The Austin Chronicle

Then There's This... : Austin's Never-Ending Story

Deadline reporting on the city of reinvention

By Amy Smith, January 20, 2012, News

Welcome to my new column, with my very own title. Since August, I had been in squatter mode, occupying Michael King's "Point Austin" column space every other week. Alas, I am no match for the indefatigable King and his peerless prose, but a girl can dream. As most Chronicle readers already know, Wells Dunbar, who rode herd over the "City Hall Hustle" column for several years, has moved on to start a new chapter in his life, leaving a vacancy in this particular column hole. Enter ... me. Granted, I'm not nearly as clever as the Hustler, but we do both hail from El Paso, and that has to count for something, right?

A brief introduction: I've been with the Chronicle since 1996. I moved to Austin in early 1990, at a time when the city was trying to recover from the savings and loan collapse. The real estate market was belly-up, and bankruptcies were through the roof. I must confess I wasn't immediately taken by the city's coolness. I spent the first six months bouncing between temp jobs and job interviews. And when I wasn't looking for employment, I spent nights pacing the floors and days with my head in the oven, figuratively speaking. I was in a fix. Once I landed a real job and found my way out of my self-imposed darkness, I began falling in love with Austin.

Observation Deck

As a professional observer, if I may call myself that for just one moment, one of the most exciting periods I've witnessed in Austin was the dreamy dot-com bubble, with an endless number of IPOs serving as a symbol of success for so many Web startups – the young darlings who were making it rain in Austin. We may not have been fully grounded in reality, but we were enjoying the ride, some of us more vicariously than others. So what if I didn't have stock options? I had a media pass to the South by Southwest Inter­act­ive Festival, which for me was a little bit like winning a three-figure prize on a scratch-off lottery card. In the spring of 2000, I went to hear Wall Street Journal columnist Kara Swisher, a speaker on one of the Interactive panels who was slated to address the future of dot-coms. Her message (paraphrasing now): There is no future, you idiots. She told the starry-eyed audience that the bubble was already bursting and it was just a matter of time before Austin would start feeling the pain. Talk about harsh. I think very few people in the audience believed Swisher, because times were good and every day was like happy hour. But of course she was right, and the dot-com bust that followed wasn't pretty. It sounds simplistic now, but I've since had to continue to remind myself to listen up when someone in the trenches sounds a warning – no matter how far-fetched it might seem. Thankfully, Austin has an uncanny knack for reinventing itself, creating new communities in the process.

Fast-forward to right now: There's a ton of conundrums and ambitious initiatives in play at the city and county levels (not to mention the entire state), and our incredible shrinking News staff is learning to juggle more things while trying to have fun. It's a balancing act.

Then There's This ...

"The title is its own lead-in," my brother wrote in an email offering up a handful of potential column names when I asked for his help. He is so right. Plus, the title allows one to wander off on so many different tangents. Gosh – where to start? Can the city add just one more task to its plate? Not only is it grappling with new electric rates, there's also a citywide comprehensive plan in the works, a bond oversight committee is weighing what goodies to add to the next bond election, and another citizens committee is considering revisions to the City Charter. Then there's the question of what to do with the city's water rates at a time when residents are using less water. As well, there's a city council election this year, with some potential competition in the mayor's race.

The county is also crackling (creaking?) with new activity as it crafts a master plan for future growth, including a new courthouse. This year's election will bring to office a successor to the recently retired veteran Tax Assessor-Collector Nelda Wells Spears; odds are pretty good that will be Bruce Elfant. County Judge Sam Biscoe will retire in 2014, and there's already plenty of jockeying among prospective candidates. Before you know it, 2013 will be here and our wonderful Legislature will be gaveling in another weird session.

To be sure, there'll be plenty of political and policy issues to write about in this space. I look forward to contributing to the discussion. I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to influence the process.

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