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Austin: managing growth.

Austin's long-term economic future depends largely upon its ability to remain competitive in its place in the so-called Silicon Prairie, the stretch of Interstate 35 from Dallas on the north to San Antonio on the south. The roughest breakdown of this high-technology corridor shows defense contractors in Dallas, biomedical research and development in San Antonio, and semiconductor research and manufacturing in Austin. Although Austin's economic future depends to an extent on the overall success of the corridor, Austin needs to establish a firm image as a city that can make decisions and stick with them if it is to continue attracting high-technology firms to the area.

The image the city presents to its citizens and to outsiders often is an image of indecision: the city bought into the South Texas Nuclear Project but wants out; the city wants to move the airport east to Manor but might move it southeast to Bergstrom Air Force Base instead. Or it may leave the airport where it is. Wrangling over these issues has continued for years, in some cases, for decades. On occasion, high-technology businesses are encouraged to relocate to the area, then strangled by red tape.

While dissent and disagreement are permanent, often healthy features of a democracy, Austin has had far more than its share. In most cities the disagreement and discussion of pending issues serve as a prelude to decision. The pros and cons are debated, the political and economic costs are weighed, the votes are tallied, and the decision is made. In Austin, the system too often works a little differently. The pros and cons are debated, the political and economic costs are weighed, the votes are tallied, and an outside consulting firm is hired to study the issue. No decision is made and frustration sets in. Democracy doesn't require that citizens speak with a single voice. But efficient governance requires that the city, at some point, distill diverse voices into a single decision followed by firm action.

The real damage that's done by Austin's civic indecision is that no one knows what to expect next. Hard decisions about the city's direction have been difficult to come by in the past few years; those decisions that have been made have been endlessly debated and have often been reversed. This creates an unhealthy climate for businesses contemplating relocation to the Austin area. And the one certainty over the next several decades is that come what may-good economic times or bad-Austin will grow. Austin, and the Austin city council in particular, need to manage that growth.

The significant question, then, is not whether the city will grow-it will-but what kinds of industry the city will encourage and attract. Right now, the answer isn't clear. Austin has had some strong successes attracting industry in the past few years. Microelectronics and Computer Technology Corp. (MCC) and, more recently, SEMATECH are two examples where Austin has prevailed over stiff national competition for high-technology firms. But what worked in the 1980s won't necessarily work in the 1990s and beyond. The kinds of firms Austin seems most likely to want to attract are high-technology firms with a well educated, sophisticated work force. Austin's much vaunted quality of life" won't continue to hold up in competition with other cities if Austin can't or won't make decisions.

Austin needs to decide to build and maintain the infrastructure to get people to work. And in Austin, it can be astonishingly difficult to get to work. North/south expressways in the city are severely overcrowded. There are no east/west expressways for miles either side of the downtown area. The utility of the closest east/west route north of downtown, U.S. Highway 183, is best expressed by the bumper stickers sported by automobiles using it daily: "Pray for Me-I Drive 183." The best location for an east/west expressway directly feeding the downtown area has been debated for decades. But motorists still must wind their way through residential neighborhoods to get downtown from the east or west. All Austinites know the procedure: drive north or south until you are at about the correct latitude for the downtown area, then painstakingly blaze a trail through whatever neighborhoods appear to have the least traffic.

Austin has depended for years on its quality of life" to keep its citizens happy and to attract desirable businesses. High oil prices through the 1970s and early 1980s fueled civic growth and kept the city prosperous. When oil prices began to decline, Austin found itself the recipient of negative national publicity. For several months the downtown area had the highest office vacancy rate for any city of its size in the United States. Stockbrokers advised their clients, Don't Mess With Texas." And during these years, the city went on as it always had, putting off decisions. Oil isn't going to save the Texas or the Austin economy. Hussein's recent moves in the Middle East have driven oil prices to more than $30 a barrel, but even $40 oil isn't going to make civic indecision attractive in the 1990s.

The problem, reduced to its simplest form, is this: Austin finds itself in the 1990s a partner in a regional attempt to attract high-technology industry. Growth is inevitable. If Austin is to prosper, it needs to manage that growth decisively and wisely.
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Title Annotation:Austin, Texas
Author:Renfro, Bruce
Publication:Texas Business Review
Date:Oct 1, 1990
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