JUSTIN -- Gossip, politics and tall tales occupy old friends over coffee every morning at a table in Mom's Cafe.An occasional reflection on how the town used to be slips in, said James Taylor, who was born in Justin in 1931 and lives on property that's been in his family for generations."In my younger days, there were four groceries, two barbershops and a pharmacy," Taylor said. "Ron Colter had a barbershop where the pharmacy is now, and Mr. Collins had a pharmacy where the chiropractor is now."Many of those buildings remain, and over the years -- as urban sprawl slowly crept toward the Denton County town -- Justin managed to maintain its small, homespun feel. But now, with Texas Motor Speedway firmly entrenched as its neighbor and as businesses and subdivisions sprout nearby, the town is becoming more urban and less rural. Its population has doubled to 3,250 in the past 20 years, and a planned expansion of Farm Road 156 -- which cuts through downtown Justin -- promises to transform the town."This will change the face of Justin," Mayor Greg Scott said. "We've doubled our population ... and if the North Central Texas Council of Governments is correct it will double again in the next five."The FM 156 project is essential because it's a major north/south highway in the western part of Denton County that connects Texas 114 and U.S. 380, County Commissioner Andy Eads said. Much of the county's future growth is expected to be in the area, he said.Besides Alliance Airport and the speedway to the south, the massive retirement community Robson Ranch sits to the north, between Justin and Denton. And General Electric is in the finishing stage on two neighboring manufacturing plants on nearby Texas 114, which promise to bring even more commuters to the area.Eads said officials have invested considerable time and trouble to minimize the impact the expansion will have on Justin, which sits 25 miles north of downtown Fort Worth."We wanted to preserve the downtown character of Justin," Eads said. "At the same time we want to promote long-term economic viability by increasing parking, improving streetscapes and the pedestrian walkways."Denton County paid $4.089 million for an engineering schematic that the state approved in September.County funds will also pay 20 percent of the estimated $27.2 million construction costs for the Texas Department of Transportation project. The other 80 percent will come from regional toll revenue from the North Texas Tollway Authority.Construction is expected to begin in summer 2015 and to be completed about spring of 2018, Eads said.'We can't wait'The project will improve about four miles of FM 156 through Justin, from Texas 114 to 12th Street.It's designed as a four-lane, divided roadway featuring 12-foot-wide inside lanes, 14-foot-wide shared-use (bicycles) outside lanes and a raised median that will include right- and left-turn lanes at various cross streets, said Mark Pettit of the Transportation Department's Dallas office.Shifting FM 156 to the east so it's as close as possible to the Burlington Northern Sante Fe railroad tracks will create space for parking islands and landscaping on the west edge of the highway."We can't wait," said Maria Rodriguez, a six-year Justin resident who owns Casa Vieja, an eclectic clothing, gift and decor store, with her mom, Leonides De La Garza. "It will give us lots of parking. They'll put some trees out there. It will make us look like a real town, not just a discount boot outlet."Arguably the storefronts that have distinguished Justin in most nonresident minds, Justin Discount Boots and Cowboy Outfitters has grown in 31/2 decades from one store to four, said owner Mark Wallace.His family started out with a salvage business in Justin in 1958 and entered the Western wear business in 1977."We have about six buildings that are retail outlets," he said. "Three are tied together; you can go from one to another."Businesses to relocateThe project will claim a handful of structures, including one of Wallace's outlets and Cathy Green's almost century-old rock building where construction will take a slightly westward zag near the north end of town."They haven't given me a concrete answer but the signs say, yes, we are going to move," she said.Green has a real estate and property management business in the building, along with tenants that include Chris Cassels' Hot Route Delivery Specialists, a trucking company.He plans on moving into a nearby smaller building set slightly farther west, kicking out Lizzie Lee's Boutique, a store owned by his wife, Elizabeth Cassels.Both Casselses said they're excited about what the project will bring."We hope it will change Justin and I believe it will," Chris Cassels said. "There could be economic and traffic impacts, but I believe it will be a great enhancement to the roadsides, causing Justin to do some beautification and establish some parking."The project's scope is so dramatic that it's the subject of a town-hall-style public hearing Thursday."We're looking for the golden nuggets that engineers aren't aware of because they don't actually live out there and use the road like the public does," Pettit said.Not everyone excitedAnd there could be folks at the meeting who don't want the project at all."I don't want the face of Justin to change," said Justin native Angie Gragg, 30. "The best thing about living here is that it's Justin. We didn't even have a red light until about four years ago."One of Taylor's morning coffee buddies, retired pipeline worker Jim Mullis, believes the FM 156 project is a waste of money."There are a lot of other things Justin needs more than this project," he said.But no matter what happens to Justin's face, the town's heart is not likely to change.On the road that marks the project's north end, Deanna Deal said that her husband, Kevin, has done as much to perpetuate the small-town atmosphere as anyone.Curving rock walls flanking 12th Street's mouth mark the entrance to Ridgeview Estates, a relatively new development whose residents must pass by the Deals' house."We moved here 27 years ago when Kevin got a teaching job at Northwest High school," she said. "He waves at everyone who drives by. At first, no one would wave as they drove into Ridgeview. But he just kept it up until they started waving back."This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.Terry Evans, 817-390-7620Twitter: @fwstevans
If you go
A town hall public hearing will be conducted by Texas Department of Transportation with city and county officials to discuss details of and receive resident input on a proposed Farm Road 156 improvement project.
The meeting is from 6 to 7 p.m. Thursday at Gene Pike Middle School, 2200 Texan Drive in Fort Worth, south of Justin at Texas 114 and Farm Road 156.
The Santa Fe railroad came through with a line from Fort Worth to Purcell, Okla., in 1887.
That same year, a petition got a post office named Justin, honoring Santa Fe's chief engineer, Justin Sherman.
Justin is in the Northwest school district.
Sources: Justin website, Texas State Historical Association