Retooling the Austin Machine

The incorporation of "Keep Austin Weird" into an official city white paper got most of the attention last week when the Mayor's Task Force on the Economy presented its initial report and recommendations for revving up Austin's once-hot, now-not business climate. (As former Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut, now a senior fellow at the Urban Land Institute, told the City Council, "I thought that was a misprint ... I thought 'Keep Austin Wired' made a lot of sense.") But preserving Austin's cultural vitality -- what the task force means by "weird" -- is but one of several paths down which the panel, led by council members Will Wynn and Betty Dunkerley, thinks the city should travel.

Overshadowing the effort is Austin's new rep as a mecca of the "creative class," in the parlance of author

Richard Florida. According to the white paper by local economist Jon Hockenyos, "the broadly defined creative sector accounts for more than half of the local economy." This "broadly defined" sector includes high-tech, entertainment and media, education, and professional services -- that is, pretty much all of Austin's major enterprises. But as Hockenyos notes, even "noncreative" Austin industries and employers -- like, say, Whole Foods Market or Schlotzsky's -- "are bastions of real-world creativity."

The "creative class" rhetoric rests on the thesis that cities rise and fall based on the talent in their citizenry-cum-labor pool, not on traditional "incentives" to employers. While the task force stopped short of telling Austin to abandon such tools, it does recommend that City Hall use caution and develop "a revised policy on business incentives" that takes community goals into account. Equally important, in the task force view, is supporting small business and entrepreneurship, largely by getting City Hall's bulk out of businesses' way. "We know we're not the most important player" in economic development, says Dunkerley, "but we need to figure out how not to put up barriers." Wynn went farther, telling the council that "Frankly, we don't have a business-friendly environment. ... We've heard some horror stories" from small firms tortured by city bureaucracy.

Then there's the weird part. As has been hinted for months, the task force wants an exhaustive overhaul of the city's cultural arts programs; the report calls for further study and action "to sustain and improve Austin's creative and cultural amenities and sectors." "We need to increase the awareness of the importance of cultural vitality," Wynn told his colleagues -- both as a "quality of life" amenity and as a thriving industry in its own right. Another recommendation calls for City Hall to recognize and honor businesses that "create a significant number of new jobs and contribute to the quality of life in the community."

The work of the task force continues with subcommittees doing detail work on traditional incentives, small business, and "keeping Austin weird." The City Council should take action on any resulting policies next spring.

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