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Growth & Development

October 12, 2018

Volume 40, Number 28

Its a rare sight in Austin:  powerful activist environmental interests disagreeing among themselves.  Usually the environmental community leaders in Austin publicly march in lock-step -- fighting for or against the same issues.  Not now.  Distinct lines have been drawn over an issue that will be on Austin ballots November 6th.  Which side prevails may go a long way toward defining the shape of Austins growth.

The ballot item is Proposition J.  Huh?  What’s that?  Simply put, it would require any comprehensive change to Austins land use rules go to voters for approval.  Just getting on the ballot was controversial.  It took a grass-roots effort to bypass the Austin City Council to get Prop J on the ballot.  This grew out of the CodeNEXT development rules process that inflamed such strong opinions, it was ultimately abandoned. So, how has this pitted Austin environmental leaders against each other?  We need to credit Mose Buchele, an award-winning reporter for KUT-FM, for bringing this to our attention through his writing in Austin MonitorIt boils down to differing environmental philosophies as they relate to growth and climate change.  How so?

If Proposition J passes, then the voters will have the right to check the Councils work if we resurrect CodeNEXT and we have a comprehensive rewrite of our Land Development Code,” longtime environmental activist Bill Bunch argues.  Arguing against passage of Prop J is the director of Austin-based Environment Texas, Luke Metzger.  Where do they differ?

Bunch opposes development being shoved into the Central city where you would “scrape our existing city neighborhoods and try to force it on top of existing communities.”  He doesnt like adding density in downtown Austin and wants growth moved away from the city core.

Metzger disagrees:  “Are we going to increase sprawl, increase traffic, or are we going to do it in a much more walkable, transit-friendly way and bring people into the city core?”

They both cite strong, passionate environmental reasons for their approach.  Itll be interesting to see which approach prevails in this environmentally-centric Austin community. Read More

August 3, 2018

Volume 40, Number 18

Are there Chinese and Russian spies in Austin?  Preying on Austin tech interests.  According to one report, the FBIs Austin office may think so.  It is believed Austin may be the target for cybersecurity espionage due to its concentration of tech companies that could harbor important data worth stealing.  Further, there is concern that some Austin tech operations are unprepared to deal with this espionage.

Buried in the next-to-last paragraph of a very lengthy and starkly detailed July 27, 2018 report in Politico magazine is the reference that grabbed our attention.  After recounting what was called “a full-on epidemic of espionage on the West Coast by China and Russia, aimed at science and technology companies, the report said mid-sized cities with thriving tech industries will likely see an uptick in counterintelligence cases.  Then, came this quote:

One former intelligence official noted that the FBIs office in Austin, Texas, has built up its counterintelligence capacities.”  There you have it.  Of course, the FBI is not talking for obvious security reasons.  But it makes sense.  And it’s not because of the logical big targets in Austin like Dell, Apple, Google, etc., but also tech start-ups that are especially vulnerable.

“Russian and Chinese operatives have an easier time infiltrating organizations without any security systems or hierarchies in place,” noted the report.  “These services like penetrating young companies and start-ups because its always better to get in on the ground floor when seeking to pilfer valuable information or technology.”

The espionage efforts by the Chinese and Russians are diverse and complicated.  For example, here in Austin there is a treasure trove of data at UTAustin where research is conducted on vital topics, such as energy and computer technologynot to mention defense contracts.  UTAustin probably has massive precautions in place. Now with the all-important Army Futures Command establishing its headquarters in Austin, its entirely possible Russian and Chinese espionage efforts will ramp up in Austin exponentially.  The Army, too, will have extensive safeguards.  But remember:  spies don’t just concentrate on hacking, etc., spies also compromise individuals who may have access to what they want.  Get ready:  espionage will expand in Austin. Read More

July 20, 2018

Volume 40, Number 16

The UTSystem should be nearing the end of its search to replace retired Chancellor Bill McRaven.  There is no stated deadline and former UTAustin President Larry Faulkner is a very capable interim replacement.  But, the Texas Legislature convenes in Austin in less than six months and a new Chancellor needs time to get up-to-speed on critical issues.  One question:  what should the Board of Regents pay to attract a world-class caliber candidate?  Do the Texas Aggies hold the key to that answer?

