Austin is keeping it weird — and so should we

By Tom Baxter

My colleague, Maria Saporta, recently visited Houston with a group of civic leaders and reported on that sprawling megalopolis beside which we often measure ourselves. Today we’ll take a less formal look at another Texas city to which we need to pay attention.

If Houston is your uncle who got rich developing shopping centers back in the ’80s, Austin is your nephew who just made a fortune on an Internet startup.

Until recently, the Texas capital’s explosive growth has been overshadowed by its neighbors, San Antonio, Dallas and Houston. But in this year’s Forbes listing of the fastest growing cities in the country, it elbowed past its Texas rivals to take the No. 1 spot. And it’s quality growth: Austin was the only U.S. city to make a 2010 ranking of the world’s most dynamic cities, based on growth in employment and income.

Austin may still cultivate a small-town image, but the metro area passed a fateful milestone over the weekend, when its telephone service was shifted to a 10-digit dialing system.

When you think about it, Atlanta has more in common with Austin than it does with Houston or Dallas. They’re both capital city/college towns. Government gives both an important employment anchor, and the schools are vital to the generation of new businesses and supply a young and energetic population of soon-to-be job seekers.

They’re both event destinations, which not only brings in lots of money but is critical to the image of both cities. Atlanta excels as a host of major sporting events like the Southeastern Conference football championship game and this year’s glorious NCAA Final Four basketball tournament. Austin bills itself,  justifiably, as the live music capital of the country and hosts South by Southwest, which has evolved from an indie music festival into what may be the first truly 21st Century pop culture fair, featuring music, film, video and interactive technology.

I used to spend a lot of time in Austin, but this was my first visit in more than a dozen years, and I was curious to see how well the city was wearing its newfound prosperity. (This column is being written overlooking the Congress Avenue Bridge, where crowds gather every afternoon to watch a huge colony of Mexican free-tail bats depart for their evening feeding.)

When I first started coming here in the ’80s, the town was going through a real estate bust created by overbuilding, and the office buildings along North Congress and neighboring streets housed acres of unoccupied office space. In the intervening years, it has become a magnet for high-tech companies like Dell, Apple and Samsung. It largely escaped the recession triggered by housing foreclosures, thanks in no small part to state laws which set strict limits on equity transactions.

Commercial building has bounced back way past the high point of the ’80s, but what’s even more impressive is the explosion of high-end downtown residential development. Where once there were empty office buildings, there now are high-rise condos where a unit can fetch over $3 million. Las Manitas, one of the great political grub spots of all time, is long gone, soon to be replaced by another high-rise building. Across the bridge, South Congress has become SoCo, a section of hyper-trendy eateries and shops. There are restaurants with $75, six-course tasting menus. Locals grouse that they can no longer afford the bars on 6th Street, which the tourists pack nightly.

Some things haven’t changed. If you thread your way to the other side of I-35, East Austin, with its housing projects and Tex-Mex restaurants, looks much the same as it did 20 years ago. Drive out North Lamar toward the original Threadgill’s, where Janis Joplin got her start, and you’ll see tattoo parlors, mattress outlets and plumbing supply stores that look much as they did, pre-boom. But in Round Rock and other suburban towns, the signs of a skyrocketing local economy and the inevitable sprawl that comes with it.

It may come as a surprise that the city’s famous slogan, “Keep Austin weird,” which sounds like a counter-cultural battle cry, was actually promoted by a local business association. It will be harder to live up to that standard as Austin grows, but they’re still trying hard.

What can Atlanta learn from Austin’s success? One thing is the importance to the city’s future of projects like Georgia Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center. Atlanta has a lot of the pieces of a knowledge industry success story, but they’re scattered around over a wider area than here. Developer Emory Morsberger’s idea for a central campus that would bring together the research expertise of the area’s top universities didn’t get off the ground, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good idea. Maybe it’s worth another go.

Have I mentioned the food trucks? They’re all over the place in Austin, and greatly increase its coolness factor. Austin’s a foodie town, as my Longhorn daughter puts it, but it really has nothing to compare to Buford Highway. If Atlantans could figure out a way to make that astonishing culinary diversity more accessible to visitors, it could send our reputation as a destination spot into overdrive.

The final point has already been expounded in a recent column about Chattanooga, but it can’t be repeated enough. Whenever we have a choice between big and smart, we should choose smart.

For all its strides, Austin isn’t ever likely to supersede Houston or Dallas. But who cares? Austin is where people are going to want to be — and that’s the goal we should aim for as well.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern Political Report, an online publication, for four years. Tom was the consultant for the 2008 election night coverage sponsored jointly by Current TV, Digg and Twitter, and a 2011 fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas. He has written about the impact of Georgia’s and Alabama's immigration laws in reports for the Center for American Progress. Tom and his wife, Lili, have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

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