Speech: Austin Chamber

Austin Chamber Speech
Thank you very much Gene for that generous introduction. It’s an honor to be here with you today and I also want to thank the Austin Chamber for hosting this conversation. It’s also great to see some of my colleagues here and also so many friendly faces.

But today among many friends, I wanted to more informally share some thoughts.

I want to invite everyone to the State of the City address on 4/13, Monday, at the AISD performing arts space at the Mueller development. 6:30 pm. At that time, I’ll talk more about where we are as a city, and where we’re going.

Within the last month or so, Austin has made no. 1 on three different lists.

First, Austin was named the city with the best environment for the tech industry in the entire world by British firm Savills. That’s a huge achievement. We beat out places like London and San Francisco, Berlin and Mumbai.

It’s a great achievement for Austin and the payoff for more than two decades worth of work. We’ve invested in our tech industry with infrastructure and we aspired to become “Silicon Hills,” and we’ve made it.

Second, Austin was named number 1 on the National Wildlife Federation’s list of Top 10 Cities for Wildlife in the United States, and not just because we have the largest urban bat colony in the world. The rankings were determined using three separate criteria including parkland.

Now, those two number 1 rankings are pretty impressive. But they didn’t just happen overnight. Our community has made a string of conscious decisions and moves that have led us to the top of those lists. We’re a better city for it.

And then there’s the third number 1 ranking. One that also did not happen overnight, but also has been a long time in the making.

Austin was also just named the most economically segregated city among large metro areas. A host of measurements were used to determine this ranking, including income segregation, educational segregation, and occupational segregation. It’s not a list that we want to be on, much less at the top.

In these three number 1 rankings, the present state of Austin is told. They tell us we are doing so well with business and the economy. They remind us of what makes Austin special and unique. And, they also remind us of the very real challenges we face.

How Good Are We Doing With Business and the Economy (related to 1st no. 1 ranking).
This is a great and golden time for Austin’s business climate and economy.

Between August 2013 and August 2014, the Austin metropolitan area added 31,700 jobs, second highest among the 50 largest metropolitan areas.

Austin is experiencing growth in key industries like technology, digital media, clean energy, life sciences, and advanced manufacturing.

We’re planting a flag with the new medical school, teaching hospital, and associated innovation zone that could and should led to over 20,000 jobs in the few block area just north of here.

Austin’s unemployment rate sits at 3.4% — that’s an amazing number.

I just spent ten days ago, I spent the weekend with the mayors of NYC, Seattle, Boston, Madison, Baltimore and a few others. They all wanted to talk about SXSW.

Mayor De Blasio of NYC told me that Austin might be the only city in the US that is more cool than NYC.

Cities in the US are trying desperately to attract the highest speed internet. We’ve got three companies building gigabit fiber networks here.

We have a highly educated city, with more than 44% holding college degrees, well above the national average.

Because of our local economy, Austin weathered the Great Recession better than any other city in the nation, according to the Brookings Institute. We were one of the last cities in the country to feel the recession and one of the first to break out of it.

Though the city is just 7% of Texas’ population, we’re responsible for 30% of the state’s patents and we receive nearly 50% of the state’s venture capital.

The work of the Chamber…your work….is a significant reason we are where we are today and our economy is doing so well.

The Chamber’s consistent advocacy for mobility solutions and educational support has contributed to our regional success. Whether the 20/20 Mobility Initiative or helping Austin-area students complete federal financial aid forms, the Chamber has helped our community’s quality of life for years.

I’ll be counting on you to continue that work as my partner, and a partner for the city.

How Good Are We Doing With Branding Local Values (related to 2nd no. 1 ranking)
The second no. 1 ranking, about wildlife, reminds us of our city’s values. There is a special spirit and soul to Austin. You go anywhere in the country and say you’re from Austin and it means something. Anywhere in the world. And what gets played back to you is not the robust economy, it’s the more amorphous “Austin Values.”