No doubt about it, the job of UTSystem Chancellor is a tough one, overseeing as CEO 8 academic institutions (including UTAustin) and 6 health institutions that include 6 medical schools, 2 dental schools and 8 nursing schools, among other professional programs.  Consider this:  The UTSystem confers more than one-third of the states undergraduate degrees and educates over half of the states healthcare professionals.  This is a major responsibility.  And, ancillary to this, the newly-named Chancellor will become an influential citizen of Austin.

So, what should the Regent’s search committee pay to get someone of that caliber?  Start off thinking of an amount north of a million dollars a year.  The Chronicle of Higher Education released a 2016-2917 national salary survey this week.  TexasA&MSystem Chancellor John Sharps salary was among the nations highest at $1.29 million for acting as CEO of 11 institutions.

Even the president of the single campus TexasA&MUniversity in College Station, Michael Young, pulls down a $1 million annual salary.  By the way, UTAustin president Greg Fenves turned down a million dollar salary offer when he was hired in 2015 and now makes $762,220.

The precedent has already been set.  When he retired as UTSystem Chancellor earlier this year, McRaven earned just more than $1.5 million in combined base pay, bonuses and other financial perks during the 2017 fiscal year.

The Board of Regents will hire the new Chancellor at whatever salary it takes to attract its chosen candidate.  The search committee is headed by current Regents Chair and Vice Chair Sara Martinez Tucker and Jeffrey Hildebrand.  They are joined by two former chairs, Don Evans and James Huffines and a former vice chair, Paul Foster. Read More

July 13, 2018

Volume 40, Number 15

Its difficult to keep tabs on the many organizations, boards and commissions that are actively working, one way or another, to determine what Austin is and will be in the future.  But two relatively new groups, composed of some of this citys most notable heavyweights, deserve your attention.  They could have a huge impact on one of the Austin areas most promising future economic underpinnings healthcare research and start-ups.

It’s understandable they are not all that well-known yet.  Let’s look at the first one, created last year.  And it is growing as we speak.  Its a non-profit organization Capital City Innovation (CCI).  Its purpose is to help coordinate the creation of a healthcare innovation district associated with UTAustin’s Dell Medical School (DellMed).  The makeup of CCIs Board of Trustees is what gives CCI its weight and significance.  Consider these influential board members:

Clay Johnston, dean of DellMed … Greg Hartman, president/Academic and External Affairs, Seton Healthcare Network/Ascension Texas … Kerry Hall, Austin Region president of Texas Capital Bank and former chair of the Austin Chamber’s economic development entity, Opportunity Austin … Stephanie McDonald, chief of staff at Central Health … Dewitt Peart, president/CEO, Downtown Austin Alliance.  Ex officio members are Austin mayor Steve Adler and Travis County judge Sarah Eckhardt.

The second organization is also a non-profit, created this year to speed-up revenue generation for expansion of ambitious healthcare development plans related to DellMed.  Commercial real estate powerhouse Sandy Gottesman formed 2033 LP, a limited partnership that will generate millions of dollars for Central Health, the local public agency that connects Travis County low income residents to quality health care.

Gottesmans 2033 LP will serve as UTAustins development partner in the redevelopment of the multi-acre campus area to support DellMed’s clinical and research operations.  (Gottesman, by the way, after graduation from UTAustin, cut his civic/business teeth as young aide to Austin civic titan Lowell Lebermann, before becoming super successful in Austin’s commercial real estate scene.)

