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Nurturing the creative and weird keys to current, future success

Wednesday, November 20, 2002 by

Council Members Betty Dunkerley and Will Wynn are set to unveil today a process for revitalizing Austin’s economy, with one piece resting firmly on the creative component epitomized by the slogan “Keep Austin Weird.” The two Council members and city economic advisor Jon Hockenyos say the traditional model for creating new business is still important, but Austin must look beyond the financial incentives and other lures that cities have long used to bring in new companies. Hockenyos says those traditional methods are still important and he will be leading a working group of citizens to study how Austin can improve on the traditional model.

Margo Weisz, executive director of the Community Development Corporation, will lead a second working group looking at ways to assist small businesses and entrepreneurs trying to compete in today’s market. Dunkerley and Wynn, while recognizing the difficulty of revising ordinances, say that Austin must look at regulations that do not fit small businesses. A perfect example of problems caused by uniform application of those ordinances, they agreed, was the tiny Taco Xpress’need for a variance from parking regulations. (See In Fact Daily, Monday, Nov. 18, 2002 .) Dunkerley said the city must gain some flexibility in dealing with those small businesses rather than using a one size fits all approach. In addition, the Council will be looking at Austin Energy’s rates, which are competitive for large businesses and for residential customers but not for small businesses, she said.

Wynn says that Austin—recognized once again this week by Money Magazine as one of the top 10 places to live in the country—has what cities “with virtually unlimited economic development budgets” can only wish for. Our place on that list, he says, is priceless. That sentiment is one of the major themes of a report on the city’s economic future which will be released today. But the city must do more. For one thing, he says, Austin must develop an economic strategy. When Austin was in its explosive growth stage, there was no need to think about a strategy that would promote growth. According to Hockenyos, more than 280,000 jobs were created here between 1990 and 2000. But over the past two years, the city has lost more than 17,000 jobs in the high tech sector.

Randall Kempner has been an advisor for the Clusters of Innovation Initiative, a project sponsored by the U.S. Council on Competitiveness togenerate policy recommendations developing and supporting innovative firms. He will be in charge of the third working group, which was assigned the task of coming up with a way to measure what stodgier cities lack and probably overlook—in short, the weirdness quotient. At the same time, that group will look for ways to help support that creative component. Hockenyos says this group will be trying to figure out how the city can increase its leverage of funds already in place and find more. Dunkerley said she would like the city to establish a Business Recognition Program which would recognize businesses for creating jobs and for contributing to the quality of life that makes Austin so attractive.

The economist said that 54 percent of wages paid in Austin go to those doing work characterized as “creative jobs.” That includes those in professional services fields such as law, advertising and consulting, he said, but also includes the various entertainment sectors. The numbers tell the story. Hockenyos writes in the report that will be released this morning, “(T)he most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that 242,070 Austin MSA residents were working at a creative job during 2000, equaling 36.1 percent of the total MSA workforce. The average annual salary paid at these positions was $52,285, meaning that creative workers in the Austin area earned over $12.6 billion, representing 54.4 percent of total wage paid. In other words, the broadly defined creative sector accounts for more than half of the local economy.” Management and professional services firms alone comprised nearly one-quarter of Travis County’s payroll in 2000, compared to 16 percent statewide. But there are a number of sectors that could play an important part in Austin’s future, says Hockenyos. He said the food sector is just one such example. Whole Foods, which was founded in Austin and is headquartered here, is the largest buyer of organic foods in the US, he said. Hockenyos mentioned Schlotzsky’s as another example and Wynn said he saw a Schlotzsky’s in Seoul, South Korea last week.

Dunkerley and Wynn both said they are very concerned about the income gap in the community. Hockenyos’ report states that in 1989 those living in Central East Austin were earning roughly 80 percent of the overall median income for the city. However, in 1999, those living in Central East Austin were earning about two-thirds of the city’s median income. The trend is not one unique to Austin, of course, but one that Wynn and Dunkerley hope the working groups will address.

Hockenyos pointed out that he, Weisz and Kempner know each other and are all graduates of the LBJ School of Public Affairs, making communication and cooperation between the groups easier. The Council members said each working group would be composed of 10-15 members, with most of those slots already filled. Dunkerley said people were competing to be part of the process. The organizational meeting is expected to be Dec. 10, with each group meeting five or six times before releasing one or more reports sometime in March.

Need continues to grow for care for uninsured

Travis County Commissioners yesterday got a first look at proposed legislation to create a Central Texas hospital district that could address the swelling health care needs of Travis County.

