Nate Funmaker is like the unofficial mayor of downtown Georgetown, Texas. He strolls along the sidewalk that bends around the Williamson County Courthouse, his worn cowboy boots keeping rhythm with the steady traffic. He’s only been here six years, but it seems like a lifetime. He appears to know every business in town – including the ones that have yet to open – and wants to be sure those who come downtown see all that it has to offer.
What he loves about Georgetown is that it captures the artsy vibe of Austin, but maintains a cozy, small-town feel.
Georgetown is blessed with natural wonders, like Blue Hole Park, a scenic lagoon bordered by limestone bluffs along the San Gabriel River, and Inner Space Caverns, one of the best-preserved caves in Texas. It’s first boom in population came in the 1990s, when real estate entrepreneur Del Webb broke ground on Sun City, a large age-restricted, resort-style retirement community. A decade later, the city’s population doubled to about 30,000. Since then, Georgetown’s population has grown even more – to an estimated 70,000 – making it the seventh fastest growing city in the U.S., according to recent Census Bureau population estimates.
The population boom turned farmland on the outskirts of town into family-friendly neighborhoods and spilled the “coolness” of Austin into its historic downtown, creating what is considered “the most beautiful downtown in Texas.” It’s one of the things Funmaker loves most about this city.
“It sounds corny, but there’s a good vibe here. It’s just really cool,” he says.
He’s part of that vibe. His business, Nathaniel’s Master Hat Maker, in one the historic buildings just off the square, is a funky custom hat shop. Funmaker is one of the finest master hatters in the country, and perhaps the only Native American master hatter around. People – some of them famous – come from all around to get fitted for one of Funmaker’s handmade hats, which they pay at least $500 for. He’s working off a year-long waiting list. His customers don’t seem to mind the wait because they know, just like a good pair of boots, a good hat will last a lifetime.
“This is my buddy. My best buddy,” he says about his, a beaver and rabbit fur rodeo-style hat.
But this is Texas heat, so he’s changed into a straw hat to walk downtown, past the elegant Victorian- and Edwardian-style buildings and funky public art displays. A few years ago, the Texas Commission on the Arts designated the 40-block area surrounding the square as a state Cultural District and sponsored a rotating sculpture tour each year complete with a map. One of the mainstays is the hand-blown glass red poppy sculpture. Georgetown is known as the “Red Poppy Capital of Texas” and the brilliant blooms are celebrated each spring with a Red Poppy Festival downtown. In fact, downtown hosts dozens of farmers markets, summer concerts and festivals throughout the year.
Funky, Organic and Cool
When Funmaker opened his shop six years ago just off the square, downtown was already thriving with eclectic shops, like Ken’z Guitars & Music Store, owned and operated by musician Ken Covington. Since then, it’s gotten even more “cool,” growing “organically” as Funmaker describes it, with original new restaurants and shops, like Mesquite Creek Outfitters, an outdoor apparel store and craft beer and wine bar.
Funmaker loves this place, with its 22-foot-tall ceiling, exposed brick walls, and dark hardwood plank flooring. There’s a leather couch and chairs in one corner, wooden tables in another and dozens of displays of clothing opposite a well-equipped bar. Every wall has at least one mounted deer or antelope or mountain goat gazing out over the store.
Leaning against a display table, bearing a big grin, is Brad Strittmatter. He opened Mesquite Creek Outfitters with his friend Cody Hirt five years ago. “It was really hard to describe this to people before we opened, and it’s still hard to describe if they haven’t been here,” Strittmatter says. “But when they walk in the door, they get it.”
Strittmatter and Hirt knew they wanted to open a business in Georgetown because they live here, and they’ve seen how the town’s population has boomed in recent years. They just weren’t sure what kind of business they wanted to open. “We had a million ideas,” Strittmatter says. They also didn’t have a specific location in mind. “We thought about something downtown around the square or off the square or out west.” When this building came available, Strittmatter and Hirt jumped on it, then combined some of their business ideas to create the outdoor clothing store/craft beer and wine bar.
