Austin At Large: Cars That Go “Boom!”
Let’s never be desperate enough to hook up with Elon Musk, OK?
I had not thought that Austin's lack of a goofy giant landmark statue would serve us ill in the perennial economic-development Hunger Games, but Tulsa has shown me how wrong I was. Oklahoma's Second City has the 75-foot-tall Golden Driller, who kinda looks like the Jolly Green Giant, except gold, and leaning on an oil rig. For now, he's been remade into the world's largest statue of Elon Musk.
Yes, Tulsa's boy-wonder Mayor G.T. Bynum – the fourth generation in his family to preside over T-Town – has gone all in to catch Musk's eye, as the Tesla honcho seeks a home for his promised "gigafactory" that will produce the "Cybertruck" and perhaps other overpriced toys for those with new money. Musk announced earlier this month that he'd narrowed his site-selection shortlist down to Tulsa and Austin. Our own mayor, who has been to this rodeo before, continued his no-comment policy on eco-devo matters.
You may be thinking to yourself, "If Elon Musk can't tell Austin and Tulsa apart, he smokes more weed than we thought." For obviously this is not a real choice, and one or the other of us is in the game for show. Now, back in my consulting days we had a pretty big client in Tulsa and I've always found it to be much more pleasant than I had been led to believe, even by Tulsans. If you were looking for a small city west of the Mississippi to plant a corporate flag in, it's not a terrible choice. But in no way is it interchangeable with Austin.
If it were earlier in the site-selection process, or if there were other cities on the shortlist (which perhaps there are; we're going by Musk's own word here), then one could argue that either Austin or Tulsa could be a better fit for Tesla depending on the company's priorities. But in a normal company, the attributes desired and required of a city for an investment of this scale would be locked in at this point. Either Musk needs the big incentive package and line-ready manufacturing workforce that Tulsa can offer as it watches its fortunes plummet along with the oil price, or it needs the human capital, nascent expertise in mobility tech, and city-of-choice appeal to skilled workers that Austin has. He can't afford both.
Remember, though Elon Musk is himself wealthy, his various attention-grabbing businesses are not profit-making machines. Tesla's bottom line is buoyed by its ability, as a clean-tech manufacturer, to trade carbon credits with other California companies; despite his recent PR stunt battles with the Golden State, he cannot easily move his existing plant (which was an auto plant long before Tesla) elsewhere. His Boring Company tunneling escapades and the ongoing Hyperloop vaporware are nowhere near prime time, let alone at scale. His current foothold at the tip of Texas, the SpaceX complex at Boca Chica Beach near Brownsville, has only recently ramped up operations after about five years of delays.
What Musk has excelled at manufacturing, on a scale that can literally be seen from space, is messy drama, every time he opens his mouth or jumps on social media, often to the real detriment of his own businesses. We all know this, and it's why Austin being in his sights for the gigafactory felt to many like a threat, or at least an annoyance, rather than a promise. We really are not that desperate, even in pandemic conditions, to put up with that noise. Besides, "Tesla in Tulsa" is fun to say and we should encourage it.
Yet we also know that Elon Musk has a sizable following of weird-ass fanboys – not as distasteful or pathetic as Alex Jones' tribe, but in the same time zone – who show up whenever his name is invoked to explain away his years of overpromising and underdelivering, as well as his self-inflicted brand damage. We at the Chronicle will no doubt hear from them when this is published. They will be disappointed if (when?) Tulsa claims this prize.
Staying Out of the Game
I would've let the Tesla news pass with mere eye-rolling if we were not at a sensitive time in our own boom-and-bust cycle. Sure, COVID-19 represents an external shock that Austin can weather better than other cities, and cheap oil and gas doesn't hurt our economy as much as it once did, or as it does other Texas metros (or Tulsa). But it's been a while since the last big-deal eco-devo announcement (I guess Apple's new site out at Robinson Ranch?) and the city and Chamber of Commerce would not pass up a chance at good news.
The chamber is now helmed by Laura Huffman, who likewise has a fan club among my cohort of engaged Austinites who still think she should have been promoted to city manager (in lieu of Marc Ott) back in 2008. (In between, she's helmed a major environmental group, because this is the New Austin and that no longer conflicts with running the chamber.) During her time at City Hall in the Aughts, Austin forged its deal with Samsung and the chamber's Opportunity Austin eco-devo partnership with the city took off, as well as the Mueller, Seaholm, and Green Water real estate deals. So this is not Huffman's first rodeo either.
Since then, it's been politically accepted that Austinites do not like corporate deals, and that the city doesn't need to be hasty or generous in offering them. We can participate pro forma if need be to unlock the state's money (which is also less forthcoming than it once was), but a Samsung or Mueller-sized deal to land the likes of Tesla would fall under attack immediately. As a guiding policy to get us out of the COVID-19 wilderness, this reflexive antipathy may not be enough. But specifically where Elon Musk is concerned, it's good that we've built up some immunity to such fevers.