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Small Towns, Big Growth: A Commitment To Local Businesses, Historic Downtown Drove The Meteoric Rise Of Celina

Every town has a story to tell and nowhere is that more true than in the rapidly changing and growing Dallas-Fort Worth area. This story is the final installment in our bimonthly limited series, Small Towns, Big Growth, which profiles communities undergoing rapid expansion.

When charting a course for economic success, most growing cities zero in on the big names: H-E-B, Chick-fil-A, Walmart. But not Celina. In a David and Goliath scenario, this city championed the little guy and that strategy paved the way for this once-rural community to become the fastest-growing city in Texas. 

Celina is a fast-growing North Texas suburb located about 42 miles north of Dallas.

“We love small businesses and we love entrepreneurs — ultimately that is what makes us slightly different from other cities,” City Manager Jason Laumer said. “Nothing against national tenant retail — we like them — but they don’t really make you different.”

The story of Celina’s growth is closely tied to the expansion of the Dallas North Tollway, which has been creeping north to accommodate population increases in Collin, Denton and Grayson counties for the past 20 years. This movement, along with continued development activity along Preston Road, have been major drivers for the city’s success, said Alexis Jackson, director of Celina’s Economic Development Corp.

“We’re not reinventing the wheel in Celina,” she said. “We just have to look to the south to understand the growth pattern and the development. All of the major commercial businesses having a Preston Road or a North Dallas Tollway address is paramount to their business success.”

Expanded road infrastructure led to massive population booms in Celina. According to the Census Bureau, there were close to 17,000 residents in Celina in 2020, up from 6,000 in 2010. But Jackson said these numbers are drastically lower than what the city’s building permits suggest. A recent analysis by the EDC places the city’s population at around 36,000 and predicts that number will nearly double by 2026.

As Celina became more accessible, developers began building master-planned communities to address the strong demand for housing. Two major residential developments — Light Farms and Carter Ranch — opened around 2012, and the number of single-family home permits has been on the rise ever since. According to city documents, the number of residential building permits nearly tripled from 965 in 2017 to 2,516 in 2021. There are also more than 5,400 multifamily units in the construction or design phase.

Commercial activity quickly followed the increase of rooftops in Celina, Jackson said. Businesses like McDonald’s, Ace Hardware, 7-Eleven and Tractor Supply Co. established locations in the city early on, which created massive spikes in sales tax revenue. In 2015, the city recorded $734K in sales tax. Six years later, revenue totaled $2.9M.

A rendering shows how Downtown Celina will look post-expansion of the square.

Despite Celina’s rapid growth, many large-scale retailers resisted coming to the city until its population reached 30,000. That’s when Jackson decided to turn the EDC’s focus to recruiting small businesses, especially in Celina’s historic downtown area.

“We have concentrated completely on the small businesses, and we believe strongly that is what is going to maintain our small-town charm even though we are growing so rapidly,” she said. 

Celina’s downtown square has for several years been the subject of an in-depth revitalization effort. In 2019, the city adopted a Downtown Master Plan that outlined its vision for the area. Since then, it has worked to remove barriers for businesses and developers through a large-scale rezoning effort. The city is also in the midst of an infrastructure overhaul that will replace all of the water and sewer systems downtown, and it plans to expand the square to accommodate more events as the city grows.

“Downtown has been here for 100 years, so it needs some love and attention,” Laumer said. “We are really conscious of trying to preserve the past, but also move forward toward the future.”

At close to 80 square miles, Celina has one of the largest planning areas in the region, but as of today, only about 36 square miles are within city limits. A state law passed in 2017 made involuntary annexations illegal in Texas, which Jackson said was especially prohibitive for growing cities like Celina. In response, city officials have become adept at convincing developers who buy land in the extraterritorial jurisdiction to come into city limits by leveraging a variety of development agreements that sweeten the deal. 

“You have to believe that there’s a win-win — that is paramount to everything we do in Celina,” Jackson said. “A lot of cities, especially cities surrounding us, believe that development is bad or that developers are bad, and then they enter into the discussion with that mindset. We don’t. We enter into the discussion that the city can win, the developer can win and the community can win.”

Celina’s reputation as a city that shepherds development through quickly has helped it attract major deals in recent years, Laumer said. Tellus Group recently announced it would bring a $1.5B master-planned community called Mosaic to Celina, and Legacy Hills, a project that will include 11,000 single-family and multifamily homes, is under development by Centurion American. Laumer said there is also around 100K SF of retail construction in the pipeline.

“Just being friendly and fast goes a long way for developers because what they really want is certainty,” he said. “They can factor the cost into their development as long as you don’t change the rules on them mid-stream.”

The city's Economic Development Corp. is housed in a historic building downtown.

The medical industry has also set its sights on Celina. In January, Methodist Health System announced it would build a $200M hospital on 46 acres at the intersection of the Dallas North Tollway and FM 428. Jackson said this deal should position the city as a premier healthcare destination.

“We have a number of other hospitals looking at sites,” she said. 

Despite fast growth, city officials in Celina understand that many people moved to the once-rural community to escape the hustle and bustle of Dallas’ urban core. Decision-makers like Laumer seek to honor that by implementing policies that protect Celina’s small-town charm. The city’s Neighborhood Vision Book requires that each new development dedicates between 10% and 20% to open space, and those gathering spaces must be within walking distance of each home. 

“We want to preserve our heritage and small-town feel, so we are putting things in place to try and maintain that as we grow,” he said. “The connectivity, the open space, the trails — making people feel like they’re more in a neighborhood than a subdivision.”

Unlike some cities, the pandemic was a force multiplier for growth in Celina. As the first gigabit city in the state of Texas, every home and business in Celina has access to gigabit-speed fiber, which has meshed well with the transition to remote work. Still, Laumer said one of the city’s goals is to attract more corporate development along the Tollway, which is currently being expanded from Highway 380 to the Grayson County line. 

“It’s not rocket science — we want office along the Tollway very similar to how it looks to the south,” he said. “Our focus will be trying to develop more of the work side of the live-work-play. We’re very good on the live and play side — we will continue to work on the work side.”