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Task force seeks balance for new special events ordinance

Tuesday, June 4, 2019 by Chad Swiatecki

The city’s new Special Events Task Force has opted to take a real-world case study approach to gauging the effects of the recently enacted ordinance governing special events of all sizes around the city.

The 11-member group, which also includes 11 ex-officio members, held its first meeting last week. Members decided to organize into six subgroups based around the different tiers and event types spelled out in the ordinance, which was approved by Council a year ago but had to go through an extended rules-making process.

The task force’s creation was a part of the ordinance, with the hope that a mix of events industry professionals and representatives from neighborhood groups would be able to study the efficacy of the regulations for both sides.

Each subgroup will pick one event from each of the four tiers – from large gatherings such as Austin City Limits Festival down to neighborhood block parties – along with temporary change of use events and special public/private partnership arrangements. The groups will track the application process and steps of execution for those events to evaluate how the new ordinance improves or hinders the event and how it changes the impact on city resources and quality of life for surrounding neighborhoods.

The passage and implementation of the ordinance came after six years of proposals and work by city staff to determine the best way to regulate large events such as South by Southwest and ACL Fest, which have a large impact on the local economy but also create stress on public safety, waste and sanitation, and other city services as well as creating noise and quality of life concerns.

The ordinance spells out rules for notification of neighbors based on the size and impact of the event, as well as insurance requirements and the various costs and fees required for events in each tier.

James Russell, co-chair of the task force and executive director of the Trail of Lights, said the task force hopes to return to City Council with hard data on the impact of the ordinance and recommendations on how it can be revised in the future.

“The intent from all sides is that it would be unfortunate to have any major negative impact on an event like Trail of Lights or the surrounding neighborhood,” he said.

“When it comes to having something like a smaller 5K run for fundraising, if you have it handled the way things are spelled out currently, by definition that event is in the same tier as the Turkey Trot, which takes over all of downtown.”

Russell said there seems to be considerable unease with the tiered approach for events because the system creates something of a one-size-fits-all threshold for events that have little in common with each other.

“It puts everything in a box, and Trail of Lights is in no way the same as South by Southwest, but they’re in the same tier,” he said.

Cindy Lo, owner of Red Velvet Events and a member of the task force, said there’s concern in her industry that Austin could develop a reputation for being unfriendly to large events produced by global corporations if the new ordinance makes it too difficult to navigate the application and approval processes.

“There’s a feeling we’ve overcomplicated things that don’t need to be, and now we’re at the point that I don’t know how much can be changed back,” she said.

“There had been so much attention paid to the folks in the neighborhoods, and rightly so because I get what they’re saying, but you also have to understand how much extra these big events bring in taxes and employment. We have a secret sauce that people in all other cities ask us about, and now in some ways it’s easier to get an event application approved in New York City than it is in Austin.”

Photo by Lars Plougmann made available through a Creative Commons license.

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