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EDC creators explain priorities for creative space, affordable housing

Friday, January 22, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

Some of the main architects of the city’s fledgling Economic Development Corporation assured members of the local real estate and development community Wednesday that the entity was not created to interfere with or compete for private sector business deals.

That was one of the messages at the monthly virtual breakfast meeting organized by the Urban Land Institute of Austin, which held the panel discussion to explain what actions could be possible once the EDC is up and running later this year.

Veronica Briseño, who is leading the city’s recovery related to the Covid-19 pandemic and who normally serves as the director of the Economic Development Department, said the EDC will have access to public resources including startup funding from the General Fund, but it will also have more freedom to quickly enter into development projects that are city priorities.

“The EDC will be set up to be another arm of the city and the community,” said Briseño, who is also serving as the EDC’s interim director. “We’re envisioning it working primarily in public development so we’re looking at ways we can be a nimble entity to help create spaces with what we want to see in the city of Austin.”

City Council created the EDC last year after years of study and analysis about the role such a body could play in addressing issues such as affordable housing and creating spaces for the city’s arts and music communities. It is expected to gradually become self-sustaining through collecting money associated with services it provides for developments it is involved in.

Also discussed was how the city could pay the EDC an annual contract to undertake economic development roles it can clearly perform better than the city.

Currently there is a five-member standing board of directors working to create the body’s articles of incorporation and perform other administrative tasks to help it begin operation. Next month City Council is expected to receive and vote on nominations for the full 22-member board, which will be made up of representatives from an assortment of professional and cultural groups throughout the city.

While the EDC won’t have sovereign powers such as the ability to use eminent domain, it will operate independently of the city, with a yearly or multiyear contract from Council outlining its development priorities and other criteria from year to year.

Matt Kwatinetz, a consultant who has worked for most of the past decade advising the city on development issues including the EDC, said projects such as the redevelopment of the South Central Waterfront District could be perfect for the EDC to take an active role and unite development efforts that are currently scattered among a number of landowners.

“What it does that’s different is it’s a dealmaker and acts as a developer on the public side,” he said. “This entity doesn’t do a private deal, but it is specifically to fill the gap when it’s hard for a private sector actor to do the deal or if there needs to be some setup of infrastructure or setup of multiyear financing. It needs to show that it can accomplish things or it will not be successful after that bridge funding runs out.”

Asked about the prospects for the EDC to quickly step in and begin securing properties for use as music venues and arts spaces, Briseño said that is a city objective, but the EDC’s role will need to be more long term and it won’t be able to act soon because it is just being formed.

“The purpose of an EDC is to focus on what we as a community value, and the arts and music are definitely one of those priorities, as well as our small-business community. I see (the cultural trust) as more of a long-term support,” she said. “I see the cultural trust looking at long-term solutions for how we keep our vibrant arts and music community in the places where they can perform their arts and creative influences.”

Talking about the accomplishments of similar semi-public entities in other major cities, Tyrone Rachal, the former manager of redevelopment for Invest Atlanta, said an EDC can step in to take the lead on difficult projects that require a public actor to secure federal and state funds, or that need some attachment to the public to access a real estate opportunity.

Rachal pointed to Atlanta’s 22-mile Beltline redevelopment as one of the most successful efforts, with billions of dollars in economic activity taking place once the project was underway.

“There’s going to be instances where either through special powers or through creative financing structures, where this type of entity will be crucial to particularly hard deals. You don’t need them in easy deals. You need this kind of an organization in hard deals that see the private sector have trouble meeting the task,” he said.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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