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Mayor’s forum tackles city’s convention, tourism needs

Monday, April 6, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

A mayoral debate hosted by the city’s tourism and lodging industry on Friday afternoon had rather auspicious timing, coming on the tail of some controversy over clubs and malls that announced closures during Texas Relays weekend.

The forum also had Carole Keeton Strayhorn in attendance, which has been a rarity in the current election season. Strayhorn joined Council Members Lee Leffingwell and Brewster McCracken, along with less well known David Buttross and Josiah Ingalls, at the Driskill Hotel on Friday. Buttross is a property owner and Ingalls works at the Hilton Hotel.

Leffingwell, who announced he has a 28-3 lead in announced endorsements going into the upcoming election, firmly rebutted any inferences that the city’s decision to beef up law enforcement over the weekend was racially motivated.

“I want to welcome to Texas Relays. It’s a long-standing Austin tradition. I would tell them, ‘We want you to come back next year,’” Leffingwell said. “I think, at least in some quarters, that the perception is that some of this is racially motivated. I want to tell you right now, that is a false perception. I think the City of Austin is a progressive city, fair and equitable, and we welcome the Texas Relays.”

Strayhorn used the question as an opportunity to make a broad statement that the City of Austin needed to “get our priorities right,” that the city could not mean all things to all people when it came to the budget.

“However, I respect the private sector, and I believe in letting them operate however they see fit,” Strayhorn said.

Austin has a $2.8 billion tourism and travel industry — one that has taken a hit in recent months – according the Austin Hotel & Lodging Association. Despite tourism’s prominence in the fabric of the Austin economy, the industry is rarely mentioned in candidate forums, which are more often geared toward neighborhoods or the real estate sector.

Each candidate was asked what he or she considered to be their No. 1 priority for tourism during a term as mayor.

Ingalls, who has worked in the hotel industry, said tourism was a draw, and it was important to maintain its image as a destination spot. Those who come to Austin on business once should be coming back to Austin with their families the second time. He also supported working harder to get the homeless off the streets of downtown.

“Our image is what we’re selling,” Ingalls said. “Our image is why we’re all employed, why we all have jobs. We need to keep it a good image.”

Buttross said he had a passing acquaintance with the entertainment industry but little direct knowledge as to how the tourism industry worked in Austin.

“What is it you need?” Buttross asked the small audience. “How can we help your industry? How can we help you guys to get your job done?

McCracken focused his response on the mayor’s role in recruiting larger conventions to Austin. It’s important that cities have visible political support to go out and recruit larger conventions and trade shows, McCracken said.

“As your mayor, I will meet with the leadership of your industry once a month and go out to recruit major convention business,” McCracken said. “It’s a good thing for Austin in this tight economy.”

Strayhorn, who has begun to get back some of that well-known Strayhorn patter that was the hallmark of her gubernatorial campaign, focused on traffic.

“The No. 1 thing I would do is get traffic moving in this downtown area, in and out,” Strayhorn said. “Look at South by Southwest. We had people stuck for hours in traffic because they couldn’t get in or out of downtown. Sure, people were good natured about it, but we need to keep traffic moving.”

Strayhorn also suggested building an additional parking garage in the area of the Long Center so multiple events could happen at the same time. She also supported boosting the small businesses in the tourism and arts sector.

Leffingwell was short but sweet. He praised the city’s tourism office and said his answer was, “Increase Bob Landers’ office budget.”

That answer got applause for its brevity.

Austin also is home to high profile Asian manufacturers in the technology sector. One audience member asked how the candidates would invigorate the tourism industry out of China. Austin already receives many visitors from that region.

In response, Ingalls said he would maintain a low tax rate to encourage the continued presence of Asian industry. Buttross, who has traveled extensively in the Far East, said it was important to recognize and value the Texas “brand.” McCracken spoke of the visitors that Samsung and Sematech brought to Austin and spoke of leveraging those visits to create a tourism industry. He also spoke of gathering more information on visitors, so the city could capitalize on its destination vacation value.

In her response, Strayhorn said the city needed to think globally and focus locally, noting the 13 different Asian groups in Austin and the city’s relationship with an Asian sister city.  The city does not need outside consultants, Strayhorn said, to recognize what an attractive destination spot Austin was for visitors. And Leffingwell agreed with Strayhorn, saying a strong Far East tourism business would come from those living in Austin’s current community.

Leffingwell also added he had frequently flown to Taiwan, Philippines and India as a commercial pilot. As a retiree from that industry, he still had his airline pass, which would allow him to save the city tens of thousands of dollars. That tongue-in-cheek, comment drew laughter from the audience.

Another audience members asked about the panel’s commitment to the “green life” and the green manufacturing industry and, even, to send any green business out of Austin to a small neighboring town where she lived in Star, Texas.

Ingalls spoke of requiring mandatory recycling. He also encouraged the growth of green jobs. Buttross spoke of the increase of solar and green energy, with federal advantages for the creation of green projects. McCracken noted that much of Austin’s industry had been clean industry, be it either solar or biotech.

Strayhorn noted the decline in Austin’s industrial jobs, from 36 to 22 percent in the last 7 years. Two of her opponents, Strayhorn said, had voted to rush through a biomass contract out of Nacogdoches. She also committed to reversing the Webberville solar contract – too little energy in exchange for too much cost – and suggested supporting more economical green energy.

Leffingwell noted his lengthy conservation record and the Renaissance Hotel’s recognized conservation efforts. He said it was important for the city to move beyond its high-tech economy and move toward building green business. The lesson the city has learned from two recent economic downturns is that it must be more diverse when it came to its business base, he said.

In their closing statements, Ingalls noted it was important to focus on the cause and effect of the decisions that Council has been making. Leffingwell spoke of his multiple endorsements. And Strayhorn talked about being more inclusive and bringing more people into the process, noting that Council members were now elected by 13,000 votes. During her term, Strayhorn said voters elected her with 64,000 voters. But the growing population did not mean growing participation in the political process.

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