About 135 leaders from metro Atlanta visited the Austin, Texas region in early May as part of the 2022 LINK program, where they explored key issues the two communities face, such as housing affordability, traffic congestion, and economic development.
Here are some of the big takeaways from the visit, which included in-depth panel discussions, small group sessions, and field trips to some of Austin’s most innovative organizations:
Think ‘Outside the Box’ to Creatively Address Community Challenges
Perhaps it’s fitting for a region known as a creative hub and IT magnet, but Austin has consistently found innovative solutions to move their region forward. LINK participants heard from a diverse array of Austin leaders who discussed how they are working to bring about meaningful change.
- Homelessness: Austin is investing $515 million to provide housing to those in need, while nonprofits like Mobile Loaves & Fishes are building permanent housing communities for people that offer extensive support services like employment assistance and access to fresh, healthy food. “We have a strong belief in the dignity of work. All our residents pay rent. We created an affordable place for people to live and provide flexible work opportunities. They wake up every day with a purpose,” said Amber Fogarty, President of Mobile Loaves & Fishes. “Housing alone will never solve homelessness, but community will.”
- Housing Affordability: Nonprofits are working to connect moderate and low-income people with companies that are building affordable housing units. This solves a problem faced by Austin developer Terry Mitchell, who said he once opened a sales office targeting those buyers, but “no one came in earning less than 80%” of the area’s median household income. Now, he has a waiting list.
- Transportation: In a suburban community not yet ready to invest in transit service, local officials have partnered with rideshare companies to improve mobility options and connect residents to jobs and services. “If you think creatively and work with a private entity, there are solutions,” said Travis Mitchell, Mayor of Kyle. “The point is collaborating and thinking outside the box.”
- Economic Development: After years of working largely independently, the Austin region’s Hispanic, Asian, and Black chambers of commerce have broken down barriers to collaborate on a regional economic equity plan focused on innovation and sustainable growth. Greater Austin Asian Chamber CEO Fang Fang told LINK participants the goal of the collaboration is to “help us break economic barriers for the communities we are serving.” Tam Hawkins, President and CEO of the Greater Austin Black Chamber, said: “We worked well together, and we realized that we grow faster together. Diversity really matters in a growing a region. This is the wave of the future.”
- Public Safety: Austin has transformed the way its first responders handle situations such as mental health crises and domestic violence. Changes include:
- Asking callers to 911 if they need mental health services
- Revamping training so that police officers become more ‘guardians that warriors,’ as one Austin panelist told the LINK audience.
- Funding domestic violence shelters so police officers don’t have to spend time driving around looking for facilities.
Be intentional: Creating the Future You Want Doesn’t Happen by Accident
In just a few decades, Austin has transformed from a relatively sleepy college town to become the fastest-growing large metro area in the country. More recently, Austin leaders worked to bring a medical school to town, which has sparked a boom in the health sciences sector.
“We get asked all the time how did Austin put this regional economy together? It wasn’t because we were lucky,” said Laura Huffman, CEO, Austin Metro Chamber. “Our economy and its diversity was built very intentionally over a long period of time.”
These efforts are ongoing. During the visit, LINK participants visited a high-tech incubator and heard from some of the entrepreneurs and visionaries who have put Austin on the global map.
Now, Austin leaders are focused on “Keeping Austin Weird” as folks say in the Texas capital, to keep the region’s economic edge.
“Quality of life is what it comes down to. With remote work, you don’t have to live in any particular place to build tech anymore,” said Ethan Monreal-Jackson, founder of Austin-based Newtype Ventures. “What will attract people to a place is what is provided outside of work. The city that figures that out will win the next 20-30 years.”
Community Support is Key to Success
Austin’s experience makes it clear that the path to success is from then ground up, rather than top down. Regional leaders told LINK participants about key initiatives that succeeded because supporters took the time to talk to residents about what they needed, rather than assuming.
- Project Connect: Leaders of the campaign to pass a $7.1 billion property tax increase to build a transit network said Project Connect where previous efforts failed because they took the time to talk to residents about the kind of transportation system they wanted and developed trust among key constituencies. “Leaders early on recognized we need to be in touch with the community and what they care about so we can shape best policy possible,” said Tina Bui, a local public affairs consultant.Jim Wick, a consultant with pro-referendum group Transit Now, told the LINK group: “We won the election because of all the work done before the public campaign even began. Our research showed residents wanted something large to actually tackle the problem.”
- Homeless Initiatives: In a similar vein, when Austin nonprofit Other Ones Foundation began exploring how to help Austin’s homeless population, they spent a year talking to the city’s “un-housed” population to gauge what they needed. As a result, the organization began to deliver a range of services directly to this population, and jettisoned an idea to outfit old tour buses as shelters. “When I talked to people, they said they love the idea of bringing services to them, and they loved the idea of having the opportunity to work. They also said they had no interest of living on a bus,” said Chris Baker, executive director of the Other Ones Foundation.The effort has been a big success. Other Ones Foundation has grown from a $50,000 budget in 2018 to $7.5 million this year, and have helped over 200 people find stable housing.
What’s Next ATL, produced by the Atlanta Regional Commission, is a community resource that explores how metro Atlanta is growing and changing, and how the region is addressing its most pressing challenges.