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Little Elm Saw Its Population Skyrocket After Investing In Lake Living

Miguel Perez
Wakeboarders wait by the dock at the Hydrous Wake Park in Little Elm on June 9, 2019.

Nestled on the shores of Lewisville Lake in Denton County is a town that's fully embraced lake life.

So much so that Little Elm's official motto is "The Town With a Lake Attitude."

The manmade reservoir has turned into an economic boon for the town, but decades ago, it was the lake's very creation that threatened to dissolve Little Elm. 

The dock hands at the Hydrous WakePark in Little Elm are teaching newbies how to "slide" using a wakeboard.

A line of people are waiting for their turn by the edge of the dock — their feet strapped onto sleek, brightly colored boards.

Cody Wade's been working at the park since 2013.

"The slide's all about like riding a wheelie off the dock here, so it's really about being strong with your handle," Wade said. "Like once you're to the water, relax your arms."

Wakeboarders hold on tight to a long cable and then one-by-one, they go barreling into the sea-green water.

Credit Miguel Perez / KERA News
A young wakeboarder glides through the water at the Hydrous Wake Park in Little Elm on June 9, 2019.

Nearby, there's an inflatable splash park for kids and a bar that overlooks Lewisville Lake.

This is Little Elm's small but budding Lakefront District.

If you keep driving down Eldorado Parkway, you'll hit a Hula Hut, a bevy of boat rental shops and even a sandy beach.

Mayor David Hillock says those "stay-cation resort" vibes didn't happen by coincidence.

"I don't want to give it a 'Truman Show' kind of feel," he said. "But, the reality is we are intentionally programming small-town feel, and the one thing we have that differentiates us is undeveloped lakefront."

Hillock says the town's 66 miles of shoreline have helped drive Little Elm's economic boom in the last decade.

But the lake wasn't always an asset for the town. Kim Cupit is the curator of collections with Denton County's Office of History and Culture.

"Lake Lewisville was created in the 1920s, and it was created as Lake Dallas as a reservoir for the residents of the city of Dallas," Cupit said.  

Manmade reservoirs like this were sprouting up all over Texas to help mitigate flood damage and provide drinking water for big cities.

In the 1950s, the Army Corps of Engineers expanded Lake Dallas and created the much-larger Lewisville Lake. People who lived near the water had to move, farmers sold their land, and Little Elm was nearly wiped out in the process.

"Part of the town itself was under the lake," Cupit said. "You know, you had this big, huge part of land and what is disappearing is the farmland."

The town laid dormant for decades until the late '90s, when the Dallas North Tollway expanded, making it easier to get to Little Elm.  

Hillock moved to Little Elm in 2002 — back when just a few thousand people called it home. He still remembers the sole traffic signal.

"There were still A-frame houses — little, small cottages — all around the lake where neighborhoods sit today," Hillock said. "Because that's where people would spend their weekends, just to go fishing."

The town council eventually created its first strategic plan and made development around the lake a priority.

Ryan Miller manages Little Elm's Cottonwood Creek Marina, which his family owns. It's been the town's main dock since 2003, and Miller has seen just how much the town has changed.

"We've benefitted from the growth in the area, but in addition to that the town of Little Elm has really focused on being a lakeside community," he said.

Highlighting the lakefront has helped bring in more than 600 new businesses to Little Elm in the last 15 years. And its population has skyrocketed to about 50,000 people.

Hillock says that's all thanks to the lake that nearly swallowed up the town decades ago.

"And the more that we can have that as the centerpiece of our community — something that no one else can offer the way we offer it — was always going to set us apart as a community," he said. "That has driven our economic explosion."

He hopes Little Elm can ride that wave far into the future. 

Miguel Perez is an assistant producer at KERA. He produces local content for Morning Edition and KERA News. He also produces The Friday Conversation, a weekly interview series with North Texas newsmakers.