A joint city county steering committee has spent a number of months studying the hospital district concept. Voters would be asked to approve the district next year. The district is intended to address a number of discrete goals, chair Clark Heidrick told commissioners, not the least of which is providing adequate capacity for an overburdened system already in danger of failure.

One of the first steps would be to put state legislation on the books that matches the needs of Austin and Travis County. The legislative working group of the steering committee, chaired by attorney David Hilgers, has molded hospital district options under the current Health and Safety Code to create a balance for Austin and Travis County: a district that can be expanded as counties choose to join it, with the authority to appoint, rather than elect, board members.

The steering committee presented its initial proposal for legislation to the Travis County delegation to fairly good reviews, Heidrick said. The legislation will be filed once some of the finer points on governance are hammered out.

The committee estimates that Austin now spends 5 cents of its current tax rate on health care, while Travis County spends a penny. But the need is growing. Trauma centers and emergency rooms are overcrowded, Heidrick said. Options for chemical dependency and mental health care are lacking. And a growing number of uninsured and underinsured people—including those from the surrounding counties—are pouring into the facilities at both Seton and St. David’s.

In fact, St. David’s estimates that 37 percent of the people who walk in the door at the hospital emergency room come from outside Travis County. Seton says 25 percent of its trauma cases and 15 percent of its emergency room patients are not county residents.

“Many of these patients are not able to pay,” Heidrick said. “The result is that neither Seton nor St. David’s nor Travis County nor Austin can continue to bear that expense. The question is to how to fairly address that situation.”

All city and county offerings must be integrated into one hospital system and that system must be transparent, Heidrick said. Transparent means taxpayers must be comfortable with the system, able to see the public dollars that go in and the deliverables that come out. And local taxpayers must be taxed fairly.

Upon creation of the district, the City of Austin would transfer Brackenridge Hospital to the district, along with the lease with Seton. That would also include county clinics. The hospital district would have a number of powers beyond taxing authority. It could lease the hospital, sell it, contract with providers, create a health plan or joint venture, partner with a medical school and issue bonds.

Hilgers outlined plans for legislation to create the district, which would initially include Austin and Travis County. Directors would be appointed by the City of Austin and Travis County, with an original board of nine members. Adjoining counties who wish to join could do so by election.

Representation on the board would be proportional. Travis County would have nine members, possibly a split of 4 appointed by the city, 3 appointed by the county and 2 appointed jointly by the city and the county. That split has been a sensitive subject, and County Judge Sam Biscoe joked, “They have not formally rejected my recommendation of 8 for the county and 1 for the city?” That drew some laughter from the room.

Appointing, rather than electing, is also a second point for discussion. Rafael Quintanilla, who chairs the steering committee’s governance working group, said the group included attorneys from hospital districts throughout the state and the consensus of the group was that an appointed board is preferable to an elected board because of the complexity of its oversight. It also means it would be a board “not beholden to a group and would have the interest of the entire community at heart,” Quintanilla said.

The working group will make a similar presentation to City Council this morning.

Large tract would have industrial zoning regardless of tenant

Last night, Zoning and Platting Commissioners reluctantly endorsed a zoning change on 172 acres of land along FM 973 near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. The site is one of two being considered by a major pharmaceutical company for a facility in Austin. (See In Fact Daily, Nov. 14, 2002.) The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce is working with the company to find a suitable Austin location for the facility, which has been dubbed “Project Atlantis.” The site is currently zoned DR (development reserve), and agent Jim Wittliff is seeking a change to LI (light industrial). The City Council approved an ordinance annexing the majority of the tract in September.

The zoning case had been postponed at the ZAP’s last meeting after commissioners requested more information. The lack of specifics about the site caused concern for Chair Betty Baker, who sought to limit the potential uses for the site should the Project Atlantis deal fall through. “I have no problem with the industrial zoning in that area, but I have a problem with not knowing or having any idea . . . what’s going to happen there,” she said. “I certainly can understand and appreciate the need for development and for employment bases in this city. I applaud you for that. But we’re zoning the land . . . and the prospective user you may be thinking about may not come.”

While Commissioner Melissa Whaley questioned the appropriateness of LI zoning in an area that is now primarily agricultural, Commissioner Keith Jackson expressed a desire to more closely control what would be a major development. “I would be more comfortable if this came back as a PDA,” Jackson said. “I have a hard time cutting loose from this. I don’t feel it’s giving us appropriate control around the airport.” City staff told commissioners that a PDA (planned development agreement), while much more specific, would also require renotification on the zoning case and would take at least three months to prepare.

