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Page Two: Pay-to-Play City Politics

When it comes to Austin's independent businesses, the City too often is part of the problem

By Louis Black, October 7, 2016, Columns

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes – and ships – and sealing-wax –
Of cabbages – and kings – "
– "The Walrus and the Carpenter," Lewis Carroll

The time has come to talk of many things: of permits and process, of building and renovating, of a City that pays verbal tribute to its incredible independent business community but does little to actually aid it.

The Chronicle has always focused on, supported, and been supported by Austin's independent businesses. Currently we are going to be approaching this a bit more formally. Working with the Austin Independent Business Alliance, among other things, we are planning an event during SXSW focused on spotlighting Austin businesses.

Whenever the economy went south during the Eighties and the Nineties, there'd be renewed interest from the local business establishment in the music community. The boom and bust cycle gone bust again, certain political, real estate, and social players looked toward it as a possible way to provide the pump for another boom.

There wasn't much interest in music for music's sake but rather as a tool of economic development. Here the underlying dynamic was often missed, that most participants were driven by a deep passion for music, few venturing into the field because they thought it was lucrative. These outside interests mostly only considered media, hits, and crowds. It was as though someone who understood vegetation not at all suddenly expressed a deep interest, but concentrated almost entirely on the flowering part of a plant, ignoring the soil, roots, and stems, not realizing that the flower was the end result of a lot of gardening and nourishment.

Most didn't care about music; they were circling a hot topic, which garnered not just local but national attention. The nature of the music game, however, is very much if you don't really love it, for the most part it is not going to prove worth your time, trouble, and investment. Even the many businesses and people who have economically thrived in the local music business did not get there easily or quickly.

The problem is that talking the talk is not the same as walking the walk. Austin has long celebrated local retail businesses and rightfully bragged about local culture, including music, film, food, art, and style. When it comes to actually supporting them, well, the City has often proved better at slogans – "Keep Austin Weird," "The Live Music Capital of the World" – than support. How much does the city's economic development and political communities really understand the construct and needs? It is as though they not only have no understanding but really not that much interest in the extraordinary commitment, dedication, risk, and time involved in running a business. The City is far more often part of the problem than the solution.

Ironically there is a direct way to support both independent businesses as well as the music and arts community. But as much as the problem has been talked about for years, little has been done to address it.

Austin's permitting process is a nightmare – and I say that as one who supports regulations and believes that the integrity and character of the City not only can but must be controlled and guided. Except in Austin it is nuts. Ask developer and environmentalist, club and small business owner, and any person who has built or renovated a home. The process penalizes all. In fact those who most conscientiously try to follow all rules and regulations are often the most beat up.

It is the rule, not the exception, that those engaged in a building project will get approval and the go-ahead from one city department only to discover as they move forward that another department insists that it be done differently. After City approval has already been received. There is no appeal. The process makes the most complicated mazes seem simplistic.

The permitting process never moves smoothly, and certainly not swiftly, almost always proceeding in stalls and starts, with the emphasis on stalls. Paraphrasing the Velvet Underground, the permitting process "is never done early, it's always late/First thing you learn is you always gotta wait." Opening a restaurant, launching or maintaining a music club, renovating an existing structure for a business, in every case takes longer, is more involved, and costs far more than any novice to Austin's numerous development and construction codes ever anticipates.

Right here is a way for the City to reach out to aid these communities. Finally, improve the process. It hasn't happened yet, and don't bet on it.

Instead there is a proposal on the table for an expedited way of getting permits approved. If one spends extra money and meets certain requirements it can be navigated somewhat quicker. But this is exactly the wrong approach. It leaves the Rube Goldberg contraption in place.

It's time the City finally gets serious about tackling the nightmare. Fixing and streamlining it would benefit so many Austin communities and individuals. But don't expect it to happen soon. The Council has never had the will to pull it off over the decades it's been talked about. Given the new 10-1 system it seems more unlikely than ever, but that is another story.

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