The Paradox of Austin

7 Apr

I made the mistake of flying into Austin, Texas the day before the South By South West (SXSW, or just South By, for those in the know) festival kicked off. On a normal day, the plane into Austin has two or three guitars stashed in an overhead bin. This day, every available nook and cranny was filled with instruments. The airport breezeway, baggage claim, and rental car pick up were similarly stuffed, with limp haired musicians and their tools of the trade. As I made my way north on I-35, ever so slowly in the regular bumper-to-bumper traffic, I was quietly thankful that I was leaving the self-imposed and never ending congestion of the “best” (read: progressive, fastest growing, most tolerant, Floridian if you will) city in Texas.

In Buffalo’s quest to regain its greatness, I have come to the conclusion that reputation and brand are more important than reality. Young, beautiful, well-educated people with disposable income follow reputation more than cold, statistical, monetary reality, despite the pleas of libertarians to the contrary. This does not mean such individuals do not make sound economic decisions; rather, I point to the nuance of this choice, that life is about more than taxes, and everyone decides for themselves what they are seeking from a hometown. Some (like corporations with a bottom line profit motive) do want the lowest taxes. Some want good weather. Some want family and history. Some want argument and the opportunity to make their community better. And if you want to live in a hip fun town but still be in Texas, you move to Austin.

Hopefully when you move to Austin, you find what you are looking for . . . because I never fully do on my visits. Is there a better example of reputation not meeting reality? I would say Austin’s national brand is a mix of music, youthful enthusiasm, progressive urban planning and politics, good jobs, and fun, mixed in a sauce of Texas sunshine and free-wheeling libertarian low taxes.

This reputation attracts thousands of people a year, making Austin the fastest growing metro in Texas, and (as a direct result of that fact) the best place for young adults to start a business in the country. But how does that reputation match with reality on the ground? Consider a few facts and comparisons:

– Austin’s fun music orientated reputation is based upon a PBS teevee show, a two week music festival, and six blocks of bars on Sixth Street. Six blocks. Hell, our bar district around Chippewa is almost six blocks if you are willing to walk up Franklin. Thursday in the Square and Rock the Harbor are not SX, and Chippewa is not Sixth Street. But that isn’t much infrastructure on Austin’s part for a national reputation. Imagine if we had a competent CVB that marketed Buffalo as the Festival Capital of America: the two previously mentioned events, plus the second largest Taste event in country, Allentown, Elmwood Arts, Chicken Wing Fest, Powder Keg, Dyngus Day, Citybration, a variety of ethnic festivals, just to get started.  

– Austin is a motorist’s dream, and a nightmare of progressive urban planning. Is there a sidewalk in all of Texas? Even I can tell the horrors of Texas planning: major highways all require a maze of one-way frontage roads, taking 6 line highways and turning them into 12 lane behemoths. Imagine Route 5 and Fuhrmann Boulevard, and extrapolate it to the 90, 190, 290 and 33. Obviously bad planning does not impede all growth.

These highways dominate the city along its spine, north to south. In the towns of Round Rock and Georgetown, sprawltopian suburbs that stretch Austin to nearly 50 miles long, there are obviously codes that state all commercial buildings must be clad in stone, like this beauty named “Old Town Square”:

No, that is not a Mexican-American War era barracks converted into chic loft apartments. Its a new build office park full of dentist offices and realty firms. You have to see it on Google maps to get the full effect of its position on I-35:

Faux stone, but real money – Austin in a nutshell. This treatment seeks to impersonate the actual old stone buildings from the nineteen century that still linger on Main Street in small central Texas towns. Note: Austin, Round Rock, and Georgetown are not these towns. I know architectural standards are seen nationally as an important tool to building pleasing urban areas. But merely covering a Walmart on a 12 lane highway with fake rock veneer doesn’t do much for me.

Austin is trying to get better, and just opened (while I was there) its first passenger light rail on the main cargo line that runs through town. Verdict and ridership from the first weekend? More bikers used the service than expected (39 – more than expected!) and 2900, on average, used the trains each day of the first week. Buffalo’s much maligned, and much shorter system, handles 23,000 passengers a day. If Buffalo leads anywhere on light rail coverage, new or not, there is a problem.

– Let’s once and for all debunk the myth of low tax states having blooming non-governmental industry, or an economy based more on the private sector. Buffalo is often criticized for having such a large proportion of its jobs be government ones. Fair enough. But is this what’s holding us back? Shouldn’t Austin, the poster child for fast private growth, beat our pants off? Hate to break the news but Austin’s economy is based on government jobs.

Austin has 22 entities that employ 2000 people or more. Of those 22, nine are government agencies (local, state, federal and school districts), two are non-profit health care conglomerates, three are higher education (Eds & Meds), and only eight are private companies.

How does Buffalo do? Checking the last Book of Lists, we have 27 entities that employ 2000 or more. Of those 27, six are government agencies, eight are healthcare, one is higher ed, and twelve are private companies. Looks about the same. Austin’s big private employers? Dell, IBM and AT&T. Buffalo’s? HSBC, M&T Bank, supermarkets, Moog and Dresser-Rand. They focus on technology, we focus on banking and manufacturing. But the percentage of the employment based on government largesse is strikingly similar. Total government spending, as a percentage of the economy, was 36% in 2006, and has grown since. If 40% of Buffalo’s economy isn’t government, that just means we don’t have our fair share. 

