Six years ago, we thought we dodged a huge bullet. My wife and I had an offer down on a house in Rockwall, but rather than being elated by the prospect of owning our first home, we approached each drive down I-30 with a defeatist sulk. We were buying there only because we thought we couldn’t match our budget to our exacting criteria in Dallas proper. So, when the deal went south on the inspection and we found a suitable replacement in East Dallas, albeit in a particularly crime-ridden corner, we were elated.
Rockwall, circa 2003, may have been a perfectly decent place for someone else. But the fact is I have always been a city snob. I have zero patience for commuting and even less for a wasteland of chain restaurants and Walmarts. All due respect to the Brinkers, we’ll drive 10 miles to avoid a Chili’s.
So how is it that six years later, my wife and I found ourselves floating on the lake, watching Fourth of July fireworks from four municipalities at once, and confessing that we’d both been studying Rockwall County home listings on the sly? Sure, we’re older and closer to having kids, but we’re not ready to hand over our cosmopolitan credentials. We recently bought a sailboat, but with only a 25-minute drive to the dock on a good day, that’s not reason enough to defect permanently.
It is, however, enough to get us in town to take another look and realize that Lake Ray Hubbard has become the coolest place in Dallas-Fort Worth.
If you need evidence, head down to the Harbor at Rockwall on a Thursday night. More than half the year, you’ll find a concert drawing an average of 4,000 people as well as another 60 boatloads anchored offshore. I don’t know anywhere else nearby where that many people gather regularly on a weeknight.
Those people aren’t finding the smatterings of fast-food and megachains I remember from our days of house-hunting. A listing of restaurants clustered around the lake sounds like a who’s who of local dining groups: Gloria’s, Snuffers, Primo’s, the Flying Saucer, Dodie’s—alongside some single-location entrepreneurs. Downtown, Restaurant Ava and Zenata are drawing foodies from Dallas.
Though there’s the obligatory lakeside Bass Pro Shops megaplex, the rest of the area retail has quality local flair. I’ll put the En Fuego Tobacco Shop up against any cigar store in North Texas. Genuine Jake, a boutique focused on Life Is Good-branded merchandise, sprang up because endorser and LPGA golfer Jamie Hullett lives in a condo that is “about a par 5” away from the Harbor. Anytime you visit Genuine Jake, you’ll find a member of the Hullett clan, rather than a surly teenage retail drone. You’re almost as likely to find Shannon Wynne minding the store at his newest Flying Saucer on the Dallas County side of the lake.
But there has to be more to my mania for Rockwall (and neighboring Heath) than eats, entertainment, and shopping. I like Deep Ellum and the West Village, but I’m not talking about moving there. And bars and bands probably weren’t front of mind in July when Family Circle named Rockwall one of America’s “10 Best Towns.”
The go-to guy if you want to know something about Lake Ray Hubbard is Scott Self. His résumé includes numerous sailing championships; a successful soap business; and just about every Rockwall city and county elected position, from councilman, to treasurer, to commissioner, to mayor. He now runs a charter service out of the Hilton on the lake, sailing his hand-built 40-foot wooden catamaran, Seawolf.
According to Self, some of the final pieces in a decades-long plan for Rockwall were falling into place during the very month in 2003 that we decided to shun the suburb. It was then that the city, county, and private developers Sara and Rob Whittle entered into a $97 million partnership to build the Harbor development. The city chipped in for waterfront park space, while the Whittles built the Hilton and the retail development and the county provided tax incentives.
The development, along with a half-dozen residential projects the Whittles have in the area, is part of a plan that stretches back more than three decades, a plan with an intentional limitation of scale.
“This is unlike any standard real estate business model,” Rob Whittle says from his conference room overlooking the lake. “There are no anchor stores, which would almost dictate chains. Even the Ruby Tuesday has a special design.”
The Harbor is just one piece of the plan, Self tells me by cellphone from the deck of Seawolf. “The city vision has been very stable,” he says. “There’s a longer view, an opportunity to say, ‘What do we want the town to be like a decade from now?’ ”
The product of that vision, which dates back to the late ’60s and Mayor Harry Myers, feels more like the Park Cities than Plano. Although Rockwall was the U.S.’s fastest-growing county in 2006, the pace has slowed—on purpose. “There’s just not enough space,” Self says. “Everything is pretty well developed. Like in Highland Park, more people may come in, but it’s because someone sells a house and leaves.”
J.J. Smith, owner-publisher of TheRockwallNews.com, moved to town the same year I didn’t. “We were trying to escape the traffic and hustle of Plano,” he tells me. “Construction and traffic have been horrendous over the last couple years, but now it’s a better place to live. There’s more to do, more restaurants, but still a small-town feel.”
Smith says that the cookie-cutter houses that plague high-growth suburbs are pushed out toward Fate and Royse City, populated with families who want to be closer to Rockwall.
If there’s an emblem of Rockwall’s maintenance of its once-and-future small scale in the face of rapid growth, it’s the school district. Driving around, you notice a lack of temporary buildings, the kind often found at overcrowded North Texas schools.
“We faced a tough issue some time ago,” Self says. “We could have had one big 5-A high school to win state like Allen did. But by building two 4-A schools, we have twice as many class presidents, quarterbacks, and cheerleaders. It’s more expensive that way, but it creates more opportunities. If your kid can make the soccer team, it makes all the difference in the world.
“You came here six years ago,” he adds, “and are shocked at the change. But 60 years from now, I’ll wager that it won’t be that different. It’s a mature community, not some sprawling suburb where you can’t tell one development’s Walmart from the other.”
Bingo. A small-town community on the edge of a major city, with enough entertainment and culture to keep me in trouble, but little danger of succumbing to soul-draining sprawl. I can buy beer at the drugstore without worrying about Dallas’ gerrymandered dry areas. Add the laid-back lake lifestyle and you can count me in despite the commute, assuming I can find a buyer for one very specific East Dallas home.
Write to Mike Orren, publisher and founder of PegasusNews.com, at [email protected].