Call it radical thinking, but 1996 might be the year the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce rumbles out of its trenches to rally for the masses. Granted, that's a hard one to swallow in a town where the Chamber is identified with developers, and developers are identified (in much of the public rhetoric, at least) with everything that's wrong with the world. But Kerry Tate, the incoming chair who will guide the board of directors in setting policy, has laid out a relatively progressive agenda that is the closest the Chamber has ever come to the New Deal.
Tate, who succeeds 3M executive Bill McLellan on January 1, actually has a bigger job on her hands than prodding the age-old business organization to provide more than just lip service to important community issues. She has to convince a doubting public that the Chamber isn't such a self-centered lot after all. But then, Tate makes her living putting a favorable spin on things. She owns TateAustin, a small advertising and public relations agency downtown. Her firm, readers may recall, handled the city-funded TV spots designed to "educate" voters on the 1993 bond election to relocate and build a new airport, before the city abruptly scrubbed the campaign amid complaints that the ads tilted more toward promotion than information. Tate acknowledges the campaign was "aggressive."
Okay, so maybe she gets carried away with the boosterism thing. "Do I sound too rah-rah?" she asked after breakfast one morning. Well, yes; she had just spent the past hour touting the Chamber, and how much more inclusive it's become in the past few years. But Tate has other dimensions, too. She feels very strongly about the Chamber standing up and addressing some serious problems in the community. At the top of the list are public education, the environment, and affordable housing -- not your usual front-burner Chamber schtick. "Those are clear and present dangers that have to be addressed now," she says. "Those are things you just can't escape." On public education, she'll champion a huge bond proposal, tentatively set for referendum next spring, that will fund construction of new schools and upgrade some existing ones. On the environment, she wants to convey to the business community that water quality is necessary for Austin's economic health, not just to keep salamanders from going belly up. And on the issue of housing, Tate wants the Chamber to use its influence to promote inner-city housing for the largely ignored working stiffs in the $18,000-$35,000 income bracket.
"Kerry has an uncanny ability to bring together people who traditionally have been left out of the usual cliques," says Cloteal Davis Haynes, a consultant to non-profit groups. In Haynes' case, Tate persuaded her to join the Chamber and draw on her housing background to head a committee on affordable housing. "I'm not aware of anything the Chamber has done in the past to promote affordable housing -- that's just not their charter," said Haynes, who is vice chair of the city Housing Authority and served in the Carter Administration's Department of Housing and Urban Development. "But in comes Kerry who says we can use the chamber's visibility and resources to resolve some tough problems in the community."
Similarly, Kirk Watson, a trial lawyer and Travis County Democratic chairman, joined the Chamber this year at Tate's urging. He'll begin the new year as the group's vice chair of governmental relations. That's an interesting twist, considering Watson supported and gave money to the Save Our Springs (SOS) campaign -- a 1992 water quality initiative that the Chamber's executive board vigorously opposed. "I must admit," said Watson, "that I have many of the same knee-jerk reactions that most people have when you mention the Chamber of Commerce. But Kerry's efforts to include people with different points of view is real appealing to me."
Tate, at 40, doesn't have much history as a Chamber player. Basically, she paid her dues in her career and hardly gave the group much thought until three years ago when Ron Kessler, then the incoming chair, started trying to add some youth and diversity to the Chamber membership. In short, Kessler was trying to clean up the mess made during the SOS brawl that painted a fragmented business community this way: the Chamber-backed development and real estate interests in one corner and everyone else in the other. But fragmentation is not such a bad thing, Tate reasons. "It means Austin isn't like Dallas or Houston where you have old money and old families that have been in charge for a long time," she said. "Austin doesn't have that kind of leadership and not everyone in the Chamber thinks alike. When the membership is polled on issues, most of the time it comes back 50-50 or 45-55. The Chamber is not a single point of view."