– To address taxes, I have to return to the highways. Rus Thompson would have an apoplectic fit if he had to drive on Austin’s highway system, and the BRO arm-chair planning crew may have a collective heart attack to see the Skyway-sized interchanges every couple miles. The man-made edifices that dominate the skyline by far belong to the ten lane highway interchanges, that rise ten or twenty stories, in the suburbs and downtown. Driving them can be disorientating (if you look down) as it feels like you are on a roller coaster. “They dream big here,” noted a friend of mine in the car. How to pay for all these many miles of brand new concrete? Tolls:

Since free I-35 is a parking lot at all hours of day and night (the high cost of free roads), driving the toll roads becomes a necessity at some point, especially going east-west. And not cheap tolls either – $0.75 every mile or two, and more if you get lost and have to loop around a couple times like me (you can go I35 North from TX 45, but not South? WTF?). Add in the 8.25% sales tax rate, and it starts to look annoyingly familiar.

– Our very own USRT guys would be proud of me – I was exploring the toll roads because I was headed to the Cedar Park Center to see the AHL Texas Stars play the San Antonio Rampage. The quality of the sports fan is a biased factor I use in judging a city. And here is perhaps where I found Austin’s greatest paradox of all: real hockey, in a real arena, with real hockey fans, in a fake suburb in central Texas.

The arena is in Cedar Park, in the equivalent (geographically and land use wise) of Hamburg’s Erie County Fairgrounds. The Texas Stars, obviously the farm team of Dallas, is in its first year as member of the now 29 team AHL. I wore my retro Sabres shirt to the game, just so everyone knew that I knew that Brett Hull’s foot was obviously in the crease. Interspersed in the crowd of Dallas and Texas jerseys were a smattering of Fliers and Rangers fans – perhaps the transplants explain my pleasant surprise later. I was expecting bad hockey, a bad atmosphere, and bad fans, like I used to get with the Las Vegas Wranglers of the ECHL, who play at the Orleans Casino. Instead, I got a full house (announced crowd of over 6000), $2 beer and $1 hot dog night, a real scoreboard, and real fans who were loud. Sure, corner glass tickets were still available a couple days out. And yes, the guy behind me (acting as the “real” hockey fan) was explaining to his buddy how icing the puck is a great way to get rest to your players if they have been on the ice a while (if I have to explain that rule to you, never mind). But when the Stars scored in OT to win 4-3, the entire arena (your humble author included) stood straight up and screamed. You could almost forget you were in Texas.

14 Responses to “The Paradox of Austin”

  1. STEEL April 7, 2010 at 6:14 pm #

    Nice piece. Funny how going to Texas is turning you into a Llllibrrrull.

    I have never been to Austin but always had a good impression of it based on what I heard. I imagined a great urban place filled with interesting neighborhoods and people – walkable of course – I was shocked by the reality when Dan, a frequent commenter and proprietor of Cyburbia,org, showed his pictures of Austin here Wow, it looks like the back side of Cheektowaga with better trees. That balloon was deflated for me. To be fair hie did post some threads with better pictures but over all his impressions (after living there for a while) are exactly as you describe here.

    This was also kind of interesting but very odd in a way

    • Brian Castner April 8, 2010 at 1:05 pm #

      Your first set of pictures look like most of the “old” (40’s-60’s) south west to me. Austin, Amarillo, San Antonio, Lubbock, Albuquerque, etc. Some people find it charming. I find it run down. An your second set I’ve seen before, and is fascinating, in a surreal way.

      As far as becoming a lllbbrrll, I don’t think this trip to TX did much. I lived on the TX border in Clovis, NM for years, and have made countless trips to the Great State. The thing you notice is that I like facts, not rumor and hypocrisy. So if Austin is so great, where are the facts? And if Buffalo is so bad, same question. It all seems reputation to me, which is cheaper and easier to fix than facts. And on the politics side, I always was a conservative because they dealt with the world as it was (welfare policy is counterproductive, war and force are sometimes needed, the people are better spenders of $$$ than government, etc), and llbbrrlls thought about the world the way they wished it would be (its no poor person’s fault they are poor (or addicted to drugs, etc), everyone deserves a 12th chance, lets talk to Iraq more, bigger government is better, etc). Death Panels and recent poltiics have damaged our conservative brand. Perhaps some day it will be back to solutions, not sound bites. In the meantime, I write on, and happily call out Dems when they stray as well.

      • STEEL April 8, 2010 at 1:49 pm #

        I will agree with you to a point but current-day Republicans are living in a made up Rush Limbaugh fantasy world and I can’t blame a child for his position in life who was brought up in a drug infested neighborhood by dysfunctional parents. That is the reality.

