David Hillock admits that when he and his family first considered moving to Little Elm in 2001, he wasn’t a fan of the town.
“I had never heard of Little Elm,” Hillock said. “There were two-lane asphalt roads, no traffic signals and only a few thousand people at the time.”
A far cry from Coppell, where he was living.
“I loved Coppell,” Hillock said. “It was connected to the airport. But my wife at the time didn’t like the high traffic area.”
Hillock’s family made a second trip to Little Elm, and that’s when he saw the lake and the marina. So he gave it a chance.
Fast forward 20 years and Hillock has helped shape the town from something that wasn’t appealing to him to something he is proud of.
Now, as his nine-year stint as Little Elm mayor winds down, he reflects on everything he and his fellow Town Council members have accomplished over the years.
At the top of his list is creating the Lakefront District, conceptually known as Town Center years ago, the project which he said helped the town become the fun place to live it is today.
Hillock said soon after moving to Little Elm he became concerned about the way the town was growing.
“People were selling their land, and developers were building whatever quality homes,” Hillock said. “There was no strategic direction and no plan. There was no comprehensive view of what the town should be. You’d see the same neighborhoods over and over again.”
In 2004 Hillock joined the Planning and Zoning Commission to start sharing his vision for a better town but soon realized any decision he and other commissioners made could be overturned by the Town Council. He ran for council in 2005 and lost in a runoff to Terri Lowery, the Economic Development Corporation (EDC) president, by seven votes. Determined and not deterred he ran for a council seat in 2006 and won.
Hillock said one of the goals he had upon joining the council was to build a town people wanted to drive to not through.
“One of the realities was that a huge portion of our revenue came from building permits,” Hillock said. “At some point you’re going to run out of space, so you need more revenue sources. If we create a city where people want to be, we’ll receive sales tax.”
He said that started with creating a true Main Street.
“Every town should have a Main Street,” Hillock said.
He said Main Street had life to it at one time. In the 1950s the area later to become Little Elm had a population of 1,200 people. But after the U.S. Corps of Engineers purchased land to build the lake the population dropped to around 300 in 1962.
“Main Street is a vital thing,” Hillock said. “That’s where you go eat and buy your groceries. It was important that we recreate that.”
Under Hillock’s urging the EDC purchased 25 acres along Main Street, which really kicked off the future development. Future land purchases would follow, including homes – without the use of condemnation – on what is now Lakefront Drive.
In 2008 the town received bond approval for a senior center and recreation center to draw people to Lakefront, plus an expanded town hall and a separate public safety facility.
But then a snag. The same day voters approved a bond package for those items they also elected a new mayor who wanted only the public safety facility.
“I fought hard for a larger bond to have those facilities, plus the public safety building,” Hillock said.
That effort nearly died in 2011 when there was talk of the town walking away from a $10 million debt on the Main Street property and letting the bank take the land.
“We wouldn’t have been able to build anything new for seven to 10 years,” said Hillock, who wasn’t on the council at the time.
But the walk-away didn’t happen. And when Hillock successfully ran for mayor in 2012 the Town Center project was back at the forefront.
“I let everyone know we were going to build the Town Center and have a Main Street in Little Elm,” he said.
But that wasn’t all on his agenda. Hillock pushed for a five-year strategic plan – something he said was critical since the town’s population had grown from 7,000 to 25,000 during his time on the council.
In 2013 the council adopted a master plan that covered all aspects of the town. That didn’t include becoming a major commercial hub.
“It was obvious to me and to the city manager that this was not a major employment center,” Hillock said. “We’ll never be a commercial town, so we need to focus on what we’re good at.”
So the mission statement changed to being a place where people would want to live and play.
That meant extra attention to the town’s entry ways, which included the iconic lighthouses.
“I wanted a welcome mat to the town,” he said. “And a lighthouse says you’re home.”
The town also turned to the redevelopment of Beard Park. It incorporated a log cabin the town had received and reconstructed to resemble what it would have looked like in the 1800s. The town also relocated its old post office, a 9-foot-by-13-foot structure from the 1950s and placed it next to the cabin.
The town brought in multifamily units and 20,000 square feet of retail on Main Street and improved the sidewalks to make it more pedestrian friendly.
Lakefront, which makes use of the lake and a beach, was becoming the place Hillock envisioned.
“He was a champion for (Lakefront) before it was called Lakefront,” said Town Manager Matt Mueller, who has been with the town since 2012. “So much of Lakefront, the amenities and the businesses are a direct result of the vision he had and the hopes and dreams that he had.”
The town also enhanced its Independence Day celebration and turned it into the July Jubilee, which has drawn as many as 35,000 people.
The town has focused on its trail system, and it now has 24 miles of trails that connects the Upper Trinity trail system to White Rock Lake.
“A lot has happened,” Hillock said. “We have well over 100 places to eat now. We have options here.”
All of that has led to a housing product Hillock said didn’t exist when he first arrived.
“The main thing is we changed the housing diversity,” Hillock said. “We have apartments, starter homes, homes in nicer neighborhoods and senior communities. We have townhomes if you want to downsize. We cover the full spectrum.”
More like what Hillock had in mind all along.
“Mayor Hillock deserves a huge amount of credit for the vision and the path that Little Elm is on,” Mueller said. “He’s been a leader who truly fought for the vision of this community.”
As far as what’s next for Hillock, the longest-serving mayor and councilman in the town’s history, he will stay on as mayor until the runoff election between Curtis Cornelious and Ken Eaken next month is decided.
He said he has no interest in running for a higher office. For him it was all about improving things locally. He said he will still provide input on the town going forward, but after spending one-third of his life serving the community, it will be more of a hobby now.
“I said at the time that if I had to live in Little Elm then I would do everything I could to make it a community my kids would be proud to call home,” Hillock said. “I would not want to be in a place that I didn’t want to live in. I’m proud to live in Little Elm, and I’m proud to have helped make this happen.”