One long-time local developer thinks the key to understanding development in Abilene is to think of the west Texas city as a smaller version of Dallas/Fort Worth.

“The railroad cuts this town right in half,” said Kenneth L. Musgrave, a real estate developer who’s been doing deals in Abilene for 50 years. “The north side is Fort Worth, where old money has been an influence. The south side is new money, like most of Dallas.”

The Abilene market ranked seventh in our Top 50 Apartment Markets analysis, thanks to low annual inventory growth, a super-low vacancy rate, and strong rent growth. It trounced the other half-dozen Texas markets we examined.

That’s not a big surprise to Tom Niblo, vice president of commercial real estate for locally based Senter Realtors.

“Retail development on the north side has spurred a lot of talk for more residential development around it,” said Niblo. “There’s definitely a need for more apartments, student housing in particular. We’ve got a good, diversified economy.”

What about Musgrave’s metaphor? For starters, most of Abilene’s apartments are focused in the south side because that’s the site of most retail development, as well as high-end single family homes. Developers couldn’t get their hands on northern property for years because old Abilene families weren’t parting with it. Eventually, several families did sell.

Musgrave snapped up a lot of that land quicker than you can get sunburned through your car window in Abilene. He’s built a Wal-Mart Supercenter, a Home Depot, and other retail stores and hotels. He said the greatest opportunity for multifamily developers in Abilene lies in “Fort Worth.”

Adding to the prospects in the region is the expansion of local universities. Texas Tech University has built a new pharmacy school. North Carolinabased Campus Crest Development has opened a $10 million student housing development close to Abilene Christian University. Abilene Regional Medical Center is undergoing a $26 million expansion and renovation, bringing more jobs.

The first new construction of market- rate apartments since the 1980s is finally under way—more than 200 units, said Niblo. Apartments built since the ’80s have been for low- and moderate- income residents.

“Development here is as good as I’ve seen in my life,” said Musgrave. Look out, Dallas. There’s some real drama in Abilene these days.