SAN MARCOS, Texas – Protestors from San Antonio, Austin and San Marcos gathered outside San Marcos City Hall on Tuesday to voice their concerns over the development of a new film production studio.
Some publicly vocalized their worries over the impact of this development, such as gentrification, rising house prices and loss of the city’s natural and cultural heritage, while others held various colorful signs with messages like “All Water is Sacred,” “Protect the River” and “People over Profit.”
“As soon as I heard about this film studio going up, I was f*cking furious,” said one of the speakers at the protest. “I cannot imagine anything happening to this beautiful town or its beautiful river.”
The demonstration comes weeks after City Council approved tax incentives for building the massive Hill Country Studios, with members saying the project will be an economic boon for the fast-growing community.
However, environmentalists are worried this new development will become a threat to the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone, which is the primary source of water for approximately two million people in South Central Texas and the Hill Country, including residents of San Antonio, San Marcos and Austin.
The five-year tax incentives were approved by City Council in the form of a Chapter 380 Economic Development Agreement with Hill Country Group, LLC.
With a total capital investment of $264 million, the 820,000-square-foot facility will include production stages, workshops, offices, and support spaces. The construction of this film studio will be completed in three phases starting from April 2023 to August 2025.
Officials hope the project will bring in big names like Netflix, Disney and others in the film industry.
The City of San Marcos expects the development of Hill Country Studios to bring in more than 1,000 jobs and a 249% return on investment over 10 years. Officials say the project will retain $11.4 million and rebate $4.6 million in property taxes for 10 years starting in 2025.
“The film studio represents a significant capital investment in San Marcos, bringing jobs and visitors to our community and diversifying our economy. But when you look at the type of trades that they’ll be needing, a lot of them are locally available,” said Joe Pantalion, Assistant City Manager at the City of San Marcos, in an interview with KSAT 12. “Now this represents a local option to employ up to 1,200 San Marcoans for each of the film productions that are done here.”
City officials said they are taking all the necessary steps to do what is best for the city in terms of economic activity and environmental protection. As the City has limited tools to stop the development, it is trying to regulate the project.
“San Marcos has a long history of protecting our river and aquifer, and we have some of the strongest environmental regulations along the corridor,” Pantalion said.
“The project’s better for the environment simply because of the amount of impervious cover associated with the film studio, which is 48% impervious cover versus the 80% impervious cover that would be involved with a commercial development at this site,” Pantalion said. “The site is already entitled, and a commercial project is allowed to be constructed at this location. So, the film studio is much more protective of the environment than the commercial project.”
Under the agreement, the project will be required to develop a Stormwater pollution prevention plan (SWPPP) and Water Pollution Abatement Plan (WPAP) before the construction begins to comply with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) rules for construction over the aquifer. These plans will address major concerns, like stormwater quality, erosion, sedimentation control and aquifer protection, officials say.
For the protestors, these key environmental considerations still do not promise protection of the aquifer, which is not only a primary source of water, but also a cultural and recreational hub for many.
Xandria Quichocho, one of the organizers of Protect the River movement and a researcher at Texas State University Physics Department, told KSAT that despite the environmental city code, this project plan is not sustainable.
“The mass weather events that we are experiencing in Texas and across the world, with the droughts that we are experiencing and with this lack of water, any time we’re taking an access point to the aquifer, refilling itself away is detrimental,” Quichocho said.
“While they’re going to be working with zoning laws and environmental laws, the laws aren’t designed to actually create sustainable development inside of the area,” Quichocho said. “This is like the lesser of two evils. Oh, if we don’t get this film studio, we’re going to get a bunch of big box stores and those are going to be worse.”
Moreover, Quichocho says the economic gains the city is expecting from investing in the project will not really benefit the local community.
“Housing is already a massive issue here. And so, by bringing in this massive conglomerate company, it’s only going to make everything more expensive and more expensive and more expensive,” Quichocho said. “People are going to end up getting priced out of their homes.”
The Protect the River movement involves environmental justice experts and student researchers from the biology and wildlife department at Texas State University who are researching to create a holistic picture of the impact this construction would have.
“So it’s not just floating ideas in the air. These things have been happening for years across the country and across the world. We can look at other people and we can see what’s going to happen,” Quichocho said.
After days of constant efforts by protesters, the City Council finally decided to reconsider their decision on the tax incentives agreement. During the protest on Tuesday, City Council Place 1 representative Maxfield Baker informed the crowd that the city will revisit this agenda item on July 5. Later in August, City leaders will meet again to discuss the “environmental sustainability efforts to protect our water in the future,” Baker said.
“I think it was a lot of the public input, the emails and letters that we received, and the social media posts that we received in the past several days,” Baker said. “They really pushed those colleagues to open their eyes to maybe reconsider what we voted on and the impacts that it might have.”
Though this grassroots movement started in a very short period of time as a direct response to the tax incentive agreement with the film studio company, it will not stop functioning after this issue is resolved. The members of the movement are dedicated to making San Marcos sustainable and protecting its rich environmental heritage.
“We want to create a movement, an organization that goes beyond that,” Quichocho said. “It is our intention to keep this going and to continue to be the voice for San Marcos citizens who put a lot of thought and love into the environment and to the people who have been here for centuries.”