Sunday, October 23, 2005

Notes from Austin: Keep Austin Weird

The Greater Greenville Chamber of Commerce took an intercommunity visit to Austin, TX on October 16, 17 and 18. These are notes from that trip.

The sound bite from the trip has to be, Keep Austin Weird.

As we were told the story, two local businesses, BookPeople and Waterloo Records, faced a Borders Books and Music being built across the street, which was fine except that the city was providing incentives to the developer. The owners of BookPeople and Waterloo did not appreciate paying Austin city taxes that then subsidized out of town competitors.

So they organized the Austin Independent Business Alliance and a campaign to Keep Austin Weird. Steve Bercu of BookPeople explained his view that the distinctiveness of a city comes from its local, independent businesses, so it is critical that a city foster the growth and development of local companies - or at least not subsidize the mega chains that are making America look homogenized.

Keep Austin Weird resonated with people in Austin and has come to mean preserving and celebrating Austin's distinctiveness far beyond just independent businesses. Austin is also the self-proclaimed "Live Music Capital of the World," and people there celebrate that they have 150 or so live music venues in town. Some of us old fogies decided to paint the town only to find out that much of the live music didn't begin until 11:00 pm. Oh to be twenty something again.

In all, Keep Austin Weird celebrates the diversity that makes Austin Austin - one of the most creative and entrepreneurial places in the world. I couldn't help but notice how the whole idea made several people from Greenville very uncomfortable. But we can't have it both ways. We can't become a highly innovative and entrepreneurial place, without promoting and celebrating the creative energy that comes from people with highly different backgrounds and perspectives.

And the really hard part for some of us is that a bunch of that creative energy is going to be really noisy at 2:00 am in the morning.

1 comment:

Chris Klasing said...


You have it right on Austin. I was in Austin the same time as the Chamber group but was tied up with my family in Austin and could not join the group.

I went to college at UT in Austin many moons ago and my daughter graduated from UT in 2001. I also have family there. I have visited Austin on many occasions over the past 40 years and know it pretty well. Still, I learned from your and others' notes on the Chamber visit.

Above all, Austin is a quirky, intellectual, liberal, young island in a sea of mostly the opposite in the rest of Texas. It's no accident that Austin has had been represented by a Democrat in Congress for the past fifty years plus (their current Congressman, Lloyd Doggett, was president of the UT Students Association when I was there as an undergraduate). Austin is also very much dominated by the University -- not just the 50,000 undergraduate, graduate, and professional school students, but by the 25,000 or so faculty, staff, and employees of the University campus and its research center north of downtown. It's also the state capital, and although the legislature there only meets every other year, Austin has the intellectual capital that goes with all the state agencies, lobbyists, law firms, and other activities in a state capital. Even 35 years ago when I was in school, Austin had many of these traits.

We can't duplicate Austin in Greenville. We don't have a research university in town (though Clemson is nearby). We aren't the state capital. The community values here would never support the freewheeling, anything-goes culture in Austin.

So what CAN we do?

I think we can continue to look for closer ties with Clemson. ICAR will be good for us. Perhaps some sort of light rail transport would make Clemson and Greenville closer (though as you point out, Clemson and Furman students do know about downtown Greenville). My son is a senior at Clemson and considers it a "trip" to come home. Perhaps an ongoing forum between, say, Clemson student government and the Greenville Chamber, could explore synergies between the city and the campus.

We can keep the issues around innovation in front of city, county, and state government (as you and others are doing a great job of). The recent competitiveness summit at the Expo Center was great and we should do more of it.

We can continue to explore the vision of "cool" for 2025, even if we know we can't get everything Austin has. Continuing discussion of this should help identify areas that cause some of us discomfort, which can then be addressed.

Keep publishing. You are helping.

Chris Klasing