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Council to consider funds for fashion incubator

Thursday, September 22, 2016 by Jo Clifton

Austin is known for its live music, its barbecue and Mexican food, its innovative technology companies, and even for hosting the Formula One races. Now, there’s a possibility that Austin will become known as a hub for the fashion industry.

The city’s Economic Development Department hopes to spur growth of the fashion industry in Austin by helping to create a fashion incubator. Its partners in the project are Austin Community College and Gerber Technology.

City Council will consider a relatively modest agreement with ACC at today’s meeting to fund the build-out of 7,500 square feet of space at the ACC campus on Airport Boulevard (the former Highland Mall), including three offices for city employees. Those employees will be providing small-business counseling services to ACC students enrolled in classes relating to the fashion industry.

ACC is providing the facility space, sewing machines and renovation of the space and bathrooms, according to ACC’s Sharrion Jenkins. She explained to Council at Tuesday’s work session that money from the city would be used to renovate the electrical system and maintain expensive equipment. She said ACC’s board has already approved the agreement.

The total cost to the city for build-out at ACC and maintenance of the equipment over a three-year period is $355,000. However, funding for the current year is only $95,000.

Gerber Technology is donating $13 million in what is described as “state of the art fashion technology used by manufacturers Under Armor and Fruit of the Loom” for students and startup businesses to use, according to documentation provided by city staff.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo told her colleagues Tuesday that she did not recall funding for the project in the upcoming budget, but Sylnovia Holt-Rabb, assistant director for economic development, told Tovo that the item was indeed included and gave her the page number in the budget where it appeared.

The fashion incubator has been in the works since the previous Council approved a resolution directing the city manager to study the economic impact of Austin’s fashion industry on Aug. 4, 2014.

The city conducted the study and concluded that the best way to support the local fashion industry would be to help create the fashion incubator. According to material provided by city staff, in 2013, Austin’s fashion industry generated more than $86 million and “spurred 1,326 jobs after accounting for direct, indirect and induced economic effects.” Of that, 963 jobs were attributed to clothing manufacturing, but only 363 jobs were labeled “artisan fashion design.”

ACC plans to cooperate with fashion companies and manufacturers as well as with the University of Texas, Texas State University and the Austin Independent School District, which has a fashion and interior design career path.

As part of its agreement with the city, ACC is promising to establish a curriculum and hire instructors and staff, who will teach the students how to operate the equipment. At the end of each year, ACC is required to give the city a report about the students’ success as a result of their enrollment in the program.

Council Member Ora Houston did not comment on Tuesday; however, last week when Council was approving the Fiscal Year 2016-2017 budget, Houston complained about funding not going to help train people who are not interested in technology. She expanded her thoughts on the matter in a press release Wednesday.

Her comments were not specifically directed toward the fashion incubator, but she expressed her dissatisfaction with what she perceived as the lack of funding for youth who do not want to go to college.

She said, “There is a lack of financial investment in groups that represent their communities to teach individuals the social and work skills that are necessary to successfully navigate job interviews and subsequent employment.”

The press release goes on to say that Houston “believes that training in a particular skill, trade or mentorship can result in a pathway to a living wage and successful employment. Opportunities to be trained and be part of trade organizations have meant successful employment for many individuals.

“The fact is that the budget has no funding for innovative workforce programs for youth who may not fit nicely into ongoing programs currently funded by the city,” she said.

Photo by WhisperToMe, Public Domain.

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