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Chamber prez credits Austin’s rapid recovery to diverse local economy

Tuesday, January 4, 2022 by Chad Swiatecki

Even after nearly two years of Covid-19 restrictions, Austin continues to have one of the strongest regional economies in the United States. Austin Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Laura Huffman says the key to that bounce-back comes from the diversity of the local business community.

With health care a growing presence because of the Dell Medical School at the University of Texas, and advanced manufacturing growing with names like Tesla and Samsung, along with smaller newcomers like Green Dot and Markaaz, Huffman said there are plenty of employers trying to train and retain workers who are in short supply.

“When Austin recovers faster than a lot of other communities around the country, a lot of that has to do with the diversity of our economy. We are well past being a college town, and all that diversity creates so many opportunities for people, so if you’re a young person you have a lot of choices in this region,” she said. “Also, if you’re someone who got struck hard from the pandemic in the tourism or entertainment industry, there are increasing options to get two-year and four-year degrees and certifications to reshape your career.”

Continuing to expand and diversify the Central Texas economy will be one of the main objectives for Huffman and other area leaders in 2022, with a special emphasis on updating the Opportunity Austin five-year plan, which identifies the priorities related to job growth, economic resilience and infrastructure to support new business.

The decade-plus of job creation that will come from the construction associated with Project Connect is one of the big new pieces that will be reflected in the Opportunity Austin update. Huffman said the plan’s inclusion of affordable housing funding will help to address the affordability issue – one of the main long-term concerns for entrepreneurs and executives in the region.

“There are a couple of opportunities right in front of us and one of those is the housing that is associated with Project Connect,” Huffman said. “As we build that system out, including the stations, those create opportunities not only for employers but for housing that is already funded.”

“We’ve also got major employers like Tesla who, as they build their gigafactory, are also thinking about housing opportunities for people who work in the factory and can be right there in the neighborhood. People should have that option to live, work and play near their job without having to do a whole lot of commuting, and I think there are opportunities in programs that are either underway or associated with the growth.”

Tesla and other major employers are planning to create housing near their facilities so they can hire workers without requiring a significant commute.

Huffman said the city has to take steps to increase housing density in areas and styles that neighborhood groups will agree with, while continuing to improve housing opportunities and services for the local homeless population.

“There’s still the conversation to have about affordability and how we handle density and how to optimize the need for additional housing,” she said. “Everybody now knows we essentially have no inventory of housing, so how do we manage the need for density with the desire to protect the integrity of our neighborhoods and the places that make Austin special?”

The business community is also a significant part of the local effort to solve homelessness. A spring summit on the issue put roughly a $100 million fundraising commitment on the private sector to meet the expected $500 million cost of creating housing and services to help more than 3,000 people in the coming years.

Huffman expects that fundraising goal will be met this year, with the plan that resulted from the summit pointing toward how donations can be spent most effectively.

“I do think we’ll get there, and I think homelessness is an example of a complex problem that requires a holistic approach from local government and requires the private sector and nonprofit sector to fully engage,” she said. “The summit asked the question from a whole-system standpoint about what do we have in place that is working, and what do we need to be scaling in this system to respond?”

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