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Bulging Town Is Swimming in Hippos

Many see the mascot as a cute attention-grabber. Others say the 'H-word' is weighing them down.

August 04, 2003|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

HUTTO, Texas — The 725-pound concrete hippopotamus in front of the tanning salon wears a big smile and an orange and yellow polka-dot bikini. The one by the El Poblanito restaurant is dashing in its black sombrero and gaucho pants. And over by the title company stands an orange hippopotamus with longhorns glued to its head.

All over town, dozens of the hefty, 30-inch hippos have been dressed up and put on display, all part of Mayor Mike Fowler's plan to attract tourism and industry to this central Texas community.

"People remember hippos," said Fowler, stepping around a dozen squat figurines, the yet-to-be-presented Golden Hippo Awards for good citizenship, in his office. "Hippos, hippos everywhere.... What in the world is wrong with that?"

Plenty, say some residents who complain that their tidy town is turning into a hippo theme park.

"It's just stupid," said Murray McDonald, former president of Hutto's Chamber of Commerce. "It's totally embarrassing is what it is. We're trying to get away from the image of a little old country town. We're trying to make this place look like something."

With plenty of cheap, undeveloped land, Hutto is poised to become home to thousands of people priced out of the market in Austin, 30 miles to the south. Housing tracts already are spreading across the railroad tracks from Hutto's quaint main street. The town's population, which doubled from 1990 to 2000, is nearing the 5,000 mark. In five years, city planners estimate, it may double again.

At this point in the city's development, the hippo -- although a fine mascot for Hutto High School -- "is not the professional image that we want to portray," said Councilman Jeff Phillips, one of Fowler's harshest critics.

But Fowler, 56, vows to carry on as long as residents share his vision. This town hasn't seen a live hippopotamus since one escaped from a circus train a century ago, but still, the mayor said, the animal is a "local treasure."

And many here agree.

"Hippos are unique, and there's a lot of cute ones that people have decorated," said Amanda Stence, 25. "They bring character to this town. Why not be proud to be connected to them?"

Sam Blair -- who owns Hottie Tan and said she may change her bikini-clad animal's outfit with the seasons -- said the hippos are great publicity. "Parents take pictures of their kids with them, then they come in and say: 'I didn't know there was a tanning place here,' " said Blair, 30. "My hippo has been good to me."

Hutto's hippo legend began with the runaway circus animal who waded into nearby Cottonwood Creek and refused to come out for days.

Years after he was memorialized as the school mascot, the Chamber of Commerce bought a 7-ton cement hippo -- originally destined for a miniature golf course -- and named her Henrietta. Painted gray with a Pepto-Bismol-pink tongue, Henrietta still stands sentry downtown, her mouth wide open as if to catch a chip shot.

There the hippo tributes might have ended but for Fowler, elected mayor in 2001. He was determined to take advantage of a promotional tool he calls "a built-in identifier for Hutto."

"The hippo is ingrained in our culture," said Fowler, a real estate broker and former legislative affairs aide at the Texas Department of Transportation. Some may consider the river horse a "large, fat animal, but what's undignified about a creature of God? I see this as a golden opportunity to really make us stand out."

Last spring, the mayor went online and ordered 68 of the 725-pound concrete hippos and 19 235-pounders. Residents were invited to buy the creatures for $80 to $100, then get creative with props and a rainbow of paints.

In May, Fowler convinced state legislators to name Hutto the "Hippo Capital of Texas." He proposed embossing hippo heads on the support beams of a new state highway and spearheaded a council resolution to change Hutto's name to "Hippo" one day a year during the town's annual Olde Tyme Days.

Fowler's most ambitious project is to get into the Guinness Book of World Records by building a $100,000, 40-foot-tall hippo named Hugo, partly using city funds. That sent opponents off the deep end, and the economic development commission rescinded its offer.

McDonald saw Fowler on the street one day and was blunt.

"I told him I thought this thing with the big monster hippo was his dumbest idea," he said. Not that McDonald is hippo-averse. He helped haul Henrietta to Hutto in 1992, struggling with two flat tires and a bent trailer axle along the way.

Things got so tense at City Hall recently that employees started referring to the hippo as the "H-word," Fowler said. Last month, the five-member council voted to transfer many of the mayor's administrative duties to the newly created position of city manager.

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