Frank Estrada.

[imgcontainer] [img:frank_estrada2.jpg] Frank Estrada. [/imgcontainer]

Part of a series of interviews with rural leaders who will attend the 2015 National Rural Assembly, September 9-11 in Washington, D.C.

If the National Rural Assembly awarded perfect-attendance stickers, Frank Estrada would have a gold star.

The Lockhart, Texas, civic leader has attended each of the four previous Assemblies. And he plans to be there for the fifth gathering on September 9 in Washington, D.C.

“Frank is one of our most devoted and enthusiastic participants,” said Whitney Kimball Coe, coordinator of the National Rural Assembly. He’s especially active in online social networks that connect local and national leaders.

Estrada heads economic development activities for the Greater Caldwell County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. A long-time public servant, he served as mayor pro tem of the City of Lockhart, Texas, for nearly three decades.

Estrada says the Rural Assembly helps him spot the issues that are likely to be on the horizon for Lockhart, a city of about 12,000 residents between San Antonio and Austin.

“I find out what other communities are going through and I try to get ready for what will happen here,” he said.

In turn, he’s able to share how Lockhart has dealt with its issues. A big one this year is how to take advantage of a new major highway that connects Lockhart with two major metropolitan areas.

What is your part of rural America like, and what are the key issues there?
The City of Lockhart Texas has a population of 12,000. Lockhart is actually known as the best barbeque in Texas. I had some guys come in from Austin, and everyone knew that we had the best barbeque right here.

In my area there are broadband issues and the affordable housing issues. Our county is one of the poorest in the state of Texas. It’s sad, but more than half our population lives in mobile homes. It’s not easy to find affordable places to live, especially for lower income families. I don’t know what it’s like in other rural communities, but that is one of the things of concern here.

Most of my concerns at the other Rural Assemblies I’ve attended were around broadband in the rural communities – the quality but also the affordability. I was fortunate to attend the convening with the staff of the active chairman of the state legislator recently, and we expressed our concerns and I told him stories about what was going on in my community to try to get small rural providers the ability to provide access to broadband for rural communities. With broadband, people in rural communities could go on the internet and efficiently talk to their doctors and get diagnosed online. A lot of people can’t drive to the cities easily. And a lot of those people are not covered on insurance either. I want to find ways to address those issues. 

And, of course, this is history, but I was concerned about fracking oil. Just recently our state legislature voted to allow fracking oil and banned local governments from doing anything to regulate fracking. Those are some of the things of the concerns here.

I just want to address these issues, to find more efficient use of land, deal with infrastructure and give people affordable choices.

What do you wish the rest of the nation knew about your community?
I want people to find out where it’s located. It’s located in the San Antonio corridor, right in central Texas. Real close to I-35, 17 miles from I-10, and 935 goes to the San Antonio junction. Most importantly, they just finished building a toll road that comes all the way up here. [The State Highway 130 toll road runs from south of San Antonio to north of Austin and passes through Lockhart.] We hope it will bring new industry to our county.

Caldwell County is an old county, established in 1848, named after an Indian fighter who signed the Declaration of Independence. We also have one of the oldest operating libraries, built in 1899. Something people don’t know about Lockhart, Texas, is that we have the most beautiful courthouse. It’s the most pictured courthouse in the state.

We have the same issues as a number of counties have, but we realize change is coming after the 130 toll road.

[imgcontainer] [img:Caldwell_County_Courthouse.jpg] The courthouse in Lockhart, Texas, county seat of Caldwell County. [/imgcontainer]

What are the challenges and bright spots in your community?
One challenge is bringing manufacturing in, not just for the cities near here, but to the rural communities. They bring more taxes and infrastructure into these communities. But it’s also one of the bight spots. It’s been really difficult to do, but we’re making it happen. I’m also a board member of Lockhart Redevelopment. We try to steer the manufacturing towards rural areas, but the issues are water and infrastructure. But we hopefully can overcome [that].

One of the things we’re doing is moving our elementary schools to rural areas. So then people don’t have to wake up early to drive their kids here to Lockhart. They can go to school in their community. That’s one of the real bright spots.

What value do you find in attending the Rural Assembly?
Every time I go to the assembly I have goals and ideas I want to discuss. And then I hear from the other folks, the problems that folks have in their communities and that they are probably going to happen to our communities. It’s a learning experience as well. I find out what other communities are going through and I try to get ready for what will happen here. I try to bring that back to our community.

I have a lot of followers on Facebook, and a lot of them are state legislators and council members. I’m very fortunate from my experience with city council, that I can go talk to the state legislature and talk about my concerns with rural communities. I make sure I put all the Rural Assembly people on my Facebook network too, so that when I post something, they all can discuss and see it. And that’s my way of communicating with the Assembly.

What do you hope to accomplish at the Rural Assembly? How could other rural advocates around the country help you in your work at home?
This Rural Assembly I’m really concerned with climate change, and again following up on the broadband and now the housing affordability for our region. I’m sure that we’ve got some great speakers and great leaders that I can’t wait to learn from, and share the information back in my community.

Other rural advocates can help me. Again, one of the reasons I attend this meeting is to get some input and find out what problems they have and how similar they are to Caldwell County. I can find out what resources their area for grant or for housing, or how they’re dealing with their situations. I want to learn from them. 

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