Keep your city weird, and other good advice

Here we are in the city named for Stephen F. Austin, the “father of Texas” and Transylvania University alumnus (class of 1810).

Commerce Lexington chartered two large jets for the 275 people making its 69th annual Leadership Visit. When those jets touched down at Austin’s new airport, we were taken to Austin Music Hall to hear from local leaders about this city’s successes and failures and how they might apply to Central Kentucky.

The music hall itself is a symbol of one of those successes. A former warehouse and chili factory, it was reopened seven months ago after essentially being rebuilt as a privately developed concert venue.

It’s not a fancy building — concrete floors, exposed beams and air ducts — and that is by design. Owner Tim O’Connor said the “dressed down” decor offers ultimate flexibility for whatever the function and whomever is appearing on stage — whether it’s Bill Gates, Barrack Obama or B.B. King. All have “performed” there.

It’s also an environmentally friendly building, with such things as automatic light switches and computer-controlled climate systems. The water-chilled air conditioning system uses no freon, and it worked quite well today as the afternoon temperature hit 100 degrees.

“The most important thing a developer can do is know the community and the needs of people in that community,” O’Connor said.

Austin’s transformation began in 1983 when it was chosen as the site for Microelectronics & Computer Technology Corp., a research consortium financed by a dozen technology companies. The consortium and the companies spun off from it made Austin a high-tech center.

But all that technology focus hasn’t made the city nerdy. Just the opposite. Austin has developed a live music scene and funky culture that attracts creative young people. Austin now has the youngest net in-migration of any city in America.

Growth has always been a constant in Austin. The metro area’s population has doubled every 20 years for the past 115 years. There are currently about 775,000 residents in the city and 1.6 million in the metro area.

Former Mayor Lee Cook said the keys to Austin’s success have been its willingness to take risks and focus on quality of life. Austin invested in water and sewer improvements, even during economic downturns, and made environmental protection a priority. Leaders have worked to improve schools and integrate the University of Texas and other local universities into the local economy.

But Austin still struggles with transportation and sprawl. Highway traffic is bad, although the city’s first limited light rail system will open later this year.

“Growth is the opportunity, and it is the challenge,” said current Mayor Will Wynn, who has a name any politician would envy.

Wynn came into office in 2003 from the commercial real estate industry, and he had a strong background in environmental protection and historic preservation. He stressed the need for quality, high-density, mixed-use urbane development that makes wise use of land and adds vitality to the city.

In just the past few years, the number of people living in downtown Austin has grown from 500 to 5,800. And another 7,000 or so will be joining them once 4,000 downtown housing units now under construction are finished.

A former mayor who now represents Austin in the state Senate, Kirk Watson, said cities like Austin and Lexington could be positioned well to succeed in the new economy.

Strong economies were once about being an empire, then a superpower, Watson said. Now, with digital technology, they’re about being a successful region. Wealth was once about having land, then industrial capacity. Now, it’s about having intellectual capacity and creative people.

So, Watson said, the places that will be winners in the 21st Century global economy will be those cities and surrounding regions that can attract the brightest people and the companies that want to hire them. “Places that never before could be economic powers can be now,” he said.

He cited these factors for Austin’s success: Improving education, attracting high-tech companies, preserving the local environment and investing in the arts and culture as a way to improve the quality of life and attract smart, dynamic people.

Watson noted that the city’s most popular bumper sticker says, “Keep Austin Weird.”

He noted that innovative companies such as Dell Computer and Whole Foods were started in Austin by people with “weird” ideas. “To attract and cultivate that creative mindset, you have to allow those weird ideas … that often become visionary 10 years later,” he said.