Thursday, June 13, 2013

Austin Envy?

By Alex Pearlstein, Director of Projects.

I recently celebrated my tenth anniversary at Market Street. The very first project I ever worked on when I began at the firm in 2003 was the Greater Austin Economic Development Strategy. It hadn’t even been branded Opportunity Austin yet. Recently, I managed the development of the third Opportunity Austin strategy, set to begin implementation next year. In between have been another full strategy and two mid-course strategic assessments. I’ve spent a lot of time in Austin, but seemingly discover something new every time I visit. 

It is interesting that the title of a recent Forbes piece extolling the virtues of the city is “Austin Envy.” Quite often at Market Street we feel our clients have a slight affliction of this type. Regardless of the community’s size, they almost always want to be benchmarked against Austin for their competitive assessment. In many cases, we try to gently steer them in other directions. It’s hard to be an Austin – and even Austin wasn’t always Austin! The recipe takes some pretty choice and unique ingredients, a lot of time on the stove, serious TLC from the chefs, and a dash of luck tossed in for good measure. 

First, the ingredients. State capital. Major research university with over 50,000 smart kids. Beautiful scenery, rivers, and lakes. A live music culture that started small but morphed into a multi-media juggernaut (Austin City Limits, South-by-Southwest). Transformative leaders like George Kozmetsky, Pike Powers, and Gary Farmer. The time on the stove is necessary for a local music scene to evolve into a global new media extravaganza. For a critical mass of “cool stuff” to be developed and nurtured. To seed a semiconductor sector that grows a multi-dimensional technology economy. To protect greenspace. To build trails. To construct high-rise condos and office towers. To build an entrepreneurial “ecosystem” that ranks among the country’s most dynamic. To become a known destination to attract top companies from across the country and world. Yadda yadda yadda. That’s why it’s tough to “become” Austin. But what I tell communities that aspire to be more “Austin-esque” is that you have to start somewhere. Do something great and then keep doing it day after day, month after month, year after year. You might not eventually become an Austin, but you’ll become a heck of a good You. 

The work of the “chefs” should not be discounted. Austinites of all stripes and lengths of residence LOVE the place and are passionate about its future. They’re progressive. They provide resources for their community to grow. They sweat the small stuff, obsessing about the details of public space, green energy and sustainability, building materials and design, recreation spaces, inclusiveness, etc. It all adds up; but you can’t get to critical mass without going atom by atom. 

It should also be noted that the City of Austin and its metro are not necessarily cut from the same cloth. The cities and counties outside Austin proper are much different than the core city and offer the types of suburban housing choices, affordability, schools, big-box retail, and other amenities that people in just about any community are looking for. The City of Austin couldn’t be what it is without a region that can absorb the exponential growth the community has experienced. And oh, by the way, that growth has led to traffic congestion, cost of living increases, consumption of greenspace, and other issues that many Austinites fear is compromising the greatness of their city. 

As for the “dash of luck?” Who knows – maybe it really has been all good genes and smart rearing. Or maybe it will take luck to keep Austin weird and wonderful as the inexorable forces of growth continue. We’ll watch the stove and keep you posted.