Check the next item for a discussion of the problems that led to this unusual move this week. Read More

June 29, 2018

Volume 40, Number 13

As Texas grows, so grows state government.  Right?  Uhhhh, not necessarily.  Government payrolls are a significant part of the Austin economy.  Always have been, always will be.  But, as the rest of the Austin area economy expands at one of the fastest rates in the nation to what extent is government keeping pace?  Bottom line:  private sector jobs are quickly growing in the Austin area.  And the jobs in the government sector are not in step.

This is not to downplay the role in Austin of steady government paychecks.  Far from it.  In fact government sector jobs are more than 17% of all jobs in the Austin area.  (These stats are lifted from a June report by the Austin Chamber’s VP/Research, Beverly Kerr.)  Other cities would die for such a solid job base.  Instead, the current economic situation is a testimony to the private sector that it is outshining the government jobs in the metro.

Without relying on the 17% government jobs (because government job growth was essentially unchanged) the Austin area added 33,900 net new jobs in the 12 months ending in May.  Let this sink in.  This growth of 3.3% made Austin the third fastest growing major metro in the US.  And it was basically in the private sector.  For the nation, private sector growth was 1.9% for the same period.

A half-century ago, we were quoted in TIME magazine as saying “Austin is a state government, state university town.”  True, then.  Not so much, now.  And it has occurred in less than one lifetime.

By most measures, the Austin area boasts of one of the most vibrant economies around.  And private sector jobs have been the defining difference compared to the area’s historical past.  This is a major economic sea change that has taken place in front of your very eyes.

Oh, by the way, all this is underscored when you understand that almost as soon as new jobs are created in the private sector, they are filled.  In May, Austins outstanding unemployment was at an eye-popping 2.8%.  Economists will tell you this is full employment – anyone who wants a job can get a job.  Other major metros in Texas are also doing well.  Their unemployment percentages are solid – ranging from 3.2% in San Antonio to 4.2% in HoustonDallas and Fort Worth were at 3.4% in May.  These are all better than the unemployment rates seen a year ago. Read More

June 22, 2018

Volume 40, Number 12

Too often the debate about energy sources becomes an us-versus-them discussion – “fossil-fuels-versus-alternative-fuels.”  Energy is vital to Austin and the rest of Texas.  Texas is a world leader in fossil fuels with enormous oil and gas availability.  Not as well-known, is the fact that Texas is fast becoming a leader in capacity to generate electricity from an alternative fuel source -- wind power.  Its an enviable position.  With such a wealth of resources, how about peaceful coexistence in Texas as an energy policy?

The City of Austin has committed big bucks far into the future to use wind power to generate electricity, while currently relying on other sources such as natural gas, coal-fired power, nuclear power and solar (which will be discussed at a later date).  Wind is an important and growing part of the Austin economy.  So, just how big is wind in Texas?

According to Texas economist Ray Perryman, Texas capacity of 22,799 megawatts is larger than most countries around the world.  And in the US, Texas capacity is triple that of second-place Oklahoma.  The Lone Star State also tops the list for capacity currently under development.

Just as with fossil fuels, geography is key.  Texas has abundant land with the right wind speedsAdditionally, there have been billions of dollars of investments in transmission lines that are needed to get wind power from the often rural areas, where it is generated, to Austin and other growing population centers where it is needed.

It’s not been widely discussed, but development of wind power has been an economic boon.  The American Wind Energy Association estimates more than $42 billion has been invested in Texas wind farms, creating jobs during construction, and to a lesser extent, on an ongoing basis through operations and maintenance, Perryman reports.

In addition to the economic benefits of the industry itself, wind generation capacity works to reduce electric power prices,” Perryman continued.  And wind gives electric power customers more choices.  There are also more benefits.

