Austin @ Large: Austin at Large

Working on the Chain Gang: Stay Weird, Buy Local, and Get in the City Council's Face

Austin At Large
Last week, Mayor Will Wynn bemoaned the "Austin schizophrenia" that led neighborhood activists -- many of the same people so noisily fighting the big-box invasion -- to give the city grief over changes to the Land Development Code to make it friendlier to small business. Now, neighbors object, as a matter of course, to any change that diminishes their role in the process. So does every other interest group in every other political venue in the whole wide world. Wynn knows that. What Wynn, and others of like mind, need to realize is that many of us citizens see a similar schizophrenia at City Hall.

Since well before Wynn became mayor, we have heard that Austin's uniqueness will save us, that our Weirdness and funky urban-core vitality and nonnegotiable community values will be our "competitive advantage" in the long and maybe bloody race to "recovery," whatever that means. That's what Wynn's Task Force on the Economy concluded; that was the meaning of the fight over the Borders at Sixth and Lamar, a signal event of last campaign season; that's what's behind the whole "creative class" Richard Florida trip. Austin is different, and we like it that way, and we are right to do so. I think that qualifies as a civic consensus.

After agreeing that all of this was true, the council in short order: passed a smoking ordinance designed to slam our most vital cultural sector, the live entertainment industry (and then backtracked after public pressure, but not all the way); gave millions in tax incentives to a mall to be packed with out-of-town chain stores (right in the midst of nearly identical complexes without any public subsidy); shot down repeated attempts to preserve the history and "integrity" of central-city neighborhoods; gave its blessing to two monstrous Wal-Mart Supercenters (with more to come), one in just such a historic urban neighborhood, and now (however reluctantly) will allow another big box to be built over the aquifer.

Were all of these decisions justifiable? Certainly, a council majority thought so, and in some cases I agree with them. But they sure do add up, and anyone who's smart enough to be mayor must realize the message they send in the aggregate. Compared to all the ways the Wynn Council has gotten in the way of keeping Austin weird, its few gestures to the contrary -- especially the after-the-fact ones, like the upcoming big-box impact study -- don't look all that impressive, and citizens who care and vote aren't buying in. That's why Wynn got to sit through, and lose his voice after, the Longest Council Meeting Ever last week.

Local Is as Local --

One of those petty gestures -- the fight over a Starbucks at the airport -- neatly highlights City Hall's Weirdness problem. As you all know by now, most of the "local businesses" at the airport are not really locally owned; the Salt Lick and Matt's El Rancho and the like are run by national concessionaires that have licensed their local brand names. Conversely, many chain outlets at the airport, like Auntie Anne's, are locally owned franchises, the proceeds from which feed Austin's economy. Yet council members who have no problem with a Wal-Mart Monstercenter in the 78704 ZIP code are all atwitter about a Starbucks, just as they were all atwitter about a Popeye's -- despite both being "local business" in this context.

I like to see local brands prominently featured at the airport, but Amy's and Matt's and the Salt Lick have done plenty well on the streets of Austin, next to those same chains whose presence would sully Bergstrom's purity. For some reason, we can have a Starbucks at Sixth and Congress, the very crossroads of our city, but not at the airport. To me, that smacks of downright dishonesty, but it's just the sort of pose the council is eager to strike as long as it's merely symbolic. But actual local businesspeople (and ethnic minority businesspeople at that) get thwarted by the council's standing on "principle," which makes the whole thing as bitter as an overcooked Starbucks' espresso. Should Stacy Dukes-Rhone try harder to get a local coffee shop? Maybe. Is that any of the City Council's business? I thought they were trying to get out of the way of small business. That's what Wynn said, isn't it?

Unchain Your Hearts -- and Wallets

Which brings us, rather bumpily, to the Austin Independent Business Alliance's "Austin Unchained" buy-local day Saturday, Nov. 15. According to the AIBA and Civic Economics -- whose impact study helped drive Borders from Sixth and Lamar -- if we forswear shopping at chain stores just that one day and buy with local merchants, we will inject between $7.2 million and $14.4 million into the Austin economy -- or, more precisely, keep that sum from departing Austin for Arkansas or Ann Arbor or Atlanta or wherever the chain stores live. In one day. (That's assuming that Austinites will spend approximately $45 million on taxable retail sales on Saturday.)

The estimate is rough because, according to Civic Economics, there's no good way to estimate the chains' share of Austin's retail market. Which points to the same question encountered at the airport: What is a chain store? Are HEB and Whole Foods chains or local businesses? Probably the latter, in this context. But if people in Los Angeles or New Orleans go "unchained" and don't shop at Whole Foods, does it hurt our economy? Oh, the quandary.

The point, though, says AIBA, is that just one day of mindful shopping can create a huge economic impact. Which could in turn have a huge political impact. The City Council is already washing its hands of the big-box battle, telling citizens that they need to boycott and pressure and otherwise agitate to keep superstores off the aquifer (and perhaps anywhere else), because clearly City Hall can't do anything about it. This is a load of crap, but let's humor them. A robust response to Austin Unchained would oblige the council -- and remind them that voters are watching and thinking about the poses and actions of Wynn and his cohort. end story

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Big box retail, local business, local flavor, small business, chain stores, Austin Unchained, Austin Independent Business Alliance, AIBA, Civic Economics, Borders, Sixth and Lamar, Starbucks, Wal-Mart, Keep Austin Weird, Mayor's Task Force on the Economy, Bergstrom, creative class

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