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Local leaders see pandemic, winter storm as openings for economic opportunities

Friday, June 11, 2021 by Chad Swiatecki

Local leaders say the past 15 months of Austin’s history have been a test for how the city can best serve the people and businesses that are most at risk as growth changes the economics and character of Central Texas.

On Wednesday the final Engage Series webinar from Leadership Austin looked at the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and February’s Winter Storm Uri, which strained the city’s infrastructure and local economy in ways that had not been anticipated. With Covid becoming less of a public health threat as vaccinations increase and the weather heads toward triple digits, the three panelists said the city, county and state need to examine what communities were underserved during the crises.

Veronica Briseño, the city’s chief economic recovery officer, said staff at all levels learned how to act faster than ever before while setting up 12 brand-new programs that were needed to distribute roughly $115 million in federal aid for the pandemic.

“I would have said that’s impossible, having worked at the city for over 20 years, but we did it,” she said. “Our workforce really stood up to the call to help and our employees in the Economic Development Department worked directly with our small-business owners, artists, musicians, and when the pandemic started they felt honored to be part of the solution.”

Briseño said the city is continuing to look for ways to improve communications during emergencies to better provide aid and relief to vulnerable residents.

“We want to be sure we are there as a city communicating openly with our business community and arts and music community, making sure the infrastructure is there and ready to roll when something happens. Could we do better? We could always do better, but we really tried in getting the word out in the communities that need the relief the most.”

Ahmed Moledina, board chair for the Greater Austin Asian Chamber of Commerce, said a recent study the chamber conducted with the University of Texas showed 89 percent of Asian businesses experienced revenue losses during the pandemic, with 39 percent losing more than half of their revenue. Of the study respondents, 45 percent had to furlough employees and 65 percent said they didn’t apply for government aid tied to the pandemic because they didn’t understand the application process.

Moledina said the inability of poorer residents to access basic services at all times becomes even more severe during emergency situations, and that community leaders need to come up with more answers for how to close gaps in public health and other resources.

“A lot of people on the lower end of pay scales don’t have access to the resources that a lot of other people would, such as internet access,” he said. “So when you want to go get a vaccine or apply for recovery resources, they don’t have access to the internet to do that, or if they do it costs a lot of money. We need to look at those factors like child care and computer access … we have to consider all those different aspects.”

Laura Huffman, president and CEO of the Austin Chamber of Commerce, said Austin saw strong economic growth and high-profile corporate relocations during the course of the pandemic, but that the shocks to small businesses and the local housing market will cause long-lasting change.

Along with bolstering the energy and water infrastructure to withstand future weather emergencies, Huffman said the local economy has to be positioned to help longtime residents take advantage of economic growth by training them for better jobs offered by companies like Tesla, Oracle, Apple and Samsung.

“It would be a real shame if we as a community didn’t take a step back and really think about what we learned, not just anecdotally but systematically about what does our infrastructure look like, how can we address day care and what did we learn about transportation?” she said. “This could be definitive for how we grow in the next 10 years, whether we find ways to identify people that are in jobs that are being lost and dig into how we train and provide resources to prepare people for the jobs that are coming to Austin.”

Photo by David Kitto, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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