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Travis County seeks a ‘Marshall Plan’ for east side

Friday, February 28, 2020 by Jo Clifton

Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion and Joe Straub, president of Rodeo Austin, started a conversation with members of the City Council Audit & Finance Committee Wednesday. “Let me just say for the record, I did not come to pick a fight,” Travillion said. Instead, he hoped that Travis County and the city of Austin could unite around “an idea that is important to the entire community.”

His idea is to create something like a Marshall Plan for eastern Travis County, specifically in the ZIP codes 78724 and 78725.

Under the Marshall Plan, the United States provided billions of dollars to help Europe recover from the devastation of World War II.

While other parts of Austin have become too expensive for many families, eastern Travis County’s Precinct 1 has experienced 34 percent growth, he said. People who cannot afford to live in the pricier parts of Austin are moving to the neighborhoods of Colony Park and Austin’s Colony. Those two neighborhoods, he said, would benefit greatly from an enhanced Travis County Exposition Center.

Travillion said families are moving there with kids who grew up close to transportation, health care and recreation, but none of those things are available in those neighborhoods. The park surrounding Walter E. Long Lake has no amenities, and would-be visitors are prevented from coming in by the barbed wire surrounding the property, he said.

Travillion expressed the fear that leaving those kids out there with little to do will only feed the “school-to-prison pipeline.” He asked committee members to remember the gentrification of 78702, saying the city should earmark city land close to the expo center for affordable housing before prices go up.

He gave Council members a list of 10 questions he said need to be answered before all the parties could discuss what money might be available to enhance prosperity in eastern Travis County. Most of the questions revolve around the financing of the Austin Convention Center, both its 1999 expansion and a projected expansion this year. Other questions related to the Hotel Occupancy Tax, which Travis County wants to use to enhance the expo center, but the city has said must be dedicated to renovating the convention center and enhancing the downtown area.

Council members, including Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison, who was invited to the meeting for the discussion about eastern Travis County, all seemed to take the questions seriously.

Straub told committee members that problems listed in the 2016 Hunden Report, such as faltering facilities at the expo center, were still a problem and the rodeo’s lease with the city expires in 2023. By then, he said, the rodeo must decide whether to find a new home. He enumerated problems with the current building, noting that even with the facilities problems the rodeo had a record year last year. Straub said the rodeo owns 47 acres next to the expo center, but does not own any buildings.

Straub said Travis County is interested in trading a number of units of property for the city-owned land under the expo center, but the rodeo would still need some of the Hotel Occupancy Tax money, all of which the city claims.

Travis County commissioners recently named a new committee that includes Travillion and fellow Commissioner Brigid Shea, as well as community leaders, to put pressure on City Council to help the county solve its expo center problems.

Following the meeting, Council Member Leslie Pool said she did not agree with the contention that Council had fully committed to expanding the convention center because they still do not have a price tag for that expansion. However, she is probably in the minority on that. Harper-Madison said she believes Council has fully committed to the expansion.

Photo by Jo Clifton.

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