March 7, 2011 | Statesman | Original Article

Area's Hispanic population booming - and suburbs are seeing most growth

— Half a century ago, Round Rock was Austin's slight neighbor, an oasis of fewer than 2,500 people. Back then the census didn't keep track of the number of Hispanics or Mexican Americans, though longtime barber and community leader Chris Perez recalls there weren't many.

Change has swept over Round Rock since. Countrified became urban. The city transformed into a high-tech capital and, like much of Texas, grew more diverse.

According to new 2010 census data, Round Rock's Hispanic population more than doubled during the past decade to 28,958. Latinos now account for 29 percent of the city's total population, an increase of 7 percentage points from 2000.

Latinos fueled growth throughout Texas, but in large cities like Austin, the Hispanic population has been growing for decades at rates faster than Anglo populations. In suburbs like Round Rock, the surge in Hispanic population growth, first noticed in the 1990s, accelerated in the past decade to head-turning proportions.

Demographers paint a diverse picture of the growing Hispanic population. Latinos living in Central Texas are working class, as well as middle class and increasingly professionals. A majority were born in Texas; others moved from other states or Mexico or beyond.

Business, government and education leaders who are Hispanic say the reasons for Round Rock's appeal are simple: good schools, good jobs and safe neighborhoods.

"Latinos are attracted as anyone else to communities with a high quality of life with emphasis on schools and safety," Round Rock City Council Member Carlos Salinas said.

Round Rock's story echoes one of booming Hispanic growth across the five-county Austin metropolitan region. Hispanics or Latinos (the census uses the terms interchangeably) grew in numbers bigger than ever to surpass the half-million mark in population in 2010. Among racial and ethnic groups, only Asians, with 89.7 percent, had a higher percentage gain in the region. Like the metro area's surge in total population, some of the most dramatic increases in Hispanic residents were in the suburbs.

Among the highlights:

• Williamson County's Hispanic population growth ranked 10th among all counties in the state. It grew by 128 percent to 98,034. Hays County's 92 percent growth ranked 24th in Texas.

• Among all Texas cities, Hutto had the seventh-fastest growth in Hispanic residents, growing more than tenfold to 4,534 in 2010.

• Leander's Hispanic population increased fourfold to 6,500 in 2010; Georgetown's Hispanic population grew just over 100 percent to 10,317.

• Kyle's Latino numbers exploded, from 2,780 in 2000 to 12,979 in 2010. Neighboring Buda grew 300 percent to 2,580.

• Hispanic growth in the bedroom communities did not come at the expense of growth in Austin, where the Latino population leaped by about 77,000 during the past decade, a 38.5 percent increase that put the city's Latino share of the total population at 35 percent (up from 30.6 in 2000). Austin's Hispanic population of 277,000 accounts for more than half of the metro area's total Hispanic population.

But though the surge was robust — Hispanics accounted for 57 percent of Austin's total growth during the decade — it was eclipsed by the 133,000-person Hispanic growth outside of Austin in the five-county metro area.

Put another way, nearly two-thirds of the metro area's Hispanic growth during the past decade came from outside the city of Austin. Latinos now account for 31.4 percent of the 1.7 million population in the metro area — Travis, Williamson, Hays, Bastrop and Caldwell counties. That's a 5-point increase in the percentage share from a decade ago.

"It's pretty remarkable. That's a critical mass ... that I imagine is going to get a lot of people's attention in terms of marketing," said Ryan Robinson, the City of Austin demographer.

"The census validates what we've known all along: that the Hispanic population is a fast-growing demographic," said Andy Martinez, president of the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which represents the five-county region. "We are no longer a special-interest community. We are a significant part of the community."

Martinez said growth is reflected across the metro area in Latino buying power — the chamber says it is $9.2 billion a year; in more Hispanic-owned businesses — 23,000-plus, according to the chamber; and in Latino students in public schools. Hispanic children were nearly 60 percent of students in Austin schools and 26 percent of children in Round Rock schools in 2010. In the current school year, the Hispanic population has increased to 30 percent in Round Rock.