willis said. “We have some pending applications and an audit to get through, but I would like to see us get another $250,000 next year.”

Incentive grants are capped at $100,000 and have ranged so far from a recent $3,000 reimbursement to Smooth Hair & Waxing for sidewalk improvements to a $75,000 commitment to Ponyfoot Public House to convert a property located east of U.S. 183 into a brew pub.

The city council approves the grants, and recently added a third type of assistance it can offer to businesses. Originally, funds were offered to help finance loans or street and utility repairs were performed by the city and counted as “in kind” contributions. Now, applicants can also pay for improvements and get reimbursed with funds from the grant budget.

The Old Town Incentive Program does not have a marketing budget. And it apparently doesn’t need one. Willis said he has several businesses looking at applying for grants including the owners of an ice cream parlor.

“The city has been trying to build a synergy between businesses and the local community in the Old Town area,” he said. “Demand for business real estate continues to be strong in Leander and we might see a day when the council will need to consider expanding Old Town.”

Upcoming businesses 

The city approved a $50,000 grant in November for 5th Element Brewing planned for a 1,200 square foot home on East Evans Street.

Owners Kimberly Destefano and Michael Brune are hoping to close on the site for the brew pub in early 2018. Destefano is an Austin physician and Brune is a home brewing enthusiast who likes to share beer chemistry ideas on his Facebook page.

“The outskirts of Austin don’t have a lot of places for locals to go,” Destefano said. “We want to have a small town feel but also to grow with the local community. The city has been very supportive and helpful.” 

Willis said the Ponyfoot Public House, which received its grant in November 2016, and 5th Element Brewing have locations in an area that is primed for growth. He said a new Austin Community College campus is opening in the Fall near the eastern edge of Old Town and a hospital clinic is slated to open there in 2018.

“The lead time for some of our grant recipients may have been longer than they wanted but the delay may turned out to be a blessing with these new developments coming,” Willis said.

He said he works closely with Willis and the city’s economic development staff whenever he has clients who are interested in locating in the Old Town area.