ROUND ROCK, Texas -- It sounded like a bonanza for suburban Williamson
County: high-tech, high-wage jobs, 1,500 or more by the turn of the century,
from a Silicon Valley giant. Apple Computer wanted to build an $80 million
office complex on a patch of ranchland just north of Austin.
But shortly after Apple executives and county officials announced the plans,
in tandem with a $750,000 property tax abatement for the company, two of the
five county commissioners here raised objections.
Apple, they noted, is one of a small but growing number of corporations that
confer health benefits on the unmarried partners of their employees. That
policy undermines traditional family values, they said, and Williamson County
should not condone it.
Then a third commissioner, David S. Hays, who had said earlier that the
county had no business meddling with the policy of a private company, announced
a sudden change of heart. With nearly 70 people crowded into a small meeting
room on Tuesday, one shouting that the county "was not founded on same-sex
lovers and live-in lovers," Hays joined the other two to reject granting Apple
any tax abatements.
"If I had voted yes," he said, "I would have had to walk into my
church with people saying, `There is the man who brought homosexuality to
The tax break was shelved.
Apple officials said Wednesday that as a matter of both principle and
economics the company would not build on the 128-acre site in Williamson County
unless the tax break was restored, and Gov. Ann W. Richards was left pleading
with the company to look at other sites in Texas. Apple officials said that
while they would entertain lobbying by Texas officials for other sites, they
also planned to look outside the state.
For its part, the county, which has aggressively courted other high-tech
companies and even sought a state penitentiary to lure more jobs to the area,
appears to have punted away a project that, according to one study commissioned
by the county, would have pumped $300 million into the local economy over the
next several years.
But even as many of the people here seemed a bit bewildered at the prospect
of losing all those jobs -- one described the commissioners' action as "insane"
-- many others said they whole-heartedly supported the move.
"It goes to what kinds of morals do you want to set for your community,"
said Sherry Roberts, the owner of Heart and Home, an antiques and curios store
on the Western-style Main Street in Round Rock, the county's biggest city.
"What do you teach your kids? That's what this is all about."
One of her customers, Laura Yendrey, a 31-year-old mother of three, nodded
in enthusiastic agreement. "I mean, I know not everyone can have a perfect
family, a husband and wife, 2.5 children," she said, clutching her
2-year-old daughter, Lauren. "But this is what we strive for. This is
what the great American family is all about."
In the commissioners' vote, some people here detected the growing influence
of conservative Christian-affiliated groups that recently gained a voting
majority on the Round Rock school board and ousted the school superintendent in
a bitter showdown.
The superintendent, whom the previous board had rewarded with salary bonuses
because the district's test scores had risen, drew criticism from some new
board members after he banned public prayers at high school football games.
National gay rights groups said the vote marked the first time anywhere in
the country that a government entity had sought to punish a company for
extending fringe benefits to nonmarried partners. They asserted it was more a
reflection of pervasive anti-gay bias in much of the country than of
deep-seatet religious convictions.
"It's a classic example of the depth of anti-gay feeling," said William
Rubenstein, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's lesbian and gay
rights project. "It's hard to believe any county in this day and age would turn
down the opportunity to have Apple Computer in your community. It's remarkable
that in these economically difficult times, this blatant prejudice would
prevail over smart business decisions."
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Actually, times are not so tough in Williamson County, and some people here
said that rejection of the tax abatement was a kind of luxury that county
leaders would perhaps not have indulged a few years ago, when fallout from the
oil bust ravaged virtually the entire state.
Round Rock, at the edge of the central Texas Hill Country and the closest
major community to the planned Apple site, has evolved from a predominantly
agricultural area with a population of 2,400 in 1970 to a remote suburb of
37,000 people, many of whom commute the 15 or 20 minutes south to Austin for
work. The official county unemployment rate for October was 3.5 percent, barely
half the state rate, according to the Texas Employment Commission.
Still, many people here go out of their way to say they live here because it
is not Austin, which generally has a reputation as Texas's most liberal city.
Earlier this fall, Austin became the first Texas municipality to confer health
benefits to the unmarried domestic partners of its municipal employees.
"It's more traditional values, a family-oriented type of atmosphere," said
Round Rock's mayor, Charlie Culpepper. "It's for people that want to live in
central Texas and don't want to live in Travis County," of which Austin is the
Bill Keegan, a spokesman for Apple, said in an interview on Wednesday that
company officials thought the Williamson County site was "an ideal location for
us" and had been surprised by the commissioners' vote.
The falling out between Apple and the county comes amid rumors in the
computer industry -- consistently denied by the company -- that it was
consideringmoving its corporate headquarters from Cupertino, Calif., to
somewhere in the Austin area.