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Nightlife vet takes the lead of music venue district on Red River

Tuesday, August 28, 2018 by Chad Swiatecki

With the appointment of the first executive director for the Red River Cultural District, changes are pretty much guaranteed for the downtown stretch that includes more than a dozen live music venues and represents one of the city’s most renowned cultural hot spots.

Change has been dramatic for businesses there for the past decade as Austin’s rising property values and development pressures have put the financial squeeze on the notoriously narrow-margined businesses that took root during a previous era of low rents.

But Cody Cowan, longtime general manager of the Mohawk nightclub and the district’s new executive director, said he and other business operators in the area look forward to working with the city, Austin Police Department and other groups to take an active role in improving the area. As an example, he pointed to an alley just north of Seventh Street that has long been a hot spot for drug dealing and an open restroom for the local homeless population but has been difficult to get routinely cleaned or closed off.

“That’s our Hamburger Hill right there, where if we can get some movement on this one scary spot where you see all sorts of horrific things, that will lessen a lot of the work that we have to do in the future,” he said. “The idea of keeping Red River gross or keeping Red River divey is so broken and stuck in the past now. We’re trying to look to the future and make sure we’re a part of that future, where we’re shaping the narrative and the destiny of the district.”

A private donor has funded Cowan’s three-year salary to lead the district, which was organized with the help of the city’s Souly Austin merchant association program but is not paid for using any city funds. Cowan’s role will involve handling the business basics and marketing for the district as well as working with leaders from the Waller Creek chain of planned parks, the growing innovation district from the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas, and the Austin Convention Center.

He and Mohawk’s ownership plan to soon begin the search for his replacement there so he can focus fully on the health of the district that has been an area of worry for music and culture lovers because of the rising rents and other displacement threats.

Cowan helped lead the pilot program and eventual permanent granting of later weekend noise curfews for outdoor venues in the district that was instituted to help grow revenue for the businesses where later hours are often the busiest for alcohol sales.

A recent flare-up between the owners of the Empire Control Room nightclub and the prospective new owner of the property is an example of the fragile state of some of the music venues there. Cowan said he’ll now have the time to reach out to all of the district’s property owners so they can have open communication with their leaseholders and hopefully work to moderate rent increases.

“We know all the membership in the district, but we don’t know all the landlords, so that’s a huge piece,” he said. “Some of them have long-standing strong family ties to be part of the culture of music there, while some others, we have no idea at all where they stand. We know that time and the right dollar amount can change anything, so we want to build some relationships and get a sense of things sooner rather than later.”

The Red River Cultural District, which was formally organized by the city in 2013, was one of the first merchant groups organized by the Souly program that has organized six groups around the city and plans to add two more next year.

Nicole Klepadlo, manager of the program for the city, said no other Souly group has announced plans to bring on an executive director, but the political and other demands of the Red River district made creating the position a necessity.

“Red River has become such an area of interest in recent years for so many people in the city, and there are lots of external stakeholders who have gotten involved, so they all have stayed very busy while trying to manage their businesses,” she said. “This is someone who has to wear lots of hats and be able to speak with knowledge about something like permitting or a public right of way while also having a financial background and the good judgment needed to be trusted by the people within the district.”

Ryan Garrett, general manager of Stubb’s and vice president of the RRCD board, said Cowan’s to-do list likely includes building relationships with other nearby districts, working with the city as resources are added to the neighboring Austin Resource Center for the Homeless, and pushing for passage of an “agent of change” policy at the city to moderate noise issues between clubs and nearby development.

“We couldn’t have been more fortunate to have Cody Cowan be here and be interested in this position,” he said. “He’s already taken a lot off of the plate of everyone in the district through his hard work, and if we hadn’t had Cody, I don’t think we’d be in the great position we’re in now.”

Photo by Nash Cook made available by a Creative Commons license.

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