Will exploding growth and increasing diversity change Austin’s character? Local experts weigh in
Editor’s note: CultureMap Austin partners with Leadership Austin — the region’s premier provider of civic and community leadership development — in this ongoing series of editorial columns meant to inform Austinites about issues facing our city. The current series of columns originate from participants in Leadership Austin’s monthly Engage Breakfast Series. The following summary of November’s Engage breakfast first appeared as a guest post on the Leadership Austin blog.
With this growing global population and rapidly rising cost of living, what does it mean to “Keep Austin Weird”?
This was the question explored in the November installment of Leadership Austin’s Engage breakfast series last week with panelists Kevin Johns (City of Austin Economic Development Department), Jakes Srinivasan (WobeonFest Austin World Music Festival) and Jim Swift (retired KXAN journalist). The discussion was moderated by Shannon Wolfson (KXAN News).
With a growing global population and rapidly rising cost of living, what does it mean to “Keep Austin Weird”?
The City of Austin’s Economic Development Department has played a crucial role in shaping the impact that this influx has on our region, and the city’s efforts earned the 2013 Gold Award from the International Economic Development Council for their Global Commerce Strategy earlier this year.
Johns noted that the city has launched many programs to support small businesses owned by international residents. The city has a program that awards small-business loans to merchants who agree to hire hard-to-employ people. The city tapped contacts in various ethnic groups as they conducted outreach to other countries with similar ethnic makeups for F1 promotion. Johns also supported the idea of working with local merchants associations to create ethnic commercial pockets around the town so that Austin could have its own versions of Chinatown, Little Saigon or perhaps a Hispanic downtown.
“If we are able to use the cultural diversity we have, we have a way to revitalize our city over and over again,” said Johns. “Our economic strategy is to embrace diversity as one of our building blocks.”
Jakes Srinivasan encourages everyone to join a band, because music has united diverse crowds in Austin for many decades already.
But everyone on the panel agreed that top-down solutions cannot sustain the growth and support the new populations on their own. For Austin to embrace this diverse new crowd and make it an asset for the city, people with leadership abilities must step up and take action on the ground, and folks must step outside their comfort zones and explore the unfamiliar.
Srinivasan is exactly that type of person. He plays with six different bands around Austin, and he’s used those connections to help promote the international music scene in Austin by launching a blog and keeping track of world music events around the city.
He encourages everyone to join a band, because music has united diverse crowds in Austin for many decades already. But if you can’t join a band, he encourages you to explore and take advantage of the diverse cultural scene that Austin now has to offer, because those personal relationships are the best way to fight back against cultural stereotypes.
“Without a campaign to infuse the city center with affordable housing, the heart of Austin is destined to atrophy.” — retired KXAN reporter Jim Swift
Swift has seen firsthand the evolution of the city. He moved here in 1965 at age 17 and witnessed how the music scene brought together a diverse crowd at the now-defunct music venue Armadillo World Headquarters with performers such as Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. He saw how the savings and loan industry boom fueled downtown growth in the 1980s and how the tech boom of the 1990s powered further growth and development that drew the ire of environmental groups.
“Through it all, a powerful sense of tolerance and acceptance coursed through the town’s veins,” said Swift. “The city grew because people heard about this place, and what they heard sounded good.”
He pointed out that the city must continue to adapt and address affordability issues as ethnic groups and artists and creative types are priced out of their central neighborhoods. “I believe that without a vigorous and sustained campaign to infuse the city center with affordable housing options, the heart of Austin is destined to atrophy.”
Swift recalled a TV report he did in 1995 when the area’s population hit one million, and there was a quote from then Travis County District Attorney Ronnie Earle in the piece that is just as relevant today: “We can’t build a wall around the city. There’s lots of us who would love to do that, but we can’t do it. So what we have to do is shore up our wall of the spirit so that people who come here get affected by the magic of this place.”
Engage Breakfast Series guest blogger Alicia Dietrich is a public affairs representative at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.