Jackson initially moved to deny the requested zoning change to LI, but Baker offered a substitute motion to approve with an extensive list of conditions. “I don’t want people who come in and apply for zoning to feel that we have to know how every inch is going to be developed, but I do want them to know that it’s not going to be gift wrapped,” she said. At Jackson’s suggestion, she described the Interport development owned by Pete Dwyer approximately one mile away on SH 71 as an example. (See In Fact Daily, Sept. 11, 2000.) She cited the setbacks, landscape buffers, cut and fill rules and development regulations on that tract as ones that would also be appropriate for the tract along FM 973. She also listed numerous uses to be prohibited on the site, including vehicle storage, consumer sales and services, exterminating, laundry service, liquor sales, automobile repair and several other automotive-related uses. The commission unanimously approved the motion. City staff will compile the motion and list of conditions and prohibited uses for a review by the ZAP at the commission’s meeting on December 3rd. That would allow the commission enough time to rescind its decision if members decide they’re not satisfied with the conditions.

© 2002 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Another commissioner leaves town . . . Zoning and Platting Commission Chair Betty Baker told commissioners Tuesday night that Commissioner Angular Adams will be resigning this week. She’s moved to Bastrop, which means she’s no longer eligible to serve. Adams did not attend last night’s ZAP meeting. Her departure means the City Council now has two positions to fill on this important commission. Council Member Danny Thomas must appoint a replacement for Vincent Aldridge, who moved to Killeen, and Council Member Daryl Slusher needs to find someone to take over Adams’ position . . . Democratic doings . . . Newly-elected Dist. 51 State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez is having a fundraiser at Nuevo Leon, 1501 E. 6th St, from 5:30 to 7:30 pm on Thursday. For more information, email eduardor@austin.rr.com . . . Rebate recommended for water equipment . . . If the City Council agrees, Motorola will receive a rebate of more than $53,000 on equipment that cost the company approximately $200,000. The Resource Management Commission last night unanimously approved recommending the rebate for the installation of high efficiency motors, pumps and variable frequency drives at the company’s William Cannon location. Commissioners Michael Kuhn and Carole Barron abstained because they work for Motorola. The new equipment, which is used to purify water for the manufacturing of silicon wafers, is estimated to save 213 kilowatts at a cost of $250 per kilowatt saved. Fred Yebra with Austin Energy said that of the 400-500 energy audits Austin Energy conducts for businesses yearly, about 20 to 25 percent implement its recommendations, which qualifies them for a rebate . . . Franks honored . . . Travis County Commissioners honored Paul Franks Tuesday for his 27 years of service to the county. Franks is retiring as program manager of road maintenance for the Transportation and Natural Resource Department . . . Airport route in doubt . . . Capital Metro’ s citizen advisory board may recommend cutting the Airport bus route, Commissioner Carl Tepper told the Urban Transportation Commission this week. Unless Cap Metro plans to promote and advertise it properly, current ridership does not justify the expense of the route, he said . . . RMA order approved . . . Travis County Commissioners have agreed to the Texas Department of Transportation’ s minute order on the creation of the Travis-Williamson Regional Mobility Authority, but only with the understanding that the RMA would pursue the southeast leg of State Highway 45. The minute order only includes US 183A, but commissioners stressed that the SH 45 link is vital to the success of SH 130 and its viability as a toll road . . . Changes at the sheriff’s office . . . With the impending retirement of Chief Deputy Dan Richards in January, Travis County Commissioners have made new appointments for a couple of liaison positions. Joe Escribano will serve as the sheriff’s office representative on the CAPCO’s Emergency 9-1-1 task force and Phyllis Clair will serve on CAPCO’s criminal justice advisory committee . . . Daugherty swearing in set . . . The ceremony to swear in Gerald Daugherty as Precinct 3 Commissioner has been set for 2 p.m. on Friday at Wooldridge Square. Daugherty’s first day on the job will be next Monday, Nov. 25 . . . Out in the hallway . . . Hays County Commissioner Bill Burnett opposed any action on expansion of CAMPO to include all of Hays and Williamson Counties in the organization this week because he said it might be detrimental to some road projects not included in the regional organization’s plan. “It’s interesting,” noted an astute observer, “that no one was aware that Hays County or Commissioner Burnett had concerns about expansion of CAMPO to the five-county area until after a TxDOT representative took him aside in the hallway during the meeting Monday night.” . . . Pipeline hearing tonight . . . The city’s Planning Commission will take a look at the hazardous pipeline ordinance at tonight’s meeting. The Austin Safe Pipeline Coalition and the Save Barton Creek Association this week voted to recommend increasing the safety zones around pipelines. The Environmental Board has also voted to increase development restrictions beyond those recommended by city staff.

© 2002 In Fact News, Inc.

All rights reserved.

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