“A place like this wouldn’t have survived here even a few years ago. But now, look at it,” Nate says.
“I don’t know that this concept would work outside downtown Georgetown,” Strittmatter adds.
Much of the success of this downtown district can be credited to the noncompetitive nature of the business owners here. “We all get along,” Strittmatter says. “It’s just a really neat community of business owners. It’s like we’re all in the boat together. There’s a consensus that a rising tide raises all ships. It doesn’t matter to us which store or restaurant or bar on the square someone goes to. They will eventually walk outdoors and walk around the square and realize all the great things we have here.”
Austin real estate developer Bree Carrico was walking the grounds of a mid-century home on the outskirts of downtown Round Rock, property that a local investor had spotted on the banks of Brushy Creek, and proclaimed it “perfect for a boutique hotel,” when she noticed the remnants of a love letter in a pile of leaves and trash. “Dearest Ruby,” it began.
Who was this Ruby? And to whom was she so dear? Carrico would never really find out. Instead, she (along with a marketing team) created a fictitious Ruby, a wanderlust coming of age in the 1930s, who was “inspired by a changing world and challenged by a generation defined by tradition.”
“We imagine she traveled, first to Chicago, then to New York, and as her ambitions grew, to San Miguel, Paris and London,” Carrico says. But she would always come back to her beloved home along Brushy Creek.
In fictitious Ruby’s heyday, Round Rock was a tiny town defined by the International-Great Northern Railroad and named for the large round rock anchored in the limestone bed of Brushy Creek. The rock was used as a landmark on the Chisholm Trail (used in the post-Civil War to drive cattle overland from Texas to Kansas railheads) during the pioneer days, designating a safe low-water place to cross the creek. Wagon wheel ruts can still be seen on the solid limestone streambed.
Round Rock remained a small town throughout most of the 20th century, eventually emerging as a sleepy bedroom community of Austin. But things changed dramatically in the mid-1990s, when multinational computer technology company Dell Technologies moved its headquarters here. Round Rock’s population exploded from about 30,000 to nearly 125,000, making Round Rock one of the fastest growing cities in America.
Sports Capital of Texas
Round Rock is known for its family-friendly vibe with plenty of parks, restaurants and entertainment. But it’s also known as the “Sports Capital of Texas,” thanks in large part to Dell Diamond, home stadium of the Round Rock Express, a AAA Minor League Baseball affiliate of the Texas Rangers.
The city’s various sports venues hosted five national championship tournaments in 2018 alone, including the U.S.A. Deaf Basketball National Tournament, the Quidditch Cup 11, iSET College Table Tennis National Championships, U.S. Lacrosse Women’s Collegiate National Championship, and the Judo Senior National Championships.
With Round Rock’s obvious appeal, real estate developer Carrico could understand the local investor’s interest in building the city’s first boutique hotel in the heart of the town. After a few years of designing and building, the stylistic Ruby Hotel opened its doors in March 2019.
The architecture and interior design are unmistakably mid-century modern with uncluttered, sleek lines and daring accent walls in teal blue or green apple. Hints of the fictional Ruby are scattered about in enlarged library cards with her delicate signature or snippets of the love letter framed and hanging on the walls.
No doubt, if Ruby were here, she’d walk into the historic downtown, shop in the boutiques, dine in the restaurants and enjoy the active nightlife and live music. Perhaps, she’d indulge in one of the famous Texas-sized doughnuts from Round Rock Donuts.
Round Rockers and Austinites aren’t the only ones who see the incredible economic value of this area. In 2018, Kalahari Resorts and Conventions, owned by the Nelson family, broke ground on a $550 million, 350-acre African-themed waterpark and convention center across from Dell Diamond in Round Rock. It officially opened in November 2020, and despite launching in the midst of the pandemic, the resort surpassed its expectations for the year. Round Rock’s Kalahari resort is the fourth of its kind and houses the country’s largest waterpark along with an 80,000-squre-foot adventure park.
“Round Rock proved to be very business friendly,” a company spokesperson says about the decision to invest in Round Rock. “And it has a community and family feel that was important to the Nelson family.”