AUSTIN (KXAN) — As Central Texas continues to grow, one small Hill Country town is getting together to ensure it can keep its history alive and intact.
There are plans to expand U.S.Highway 281 in the Blanco County area. Many in the City of Blanco are worried about what the project could mean for the downtown area.
Officials with the Texas Department of Transportation said they are in the early stages of working on a plan that would create a four-lane divided road along U.S. 281 between the Comal County line and U.S. 290.
A historic prescription
Many in the city worry this plan includes an expansion through Blanco’s downtown, where there are many historic buildings, including a pharmacy dating back to the early 1900s.
Siobhan Atchley, Blanco Pharmacy & Wellness’ owner, is one of the several business owners who are concerned about TxDOT’s plans, saying, “everybody’s open to having it go around except maybe the people whose property it’s going to go through, and so I feel sensitive to that, but maybe somehow they can find people that are willing to allow that to happen, so we can preserve our downtown.”
The owner added, “We all love the places that we have down here that have been here for a long time and we don’t want that to be ruined by another Interstate 35.”
Atchley is the fourth owner since the pharmacy opened at the turn of the century.
“I’ve been here for 11 years. We’ve owned it for 10 family-owned, independent business, single location,” she said. “Technically, the oldest pharmacy in Texas that’s been in the same location.”
Blanco Pharmacy & Wellness is able to compound medicine such as creams, tablets, capsules and suppositories. The pharmacy also delivers prescriptions across the county and service facilities such as nursing homes, assisted living facilities and drug and alcohol rehab centers.
“It’s really special,” she said about the pharmacy. “It’s really it’s the best place I’ve ever worked and I love it.”
In an email, a TxDOT official wrote, “the project does not include any changes through downtown Blanco.”
While some Blanco neighbors said that may be the case, for now, they do not expect that to be the case long term, and that’s why Mike Arnold with the board of directors for the Blanco Chamber of Commerce said he is working with TxDOT and the community to come up with a viable route that would take traffic around town versus through downtown.
Monday, the Blanco Chamber of Commerce will host a meeting inside the Old Blanco County Courthouse on the square starting at 6:30 p.m. Arnold said the goal behind the meeting is to provide the community with information and eventually, come up with a route together.
“We’re getting the community together, asking everybody to draw your line,” Arnold said. “Let’s get together and see how those overlay, and let’s go from there.”
“There are a lot of folks out there saying ‘Write a petition and picket and protests.’ There’s a time and a place for that, but that’s not now,” Arnold said. “If you’re a Blanco stakeholder, you have ideas, you have expertise on the area, get out a map of the area, look at how U.S. 281 goes now and where they’re trying to connect it, which is just south of town, just north of town, and start drawing lines, see what makes sense to you. It’s not as easy as you think.”
Arnold said the community has resources available that will help them accomplish this goal.
“There are some amazing people in the greater community that really love Blanco that are really heavy hitters in the area of surveying highway construction, environmental impact studies, engineering, all of that, that are weighing in and saying, ‘Look, I want to volunteer, I love Blanco. I just want to be a part. Let’s get this done.’ When we get some lines on the map, we can really vet them pretty thoroughly before we even float them up to TxDOT to sign off on,” he explained.
Future relief route?
A lot of people KXAN spoke to said growth is coming, and they want to be prepared.
Many of the neighbors said they understood a lot of 18-wheelers and big trucks depend on U.S. 281 as an alternative route to I-35.
“I think the confusion is that people are understanding that 281 in town is also expanding and that is not true,” Blanco Mayor Rachel Lumpee said.
In May, Lumpee said TxDOT approached the city to inform them about their U.S. 281 project. The mayor then said she requested TxDOT look into a relief route — separate from the U.S. 281 project.
“One of the things about the relief route is acquiring all the land and that’s why we’re encouraging our citizens and myself, to talk with our state and federal leaders to see if they have any help that they can provide to us to acquire the land for the relief route.”
She said she’ll be at Monday’s meeting joining the chamber.
“The goal of the relief route study is to see if it’s possible to relieve some of the traffic and the trucks on 281, currently, to go around town, so we don’t have the traffic that is building up,” she said.
TxDOT expects to complete the environmental studies by early 2024 on the U.S. 281 project. Construction will depend on funding, which at this time the agency does not have. At the end of next month, TxDOT will hold a public meeting in person and virtually to gather community feedback.