  2. RvrSide April 8, 2010 at 9:24 am #

    I’ve always thought Buffalo should market itself as a great small city. Your article makes me wonder if our silver bullet is just an attitude adjustment?

    • Brian Castner April 8, 2010 at 1:06 pm #

      I agree completely, and have been saying so for some time.

      • STEEL April 8, 2010 at 1:50 pm #

        As have I.

  3. lefty April 8, 2010 at 12:48 pm #

    Interesting points on the job numbers. I do not have access to the Buffalo numbers but how many firms does Buffalo have that employ say 500-1999 workers? Austin has 50+.

    The key to a healthy economy is not the 2000+ employers. Well unless you have lots and lots like NYC or Chicago. The key is the mid range employers and small businesses. Companies that employ 100 to 1000 in my opinion.

    Firms like M&T Bank are going to have people like Wilmers, with a lot of political power. On the other hand firms in Buffalo like Computer Task Group. They treat Buffalo great, provide high quality jobs but most people have no idea who the leadership is.

    I worked at a web firm that had 175-225 employees depending on the economy. The average age of the staff was 26 and the average compensation was $75k. It is a private company with no plans to go public. They invest a ton of money in training and have a solid career path. These are the types of firms that really make an economy boom.

    The other point to consider with Austin is it is a city that is 4th on the list in regards to size and Texas has 6 metro regions in the top 25 nation wide. Point being, the economy of the state or better put the dynamic of power is different in Texas. In NYS, Buffalo is just barely the #2 and the difference between #2 and #4 is close but the real challenge is the difference between #1 and #2.

    Anyways I really like your concept of branding and working with what you have. I think a youth movement would do wonders for the COB. There is already the culture, there just needs to be the housing and jobs downtown.

    • Brian Castner April 8, 2010 at 1:32 pm #

      Interesting question. You can’t get the Book of Facts online, so I have to reference the dead tree edition. According to it, Buffalo has 73 entities that employ between 1999 and 533 workers. That’s where the chart stops. That’s where Ford, Greatbatch, GEICO, Rich, BCBS WNY, National Fuel, First Niagara, Key Bank and the rest of the colleges end up. And CTG is not on the list anywhere. So, I may agree with you that your “money is made” on those mid-sized companies. But I also read research that says most new jobs are created by firms of 5-50 workers. IMHO, its at the entreprenuerial level that Buffalo loses. Our laid off workers collect unemployment, while in San Fran they start their own companies. But I’d need to see more real research to draw any real conclusions.

      I’m not sure our challenge is the gap between #1 and #2. I think its just being #2. We’re Tacoma.

      • lefty April 8, 2010 at 1:48 pm #

        That is because a laid off worker from a manufacturing operation needs a new factory to go work at. A laid off web developer just needs a computer.

        I think your line “They focus on technology, we focus on banking and manufacturing” says a lot about the challenges in the region. There is no problem in trying to fill in manufacturing jobs as the region has the infrastructure and workforce for it. The challenge comes when efforts to rebuild the manufacturing sector harms the private sector and small businesses.

        I do not think any elected official that works for the region even knows what a good website is or how technology can be transformational. So how can we expect these people to know talent and help it become something. Mayor Brown said he ‘had a meeting with Google’ and the first thing I thought was how much damage did that meeting do?

        I would love to see subsidized office space even on a fraction of volume to subsidized housing. The City of Buffalo should lease office space, create small work offices that fit 5-20 workers and put out a national ad for free rent. Want to start a startup? Come to Buffalo. If you business plan has merit, and it would need people like Chris Smith doing the review not a city hack, you get 2 years of free rent and utilities in our downtown core.

        After 2 years, if you have made progress, you go before a special commission to help you get the same advantages large companies like M&T get to stay in the region.

        No wage requirements. No hiring requirements. Hell, it would be best if every single position was filled with people who did not live in the region.

      • Brian Castner April 8, 2010 at 2:00 pm #

        I love your idea, especially because I think pop growth is one of those things that affects silver bullet attitude change. But look at your plan, and imagine the reaction: “Why should my tax dollars subsidize someone from out of town – people here need jobs.” And “We threw our money away on a restaurant – how can you guarantee a return?” And “We need to ensure those jobs pay a living wage and the workers there have an opportunity to unionize.” How much would it cost to pay rent and utiliities for 20 workers in the Main Place Tower for one year? $50K? $100K? Is there a better way for BURC or BUDC to spend $1M?

      • lefty April 8, 2010 at 4:43 pm #

        Ya. It is those ‘why this’ and ‘why that’ that are a big problem.

        At some point for Buffalo and the region to move forward, a generation is going to have to get the shaft. At some point, a generation has to be told it is not going to be like it was for your parents. Not that the change hasn’t already happened, but public policy has to change and tell a generation the truth for one.

        I am not saying to walk away from high paying blue collar jobs. You just need to walk away from it being the backbone of the economy.

      • STEEL April 9, 2010 at 11:50 pm #

        I am pretty sure that has already happened.

  4. RvrSide April 8, 2010 at 3:22 pm #

    We could offer free or low rent to a start-up on a vacant house…rehab costs could be less than a buildout. just an idea


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