Elon Musk’s Planned Texas Fiefdom Is a Billionaire Tradition
From Ohio to Hawaii to Arkansas, wealthy tycoons have a long history of building communities molded around their personal philosophies.
(Bloomberg) -- Centuries after fiefdoms were dismantled in most parts of the world, vestiges can still be found in the backyards of billionaires.
In a rural county just east of Austin, Texas, Elon Musk is assembling his very own town, with new streets, recreational facilities, a school and subsidized housing for employees of Tesla Inc., SpaceX and the Boring Co., the Wall Street Journal reported last week. If approved, the municipality would occupy thousands of acres he’s personally acquired in recent years.
The project is an attempted fix for the age-old dilemma of how to provide affordable housing for workers, though taken to an extreme. It’s the type of vanity project-cum-policy experiment that only one of the world’s wealthiest people could chase.
“Why would he not do it?” said Bob Bland, a professor of local government at the University of North Texas in Denton. “It gives Musk and his executives greater control over how their land is used.”
Musk wouldn’t be the first billionaire seeking to play god over a town. Some construct brand new communities molded around their personal philosophies. For others, it’s a real estate play writ large, while some simply have an overwhelming influence over towns where their companies are based.
Victoria’s Secret billionaire Les Wexner built up New Albany, Ohio, from a tiny community outside of Columbus into one of the state’s toniest addresses.
Read more: Victoria’s Secret-ville: A Billionaire’s Dream of Middle America
Wexner landed on New Albany in the late 1980s while driving around looking for a place to build his country home. At the time, it was just “a community of plain topography,” he told Bloomberg in 2019. He started out buying 30 acres, and eventually acquired 10,000 — the entire town and then some. He assembled a team of architects and landscapers, and spent Saturday mornings designing his vision.
Today, New Albany has a population of nearly 11,000, with a median household income of more than $200,000 — almost three times that of the US as a whole. Each red-brick Georgian home is nearly identical to the next and the copper street lamps are handmade on Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. Wexner still lives there, in a 60,000-square-foot (5,575-square-meter) mansion.
For billionaires, there’s little downside to forming their own town, according to experts. That’s especially true in Texas where incorporating one is a fairly straightforward process, requiring at least 201 residents living within two square miles to petition a county judge for an election.
In his newly formed municipality, Musk would have outsized sway over what the city would look like, its tax rates and development policies, as well as helping elect a mayor and city council that share his vision. In meetings with landowners and real estate agents, Musk has described the proposed town as sort of a Texas utopia, according to the Journal, citing people familiar with the discussions that it didn’t identify.
“The autonomy I think is the biggest advantage,” Bland said. “The layout of the city will be designed to serve the plant, the factories, and whatever else he locates there.”
Musk didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Billionaires don’t need to create a new settlement to shape it in their image. In 2012, Oracle Corp. co-founder Larry Ellison bought up 98% of Lanai, a Hawaiian island that’s home to roughly 3,000 people. Practically overnight, he became nearly every resident’s boss, landlord or both.
Ellison has renovated the hotels that drive the island’s economy, created a new wellness company with a resort and is building a five-house complex for his personal use. He’s offered few details about his ultimate plans for the island, which has caused anxiety among locals.
In Italy, luxury magnate Brunello Cucinelli is a beneficent lord-like figure in Solomeo, a picturesque Umbrian village where his eponymous apparel company is headquartered. The town was semi-abandoned when Cucinelli bought its medieval castle from its absentee owner in 1987.
He moved his company headquarters there and set about buying and renovating the surrounding 12th-century buildings. The commune now hosts his corporate campus, a school for artisans, an open-air theater and a library heavy on his favorite philosophers, like Kant and Ruskin.
“I wanted to be a guardian,” Cucinelli told Bloomberg in 2015. “Someone who basically spent his life in this very tiny corner of the world and embellished, restored, and built something new.”
Even towns that aren’t specifically created by billionaires can grow to reflect them.
Take Bentonville, Arkansas, the headquarters of Walmart Inc. Founder Sam Walton chose to open a variety store there in 1951 in part because his wife, Helen, wanted small-town living.
Bentonville is now the state’s 10th-largest city by population, with a Walmart warehouse or storefront seemingly on every corner. The company’s presence, and that of more than 1,000 of its suppliers, has made the city wealthier. But the retailer’s owners have directly shaped its culture.
Read more: Welcome to Waltonville, Where the Richest Clan Reigns
Walton scions Steuart and Tom developed a network of cycling trails, part of a campaign to promote it as the “mountain biking capital of the world.” Sam’s daughter Alice opened art museum Crystal Bridges and the family in September helped stage a three-day art and music festival featuring artists like Rufus Du Sol and Nick Cave.
Overt private influence over a town brings risks, as Walt Disney Co. executives are learning. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed legislation last month effectively taking control of the special municipal district where Disney's theme parks are located. His move was retaliation for the company's criticism of his recent law around teaching gender identity.
Ultimately the appeal for billionaires of fashioning their own dominions is often liberty and fewer bureaucratic obstacles to their visions.
Texas’s relative lack of red tape was one reason Musk gave for relocating Tesla there from California in 2021. Coming up with ways to house employees has driven other development projects he’s pursued, including in Reno, Nevada.
Outside Austin, in the county of his potential new town, Musk’s team has cobbled together around 15 single- and double-wide manufactured homes for employees. Just up the street, the Boring Company is working with homebuilding giant Lennar Corp. to accomplish something far more ambitious: a standalone development codenamed “Project Amazing” that would contain 110 homes.
The development, which has been approved by the county but not begun, emphasizes what drew Musk, a frequent critic of regulators, to the state.
“Texas is probably the most liberal state in allowing city governments the latitude in making their own rules,” Bland said.
--With assistance from .
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