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County nudges enterprise zone candidate to hire more minorities

Wednesday, February 15, 2012 by Michael Kanin

The Travis County Commissioners Court tentatively approved the nomination of Bazaarvoice, Inc. for the Texas Enterprise Zone Program status Tuesday. The move, which could be finalized next week, came with a directive from the court aimed at making the company’s workforce more racially diverse.


County Judge Sam Biscoe, Commissioner Ron Davis, and Commissioner Margaret Gomez all expressed some level of concern over the current racial makeup of the company’s staff. In addition to those worries, Commissioner Karen Huber wondered why the firm hadn’t contacted her office. “I just want to say that this would be located in my precinct,” she said. “To my knowledge, no one from Bazaarvoice has reached out to anyone in my office. So I would be happy to talk with any of you.”


In the end Huber, citing a lack of information, abstained as the measure passed on a 4-0-1 vote. Company officials signaled their willingness to work with the county on workforce issues.


The company’s corporate controller Chris Lynch said Bazaarvoice is a “social commerce” company. “If you go on to a retail web site, for example Walmart or Best Buy and you’re looking for a particular product, you will be able to use our technology to see reviews from other consumers about that product,” he said.


According to Gov. Rick Perry‘s web site, The Texas Enterprise Zone Program “is an economic development tool for local communities to partner with the State of Texas to promote job creation and capital investment in economically distressed areas of the state.” Should Bazaarvoice meet all of the requirements of the deal, including job creation measures, it would be eligible for $1.25 million in state sales and use tax refunds. Travis County can approve only three such deals every two years.


Biscoe compared the situation to a Texas Enterprise Zone deal approved by the court in 2009 with a company called Golfsmith. “Golfsmith’s (Equal Employment Opportunity) profile is similar to yours,” he said. “We asked Golfsmith to put together some sort of incentive program to ensure that (the situation would be addressed).”


“I think the numbers here are actually worse than Golfsmith’s were in terms of employment of African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, and other non-whites in our community,” Biscoe continued later. “To be honest, I feel duty-bound to encourage you to be a bit more proactive in diversifying the workplace.”


Davis also expressed his concern. “There has to be some type of diversity in what we’re looking for as far employment opportunities,” he said. “For non-white folks here, it really does show a great margin of employment opportunity that appears to be not for persons of color.”


Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt suggested that, according to figures provided by Bazaarvoice, 89 to 90 percent of its workforce was Anglo.


Gomez echoed Davis’ thoughts. “I agree with what Commissioner Davis said,” she added. “And then also, just south of the river in Precinct 4 there are native Spanish speakers as well who could probably do a good job.”


As for Huber’s concerns, Eckhardt said that there had been a mix-up. “I think they were confused with the redistricting,” she said. “They thought it was in my precinct.”


Firm consultants confirmed that this was the case.


Lynch told court members that Bazaarvoice is planning to take itself public. In light of that fact, Huber wondered why it would need the tax breaks. Lynch replied that the company could still use the rebate. “It’s an issue of reinvestments,” Lynch said. “We’re growing dramatically and the investment opportunity is large and we want to continue to hire people,” he said.


The county delivers annual reports to the governor’s office about its Enterprise Zone projects. Still, once a deal is approved, it cannot revoke the tax incentives. If the court does not back the company in its quest for Enterprise Fund status, county staff indicates that the governor is unlikely to sign off on the idea.

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