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Council pushes for economic development body to lead purchase, preservation of venue spaces

Friday, May 22, 2020 by Chad Swiatecki

City Council is pushing staff to act this summer to create an economic development corporation that could be used to preserve and acquire real estate properties to be used for cultural arts events and meeting space.

That body, possibly in tandem with a proposed cultural trust that could also be created this summer, has been in the works for years and is seen as the quasi-governmental body that could be used to assist venues in the Red River Cultural District and other parts of the city.

On Thursday Council unanimously approved a pair of resolutions involving the development corporation. The first item called for an initial plan for the body by June 11, with legal documents required for its creation to be delivered by July 23.

That item also cited specific idle city properties that could be converted to cultural uses, including a closed fire station near the University of Texas campus, an administrative building on Eighth Street and retail space in the Planning and Development Center near Highland Mall.

The second item gives staff the same June 11 deadline for recommendations on how an economic development entity could help to facilitate a number of improvements and financial moves that could assist the music venues on Red River Street that have been closed since mid-March because of the pandemic.

Last week leaders in the Red River Cultural District delivered a policy proposal to Council members that called for using some of the city’s $170.8 million from its portion of CARES Act money to support 54 music venues that have been closed for months and have a cumulative monthly overhead of around $2 million.

“Items 95 and 96 demonstrate bold and decisive steps toward addressing the economic disaster experienced by Austin’s music industry due to Covid,” said Cody Cowan, executive director of the RRCD. “Short-term CARES dollars will help venues navigate and survive ongoing commercial leases plus basic costs while closed. Venue owners are already underwater, drawing deeply from personal savings. Without CARES, prospects are grim for venue survival even into summer.”

Council discussion on the item mostly focused on the possible overlap that could exist if the city creates an economic development body and a cultural trust, which past resolutions have called for creating in recent years. A consultant enlisted to help the city with the creation of an EDC is expected to deliver findings ahead of the June 11 deadline.

Council Member Kathie Tovo, who has led multiple resolutions related to the EDC creation and assistance for downtown music venues, said the economic impact of the pandemic makes one or both of those bodies crucial for the city to move forward with long-discussed real estate and investment moves.

“Part of this body’s core function is to acquire properties including for cultural venues, including preservation of venues, including affordable housing, so I appreciate the work on creating a cultural trust but they are not necessarily going to be different entities,” she said. “We’ve had this conversation a couple of different times about whether it would be one entity with a couple of different boards or different economic development corporations. Because at the end of the day it’s a tool for achieving these different functions.”

Mayor Steve Adler said the city manager and other staff will have the discretion to recommend the best legal structures for the entities to accomplish the stated goals of preserving and creating spaces for cultural use.

“It is clear that everyone’s intent is, figure it out and come back to us with what the right structures are in the right alignment,” he said. “Staff needs to understand we’re not prescribing here which structures go which way.”

Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

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