How many states would love to have Texas oil/gas/wind energy resources?  This situation will inure to the economic benefit for Austin and the rest of the state for generations. Read More

June 15, 2018

Volume 40, Number 11

All you have to do is check the skyline to know that downtown Austin is undergoing amazing change.  But, theres more to this change than skyscrapers.  The Downtown Austin Alliance (DAA) points out that within the last few years investments have also been made in parks and green spaces, a new Central Library, a flood diversion tunnel, roadways and transit planning, and a state-of-the-art teaching hospital.  But, what does DAA envision for the future?

DAA took a long-term view toward downtown’s future.  Long-term?  Yeah, they referenced 2039, when Austin will be 200 years old.  DAA went through an extensive process to arrive at a vision.  “We engaged 3,000 people in 75 ZIP codes, using surveys, focus groups, interviews and events to learn their aspirations for downtown,” said Mike Kennedy, Chair of the Downtown Austin Vision Steering Committee.

“The Downtown Austin Vision is the north star to guide the future of downtown toward the communitys values and aspirations for a thriving, welcoming, vibrant and connected downtown,” reads the vision report.  It also calls it “the downtown you will always love.”

Lofty words.  And its priorities seem to cover all the bases, under four headings:  Thriving CenterWelcoming PlacesGrowing Neighborhoods … and Leading Mobility.  All worthy subjects.  But referenced in general terms, with few specifics.

There is some precise language, without detail.  Such as:  “provide a variety of options for people to get to and from downtown, including a robust transit network in central Austin.”  See what we mean.  No mention of what this would look like.  Or “create extremely viable and walkable streets.”

Other phrases:  improve the experience and availability of parking in downtown while planning smartly for the future position downtown for a successful retail futurebroadly address the needs of people experiencing homelessness, and the associated impactsmake downtown a family-friendly place to live and visit. To be fair, this “vision” is not intended to be a blueprint for construction.  All bases seem to be touched.  But, the devil is in the details.  And the details will be debated ad nauseum.  Stay tuned. Read More

June 8, 2018

Volume 40, Number 10

You hear a lot about the Austin area being inundated by newcomers from California, New York, Boston, etc.  And its happening.  But you dont hear much about your fellow Texans leaving their hometowns to settle down in the Austin area. The common denominator is job-seeking. This is an important, often overlooked, part of the growth in the Austin metro.  And, in some cases the people-moving event is a two-way street.

According to a new study by a career-analysis website, Glassdoor, the biggest supplier of jobs for newcomers to Austin is ta-dahh, wait for it the Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) metroplexHouston and San Antonio are next.  New York City and Los Angeles follow in the pecking order.

Glassdoor measures job applicants.  The availability of well-paying jobs in Austin is the lure, which we’ve chronicled for you for years.  And, of course, it’s easier to uproot and move down the road to attractive Austin, rather than make a cross-country move.  So, in that sense, it makes sense for ambitious Texans, seeking a better situation, to consider a move to the nearby Austin metro.

Not all Austinites stay here (I know, I know, it’s hard to believe).  And you must (grudgingly) admit, the much larger D-FW metro is also a pretty good area.  While Glassdoor reports D-FW attracts the most job applicants from Houston and New York City, Austin comes in at #3, just ahead of Chicago and Los Angeles.  Aside from Austin, there’s a pattern here:  big city attracts residents from other big cities.  (Maybe, for some Austinites, it’s trying to “move-up” to the big city life.)

Another point that needs to be made:  weve always mentioned Austin area.  This population influx is not limited to the Austin city limits.  As we have regularly referenced, the nearby communities within the Austin metro offer more affordable accommodations and civic amenities such as nearby schools, quality neighborhoods and access to all Austin offers in terms of quality of life.  It’s part of the big picture. Speaking of smaller Texas cities, didja know the most prosperous city in America is a small town in Texas?  And, a nearby city is also in the Top TenOdessa as #1 and Midland as #10 are stories unto themselves.  But, these boomtown oil patch Texas success stories bring with them a number of trade-offs.  Check out the next item. Read More

May 11, 2018

Volume 40, Number 6

Multi-inch rainfall fell throughout much of the Austin area last week.  The benefit is obvious when you look at the trees, shrubs, grass, etc.  Vegetation is thriving nowBut, emergency crews will tell you the dog days of summer harbor the potential for disaster.  Were not talking about flooding, were talking about wildfires.  As the summer temps rise, dry vegetation provides fuel for fast-moving wildfires.

