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May 21, 2014
Joe Mathews: Recruited by a Texas community

Toyota.JPG(May 21 - By Joe Mathews, Zócalo Public Square)

After Toyota announced it was relocating 2,000 jobs from the Southern California city of Torrance and setting up a North American headquarters in the north Dallas suburbs, I wondered: What's it like to be recruited by Texas?

Now I know firsthand.

Toyota's new home is in the city of Plano, on the border of the city of Frisco, where many employees will live. Frisco takes its name from San Francisco (the destination of the railroad that once ran through town), and so I reached out to city leaders. Within minutes, they'd invited me to meet with economic development officials and a deputy mayor.

Curiously, my hosts - whom I met in a Frisco office park one morning last week - didn't talk about the usual subjects that have made the California-vs.-Texas debate such a familiar and polarizing conversation. They didn't tell me that my taxes would be lower or that my life would be less regulated. They did talk about the lower housing prices (you can get a very nice four-bedroom home in Frisco for about $300,000) but only at my prodding.

What they talked about most was children - and their education.

Frisco has one of the fastest growing school districts in the country, adding thousands of students every year. Despite that growth, Frisco has chosen to limit its high schools to no more than 2,100 students, reflecting a philosophy that every child in town should be "known by name and need." This strategy had worked. In a 2013 Dallas Morning News list of the best neighborhoods for public schools in the north Texas region, eight of the top 10 neighborhoods were in the Frisco school district. And Frisco voters just approved a $775 million school construction bond (a comparably sized bond in Los Angeles Unified would exceed $20 billion), with nearly 80 percent of the vote.

As my recruiters drove me around town, I saw quickly that such family-centered investment didn't stop with schools. Frisco has more than 40 park sites, including a 380-acre centerpiece, Grand Park. The town has all kinds of businesses and housing developments (from gated communities to urban-style apartments) and so many athletic facilities that I lost count. Among these is a Toyota Stadium and training facility for the Major League Soccer team FC Dallas - which the public schools use, too.

I could see how Frisco's faith in growth and diversity would be irresistible to a global company like Toyota. The city website posts a new population estimate on the first day of every month. People in Frisco love to chart their growth, from new fire stations and schools to pieces of public art on display (210 and counting). The city's written materials declare that Frisco is for you if "You Are Progressive" and "You Are International," and boast that residents speak 73 languages.

Frisco's pattern of development, while extraordinarily rapid (the population nearly tripled in the previous decade), was hardly haphazard. The local sales tax is set at 2percent - the highest permitted in Texas - and developers must adhere to Frisco's regulations on everything from signs and landscaping to energy efficiency. The city's devotion to its five-year comprehensive plans give the place a tightly governed feel that I've never experienced in any California community, save Irvine.

Governance and long-term planning might well be Frisco's greatest advantage over California cities, which lack the autonomy and steady revenue to do this work. Frisco hired George Purefoy as its first city manager in 1987 - and he's still on the job (and his name is on the new city hall).

When a company moves halfway across the country, the financial incentives get attention. The state of Texas is giving Toyota $40 million for moving, and Frisco's neighbor city, Plano, which will have Toyota's headquarters just inside its city limits, doled out a $6.75 million economic development grant plus millions more in tax incentives to Toyota. But you can't just leave to chase a check - you need to have an attractive destination.

My Texas trip showed me how absurd it is to compare two giant states that contain so many different places and regions. California isn't competing with Texas so much as our communities are competing with their very best communities. Yes, California is artistically and technologically innovative. So is Austin. Los Angeles is among the most diverse cities in the world; Houston, by some measures, is even more diverse. Many California communities will say they put children first, but look at what Frisco does for its kids.

After three hours, my recruiters wanted to show me even more of Frisco, but I had another appointment to keep. I don't think I'm moving to north Dallas. It's not my home. But it's easy to see how it could be.

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.