Florence is a town of “about 1,136 people,” says Mayor Mary Condon. “Well, we’re known as the friendliest town in Texas, that’s our little moniker, and like every other place, the people who live here make it unique.”
The small town has about 10 or 12 city employees, but mostly it’s run by volunteers, she says. The people working in the local library, those on the planning and zoning commission, the chamber of commerce: all volunteers.
But Florence is growing, slightly, and so are the areas just around town. Condon says she and other officials believe there are going to be some new residential subdivisions going up around the Florence’s outskirts. Condon acknowledges that the expansion will bring some changes, like to the local schools, but she’s excited for the business potential these new residents may bring in.
What the mayor really wants is for Florence to expand its burgeoning artists’ community.
She sites the relatively cheap cost of living there — compared to Austin, and even compared to nearby Georgetown and Killeen — the abundance of old, empty buildings sitting along the T-shaped streets of downtown, and the fact that many artists have already taken up residence there.
There’s Condon’s husband, Bob Reagan, a sculptor. In fact, he and Condon own a shop together: Texas Carved Stone, an architectural and sculptural stone-carving business. None of their business is in Florence, though; they ship their works out all across Texas and the U.S.
And there’s local best-selling sci-fi/fantasy author Elizabeth Moon, who also lives and writes in Florence. Condon hopes to draw more artists and musicians to add some vibrancy to a somewhat-empty downtown.
“We believe we could accommodate some musicians and artists, and they can live here but still be close to where they can perform and show,” she says.
A lot of the changes Florence has seen lately have come about due to a highway loop — an extension to Highway 195 — that allows drivers to bypass the town instead of going through it. Where Florence formerly saw a lot of traffic — up to 13,000 vehicles per day passed through, Condon says — the loop, which sits on the eastern edge of Florence, has diverted a lot of that.
But the mayor is optimistic. She says that out of those 13,000 cars, “most of them didn’t stop,” anyway.
“I believe ultimately it will be a good thing…I think the loop gives us an opportunity to have some businesses out on the loop that will cater to the highway traffic and then, keep our downtown as a more ‘special area,'” she says. “One of our citizens has built a new restaurant right out on the loop, so that’s been done, and I’ve heard some talk.”
Building out the loop businesses for highway travelers while courting artists with low rents for studio, practice and gallery spaces is Condon’s basic plan going forward. She loves Florence, she says, because she likes a “small town atmosphere.”
“I like the community, that you know people,” says Condon.
“And I’ve watched this community over the years come together in times of need, and they do so well,” she says, recalling a fire that started about six miles from town a few years ago.
“This fire quickly got out of control and was coming toward the city. I watched for two days as everybody in town came together. The businesses donated food, because we had to support all of these outside people who were coming in to help fight the fire. The churches opened up, and contributed, and took care of the people that had come to assist with this fire,” says Condon.
She’s been here since 1978, and she says the town was “smaller” then, with more homeowners, and was less of the transient community that it’s become.
“[We’re more] rent-based. A lot of that I think has to do with, you know, we’re close to Ft. Hood, and a lot of the soldiers and their families choose to live here, and so they’re constantly moving. We’ve had, I would say, an increase in our Hispanic population over time because we also have a lot of quarries out in this area, a lot of employment opportunities there.
One issue that Florence is dealing with now, and as most small older towns have to deal with when they grow a bit, is that of infrastructure. They need to update their utilities, an expensive proposition for which they have to apply for both state and federal grants.
“There’s apprehension there, about, can you handle the growth? But there’s also excitement, because it’s fun to see new things come in,” says Condon.
And she’d love for the “new things” to be artists and musicians setting up shop and revitalizing downtown.
“We have some empty buildings that I think would be perfect for, say, artists’ and musicians’ studios, and practice spaces, and again, our cost of living is probably less than in Austin, and I think it would be a good place for artists to come and be able to pursue their art and still be close to Austin to be able to make a living at it.”
She also mentions the possibility of attracting startups to Florence’s cheaper-than-Austin empty workspaces downtown.
“We have fine internet access,” she says.