The Daily Hustle: 2/25/11

Leffingwell shares the State of the City

The Daily Hustle: 2/25/11
Photo by Wells Dunbar

While the Hustle had a good idea of the ground Lee Leffingwell was going to cover in his State of the City address at City Hall this morning, the mayor managed to wedge in a few surprises; mainly, a call to break ground on a new, 800-room Convention Center hotel in the next year.

Maybe not the most unexpected proposal, considering the event’s sponsorship by the Downtown Austin Alliance, and Leffingwell’s long-running interest in the initiative, which he thinks will attract more convention business to Austin. But it was the biggest, and possibly only, explicit nod to Downtown in a speech that mildly challenged some Downtown interests, calling as it did for votes on geographic representation and urban rail in 2012 – two votes on which that community appears divided.

While Leffingwell said he didn’t have “the slightest hesitation or reservation” in saying “the state of our city is strong and getting stronger every day,” his local assessment was presaged by a nod to troubles outside City Hall: the statewide budget crisis, which has trickled-down to AISD. “The point is that this is all very serious business,” said Leffingwell. “And there’s no doubt that it makes for a sobering backdrop as our city forges its way into the future. But, as I said before, every time of challenge is also a time of opportunity. And I’m here to tell you, in my opinion, there is no city anywhere in America more capable of confronting challenges and capitalizing on opportunities than Austin, Texas.”

With that, Leffingwell pivoted into a surprisingly concerted push for “weird:”

Let's be honest: A lot of cities and towns across America – especially suburban communities – are becoming more and more indistinguishable from one another all the time. I won’t name names, but almost anywhere you travel these days, you see the same shopping malls and strip centers; the same chain restaurants; and the same big box retailers. But you also see an increasingly uniform culture – influenced more, in many cases, by what's happening on TV or on the Internet than by what's happening in the community. But in Austin, it’s different. Yes, we have Wal-Marts and Home Depots and McDonalds and Taco Bells. And yes, we watch American Idol and Dancing With The Stars and Glee, just like everybody else. And those are all good things.

But in Austin, we also have Book People; and Toy Joy; and Breed & Company; and the Wooten Barbershop; and Waterloo Records. We also have The Hoffbrau; and Mighty Fine Hamburgers; and Home Slice Pizza; and the Frisco; and Garaj M’Hal. We have Sholz Garten; and the Continental Club; and Antone’s; and the Mohawk; and the Scoot Inn.

We have Barton Springs; and South by Southwest; and Eyeore’s Birthday; and 2 million bats; and the Texas Rollergirls. We have 6th Street; and Longhorn football; and Hippie Hollow; and Frisbee golf; and Austin City Limits; and lots of very strange things on display in people’s front yards.

So why does all of that matter? In my mind, it matters because, as more and more cities become more and more alike, those cities that are different are going to be the ones that attract people who also want to stand out. People who want to make their mark in the world. People who want to push the envelope, in a good way. People who don’t shy away from challenges, or opportunities.

And as I said before, it’s really the people of this city that make us strong. And it’s the people who create and perpetuate the places and things that make Austin unique – which then inspires more of the same. It’s weirdness breeding weirdness; it’s success breeding success.

The mayor then offered three approaches to Austin’s continuing success. The first, a “focus on the fundamentals,” largely concerned jobs, lauding the employers Austin’s recently attracted (Hanger Orthopedics, LegalZoom, SunPower and Facebook) and existing employers large (Samsung) and small. It was here the mayor also pushed for expanded hotel capacity, plus the need for traffic improvements. Citing the passage of Prop 1, he said “now, we need to build on that victory. Because it took us many years, and many failures, to screw up our traffic this badly. Now it's going to take us many years, and many successes, to finally fix it. That’s why we are going to move very quickly through the projects approved by voters in November, and start working right now on another transportation package to go before voters in November of 2012.”

Leffingwell’s second approach was “playing to our strengths” – mainly “the creativity and the compassion of our people.” Here, he spoke of uniting Austin’s tech and music communities, announcing a city partnership with the Austin Music Foundation for a creative center at Austin Studios. Compassion-wise, he cited a forthcoming volunteerism initiative from Chief Service Officer Andy Mormon called Serve Austin.

The third approach, “tackling big problems head on,” related to Leffingwell’s most ambitious proposal, his call for a single-member district vote in 2012. “As mayor, I have to say that I’m especially concerned about what I see as a growing disconnect between citizens and their government. … Input tends to come from a relatively small group of people. That’s not to suggest that we don’t value it, but I do believe that it’s incumbent upon us to engage more people however we can.”

Building off an earlier superheroic analogy, Leffingwell closed by saying “We are a city without fear. We are a city that can create anything we can visualize, through sheer force of will. We are a city with a special charge to shine a light into the darkness and lead the way to a new and better day. And I know that’s exactly what we will do. “

That’s said, here’s the Top 8 Zingers from Leffingwell’s State of the City address (the text of which you can find here):

1. I believe these amendments – if approved by the Council and ultimately by the voters – will deliver better representation for more people at City Hall; save Austin taxpayers a significant amount of money; and potentially triple turnout in City elections. If you act today, you’ll also receive a free set of steak knives, which will be yours to keep.

2. I must say that I am so optimistic and excited about Austin’s future that I’m almost inclined to show some emotion.

3. Unfortunately, Council Member Fred Durst couldn’t make it.

4. I received notice from ERCOT they may have to periodically interrupt my remarks.

5. Thank you all for taking a short break from playing Angry Birds to be here.

6. If there were a list of cities that appeared on lists, we’d be on the list.

7. As I’ve said before: I know it’s only rock and roll, but I like it.

8. [Some joke about Mike Martinez being bald that I missed.]

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