Austin @ Large: Austin at Large

Opportunity, Knocked: Will Drunken Frat Boys Drive Austin's Economy Into the Ditch?

Austin At Large
By now, my colleagues know all too well how I feel about big outdoor rock concerts like the ACL Fest. I thought our cover last week should feature a drunken frat boy -- let's call him Ryan -- passed out in his String Cheese-wear in a puddle of mud in front of a wobbly Port-o-Let. (We could follow Ryan as he staggered around Zilker Park on a little map, like Billy in The Family Circus.) For some reason, this idea was not universally embraced.

But I'm as happy to separate Ryan from his money as any other Austinite, and I guess I'm not alone. Twice in the past week I've heard hotshot economists tell business leaders (well, a lot of them were business followers, but we can pretend) that ACL Fest is a harbinger of Austin's future. Both in the Opportunity Austin deal thrown by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and at the East Austin Economic Summit sponsored by the Austin Community Development Corp., tourism and hospitality were pegged as essential growth industries that will lead the recovery that's still just around the corner.

In the Eastside context, this was comprehensible; many of the entrepreneurs in the room (such as the restaurants) were already providing hospitality services or were suppliers and vendors to other businesses in that industry. It made much less sense to hear the chamber's high-dollar consultants tout to a room full of other high-dollar consultants -- and bankers and developers and lawyers and, you know, chamber types -- the virtues of an industry that, at the scale necessary to have any real long-term influence on the region's economy, is thoroughly homogenized and unweird, subject to intense competition from other regions with like minds, and dominated by low-wage service work. I thought this was what Austin was trying to avoid.

The More Things Don't Change --

But then, we've been hearing about the tourism boom that's coming to save Austin for at least 30 years, so maybe we will continue to avoid it. Of course, we do have a growing and occasionally thriving hospitality industry, mostly keyed to live music and our other cultural and natural attractions (not the Capitol, not the Longhorns) -- precisely the kind of uniquely Austintatious elements that the Chamber of Commerce has for decades not understood, not appreciated, and done its level best to threaten. I do so wish I could report that Opportunity Austin was the dawning of a new era that the chamber hinted it might be. But some things never change. Keep Austin weird; keep the boosters clueless.

At least the chamber put improving its own image on its Opportunity Austin to-do list. Newbies in the audience may not realize that once upon a time the Chamber of Commerce was a genuinely powerful and influential entity, part of the "iron triangle" -- with the Statesman and the pre-Toby Futrell city management -- within which Austin power resided, with the progressives on the outside looking in. Then the tech boom happened, and people with money -- not just the same old hippies -- started moving here who actually valued things like growth management and cultural vitality, and one day we all looked up and realized nobody gave a rip about the chamber any more.

This was evident last week in, of all places, the Statesman, which, right square in the middle of its lengthy bob-job on Opportunity Austin, had the temerity to quote Peter Zandan, the designated wise man of Austin high tech, saying that gosh, most techies really don't care about the kind of "recovery" that interests the chamber, because they're doing business worldwide, but sure, local bankers and lawyers might care about new construction starts and the aggregate regional payroll, because that's how they make money. Such an honest perspective on regional "recovery" is welcome in any venue, but of course, the Statesman paused only for a moment to let the bad smell dissipate and then went back to drooling over Opportunity Austin getting us "back in the game."

Lost Opportunity

What game is that? Hide-and-seek, apparently. The Opportunity Austin "roadmap to recovery" wanders as aimlessly through the economic future as any drunken frat boy at Zilker Park last weekend. Medical devices! Branch offices! Auto parts warehousing! (This Toyota plant in San Antonio is gonna work miracles throughout the region!) Meanwhile, things that are really happening on the road to recovery right now aren't on the chamber's map. What a surprise.

For example, even as Austin Energy prepares next month to release a strategic plan with (on orders from the City Council) an unprecedented emphasis on renewables, and even as the utility (like many others in America) struggles to meet the demands of customers who are already buying green power, the Opportunity Austin report calls clean energy a "next wave" industry like nanotech or biotech -- in other words, one that won't really be commercially viable for decades. And while the Opportunity Austin roadmap does note the existence of a gaming industry in Austin, music (except as a tourist draw) and film still lie in terra incognita, even though the synergy between them and gaming is obvious to everyone who actually works in Austin's creative industries. The latter myopia, unfortunately, extended to the Eastside summit -- during discussion of the New Mueller, much mention was made of the new Seton Children's Hospital (a significant but hardly global project) which won't be finished until 2007, and not a word was said about the Austin Studios, which is already there. Which one do you think could be more important?

Given the timing, it's hard not to see Opportunity Austin as a response to, and not a continuation of, the work of the Mayor's Task Force on the Economy, whose recommendations were at least on the right track, though not well and thoroughly refined. The idea that industrial recruitment should happen within a strategic context, driven by community values -- that, in other words, we shouldn't just say yes to everyone -- was clear in the Task Force effort but none too evident in the Opportunity Austin roadmap. It was easy to mock the Task Force, but which would you rather have -- a Keep Austin Weird committee, or auto-parts warehousing? If, as we saw with the budget, Will Wynn and his pro-business majority end up being the minority on the City Council, the "game" the chamber wants to play may be tug-of-war with City Hall and the citizens. Just like old times. end story

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Opportunity Austin, Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, chamber, economic recovery, clean energy, creative industries, music industry, film industry, gaming, Mayor's Task Force on the Economy, roadmap for recovery

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