Sunday, October 23, 2005

Notes from Austin: What we're doing right

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.

There is a lot we can learn from Austin, TX, especially how they capture and capitalize on their creative, entrepreneurial energy. But one of the important things we left Austin with was the good feeling that we were doing a lot of things right.

Start with downtown Greenville. We heard a lot about the downtown scene in Austin - 75 restaurants and 150 live music venues. While our bus tour guide the first day kept calling them "joints" as we went by, quite frankly many of them were seedy dives. Austin, to a large extent is a big college town, and many of the restaurants and retail reflect that. Greenville, by contrast, has lots of restaurants too, but there is more variety and quality in our mix. While our music scene might not match up to Austin, Greenvillle has a strong and growing visual arts community. The visual impact of downtown Austin doesn't hold a candle to downtown Greenville. Austin flat has some of the ugliest buildings anywhere.

The danger in an upscale Greenville is that it doesn't appeal to young people. But just last week a new young professionals organization, PULSE, was launched and over 400 young people came. When I got back from Austin I mentioned to a younger colleague that we needed to organize transportation form Furman and Clemson to make sure students could get to downtown Greeenville, and he quickly informed me that I am out of touch and students have already found their way downtown. So improvements in downtown are, in fact, attracting young people from the area as much as they are attracting everyone else.

Over the past forty years, we have recruited international branch manufacturers to the area, and now have one of the highest levels of international investment per capita of anywhere in the country. The people running these facilities are among the best in the world at what they do, and are a source of world class talent in our community. Those that have creative ideas and want to spin out of their current company are an untapped source of entrepreneurial activity in Greenville.

We have started to leverage these international relationships to attract research and development to compliment the manufacturing we already have here and build our innovation capacity. I took a trip to Austin in 2001 with a small group to study their endowed chair program, and since then several important industry/univesity relationships have been formed around endowed chairs, including the Clemson International Center for Automotive Research and the SC Health Sciences Initiatives.

We've begun to form institutions of collaborations to plug people and organizations together. The Greenville Chamber has been reinvented around an innovation economy mission. InnoVenture is building momentum. The Innovision Technology Awards are hopping. New organizations, like PULSE and the Digital Alliance, continue to emerge.

Many people in Greenville are doing a lot of things right. Even the Greenville Council Council even voted recently to encourage strip malls to plant trees in their expansive asphalt parking lots. Imagine that. It is a very encouraging time to live, work, and play in Greenville.

I look forward to intercommunity visits in 10 or 20 years from others coming to Greenville to learn how we created one of the country's most innovative and entrepreneurial communities.

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