Even before SOS, though, small businesses had begun yanking their membership based on what was perceived as the Chamber's single point of view. Texicalli Grill owner Danny Young jumped ship in the mid-Eighties. "At first, the Chamber was more of a community organization, but then Lee Cooke came along..." Young said of the former mayor's reign as president of the organization from 1983-1987. "I like Lee Cooke personally, but under him, they became strictly big-business oriented. Then they got on this growth-at-any-cost kick and it was downhill from there." Patricia Hayes, the president of St. Edward's University who herself chaired the Chamber in 1988, understands the widespread disillusionment that grew out of that decade. "It arose legitimately during the growth period of the Eighties," she said. "The Chamber played a very different role then. The Chamber we have today is much more community-oriented."
Tate is credited with helping the group create a more community-oriented image for itself. "At first, I figured the Chamber was just like any other chamber. I mean, I'm a business person, so of course I thought they did a good job as an advocate for business, but I never really paid much attention to it." She recalled one meeting with some Chamber leaders just over two years ago that convinced her to become an active participant. "I walked out of there and said, `I'll be damned, they feel the same way I do about Austin.' It was then that I really caught the bug."
It could be said that Tate is a high achiever and an earnest networker. Her life at TateAustin began 10 years ago as an employee. That was when Cathy Bonner owned the company under her own name and employed less than a handful of people. Bonner took a leave of absence to help get Ann Richards the governor's job and left Tate in charge. When Richards appointed Bonner to head the Texas Department of Commerce, Tate took advantage of a fortuitous moment. She bought Bonner out of the company in 1990 and hung a new shingle under the name Bonner & Tate, keeping Bonner's high-profile identification to help build business. In five years, Tate established a smart list of clients, tripled billings, and the company grew from three employees to 20 -- 15 women and five men. With clients and credibility under her belt, she changed the company name to TateAustin and moved down the street to set up shop in the historic Koppel building at Fourth and Congress.
Tate provides counsel to Brackenridge Hospital, Capital Metro, and the City of Austin where transportation matters are concerned. Other clients include St. Edward's University, the San Antonio Spurs, Randall's Food Markets, and the Del Webb Corp., the Phoenix-based development firm that's building a mega community for "active seniors" in Georgetown. Tate admits to being nervous about tending to non-paying Chamber affairs while trying to keep her own business going. Unlike her predecessors, she doesn't hail from a large corporation where there's plenty of back-up to go around. But Tate isn't much like her predecessors -- and she's probably the only Chamber chair to live south of the river and east of I-35. Austin City Councilmember Brigid Shea sees a refreshing change ahead for the Chamber. "She has the kind of leadership qualities that we need in this community, someone who can move the Chamber in a direction that it's needed to go for a long time." George Cofer, programs manager for the Save Barton Creek Association, is struck by her vision of Austin as a sustainable city. "Kerry is actually touched by that vision. She knows she is working within a very narrow window of time and she's very focused and smart about what she can accomplish."
Tate and her board of directors absconded to Boerne in late September to hash out some "strategic initiatives" for the new year. In addition to Tate's three "clear and present danger issues," the list is fairly meaty. It includes the usual things -- downtown redevelopment and regional planning -- but the goals also focus on mobility issues, the development of workforce training opportunities, and formal recognition of neighborhood organizations. The new Chamber also believes that, while the high-tech industry serves a significant economic function, it's time to diversify. Tate estimates that maybe 20% of Chamber efforts will go toward recruiting outside industry, while the remaining 80% will be concentrated here at home. "Our job growth will come from existing companies. The large companies here are so vital to Austin, but this is a small business town. Companies the size of mine are doing some really interesting things. Those are the ones that are going to prosper, along with the big companies."
All this happy talk can make some people edgy. It makes Tate feel exhilarated. "This is the first time in a long time that so many people are singing off the same page of the hymn book," she says. "Maybe what that means is that the next time we disagree on something, we'll be better at it." It's true that Tate has a charm that makes you want to believe, and she's made believers out of key people who otherwise never put much stock in the Chamber. But can she succeed in getting the Chamber to do good by this town and spiff up the group's image in the process? Time will tell, but this much we do know: She's facing the toughest public relations battle of her career.
Copyright © 2022 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.