Specifically, we’re referencing the northwest quadrant of Austin, lavishly graced with massive amounts of trees – especially cedar/mountain juniper.  Fire casualty companies have rated Austin #3 in the nation for high wildfire risk, with more than 37,000 homes at risk.

Public Safety Commission member Mike Levy says the Austin City Council chooses to ignore the critical, immediate need for another fully-staffed fire station in the Loop360 corridor.  “If a wildland fire pushed by high winds from the northwest is not contained at 360, there goes Austin,” Levy warns.

Pointing to recent widespread fires in California and Colorado, Levy says the heavily-wooded area of Austin along the 360 corridor poses even greater risk.  “We have massive amounts of cedar and persimmon,” he said.  “Because of their oils, they dont ignite; they explode.”

He envisions a scary perfect storm scenario:  Thirty-to-thirty-five mile an hour winds that don’t “lay down” at night.  Low humidity.  Very dry vegetation in large quantities serving as hot fuel.  “One home on the urban interface ignites, most likely by a flying ember under the eaves rather than direct contact with flame, similar to how Bastrop homes, several miles from the actual flames, ignited,” said Levy.

“Then that fire igniting homes on either side and then on either side of those, with the same pattern across the street, with the fire jumping to the homes behind those … Well, you get the idea of the checker-board pattern of rapidly-spreading house fires,” he continued.  “A monstrous inferno.  In less than 2-3 hours, thousands of homes will be lost along with lives of firefighters and civilians.”

Levy continues to press for expanded fire protection in Austin’s northwest quadrant, saying “Austin so far has dodged the bullet.” Read More

April 6, 2018

Volume 40, Number 1

This week the Austin American-Statesman, an important, venerable Austin institution dating back to the late 1800s, is under new ownership.  Gatehouse Media, a national media giant, paid $47.5 million for the news operations (real estate was not included).  Will there be changes?  You betcha.  A lot of changes.  Not this week.  But soon.  What can you expect?

Assuming the price tag was a good deal for the buyer, you can further assume the buyer is convinced it can do a much better job with the Statesmans assets than the former owner.  Otherwise, why make the purchase?  In other words, they obviously feel they can make a lot more money -- even at a time the revenue streams have been shrinking for years at the Statesman.  How will this manifest itself?

First of all there will be layoffs.  “That’s inevitable” the new owner was quoted as saying.  The Statesman is now part of a media behemoth.  So you can expect some consolidation of functions, and that could result in job increases in certain areas, as well as decreases.

Yeah, but what about reporters, writers, photographers, etc.?  Right now, only about 100 employees fall into that category.  This is about half of where it stood ten years ago.  So, the editorial staff is not likely to be hit with a meat axe approach.  But some attrition is likely.

You can look for Gatehouse to focus heavily on the digital side of the business.  Subscriptions to the Statesman’s digital offerings have grown, even as print subscriptions have dropped precipitously.  This includes new approaches to advertising revenue (the mother’s milk of publications).

Also, bear in mind other Statesman-owned news assets were part of the sale, such as community newspapers like the Bastrop Advertiser, Westlake Picayune, Lake Travis View, Pflugerville Pflag, Round Rock Leader and the Spanish language weekly, Ahora Si!. And for what it’s worth, Gatehouse Media also has another major presence in the Austin area.  The Center for News & Design opened in 2014, where more than 240 employees provide editing and design work for publications nationwide.  Add it up.  It’s a New Day for news and reporting in the Austin area, playing out over the coming months.  Stay tuned. Read More