Make no mistake about it, our business and economic success is due in no small part to the Austin culture and our community values. Austin is doing well economically because we are creative and entrepreneurial, because we try new things, because we push the envelope, because we’re laid back, and because we have a beautiful natural environment.

Companies come here because the people that work for them want to live here. Ultimately, our quality of life and our lifestyle attract more and more people to our city. It’s important to preserve that draw. It’s important to preserve who we are.

Austin has been named one of America’s best bike cities.
– Named one of the Top 10 fittest cities
– Named one of America’s safest cities
– We are the live music capital of the world

The culture of Austin is strong.

Our culinary scene is growing stronger and stronger, with our barbecue restaurants gaining fame throughout the world. And don’t worry, we won’t be doing anything to threaten meat tourism.

At least as important, if not more important than anything else, Austin has our beautiful natural environment…Barton Springs, Mt. Bonnell, Lady Bird Lake, Lake Travis, McKinney Falls, the Hill Country…

Austin attracts creativity because our culture is unusually open, inclusive, environmental, sharing, friendly and diverse. What looks weird to some looks like home to the sort of people who design software and make movies and start tech companies — and that creativity benefits all Austinites.

Though we are often focused on business and the economy, we cannot lose sight of just how important is the spirit and soul of Austin as being the foundation for that very business opportunity.

In our businesses, you and I know about branding. This is Austin’s brand, and what a strong brand it is. We must protect it dearly. If we lose it, we lose Austin. So long as we can tout and celebrate it, Austin will attract the special person that makes our city stronger.

The Real Challenges We Face (related to 3rd No. 1 ranking).

But we also need to remember the third new number 1 list that we’re on. We’re the most economically segregated big city in the nation. Austin, Texas. What does that mean?

More than a third of Hispanic and African American children under the age of 18 live in poverty.

We have a huge gap in housing that people can afford – nearly 50,000 families that cannot afford even $500/month rent.

We create more jobs than most any other city, but almost 60% of those jobs don’t pay the wage necessary to live in the city.

Nearly 40% of Austin residents are classified as “low-income,” meaning a family of four that makes less than about $46,500 a year in household income.

There are moral and ethical reasons that our city needs to come together to fix these things. But today, that’s not the argument I want to make.

Rather, we need to fix these things in order to keep Austin moving forward, keeping our brand, and ensuring a strong economy and economic growth in our city.

Plain and simple, we can’t do that if we are facing massive income inequality. According to a recent study, economic growth is significantly stunted by income inequality. The gap between rich and poor is the largest it has been in thirty years. And that hurts growth. That analysis suggests that, using the average increase in inequality over the past twenty years, economic growth is slowed by .35% per year. Over 25 years, that’s a cumulative loss of GDP growth of 8.5%. In some places, rising inequality is estimated to have knocked 10% off growth. That’s significant. And this is a growing and very real threat we face in Austin.

Don’t think about the richest among us. Or the poorest. Think about the Austin economy. When people don’t have money to spend on education or childcare or job training, they aren’t able to maximize their earning potential. Who ends up subsidizing the 50,000 families that can’t afford rent for a home in Austin, Texas?

When people have less money to spend on restaurants, or technology, or furniture, or clothes, or entertainment, what is the impact on our economy?

We must make sure that people have access to the ladders of economic opportunity. If we are to keep our economy moving and growing, your government and our non-profits cannot afford to carry large parts of Austin. All parts of Austin need opportunity to build good lives for themselves.

The third No. 1 ranking tells us that we must do a better job of building economic engines all over our city.

So, these three rankings tell us that we have a great economy and we need to keep it going, that our brand is strong and we need to protect it, but also that we have challenges that we need to face.

And into this moment, now steps your new City Council. And we’ve been pedaling as fast as we can. I could not be prouder of every member of your new Council.

If ever there was proof that the people can change their government, we are living it now. And it is a wonderful thing.

The first goal of your new council was to change the very systems of governance to make government more thoughtful and deliberative… to set up a new system where government could be more policy driven than oriented to conflict resolution. To allow for more proactive and long term thinking.

In less than 100 days, your new council has accomplished major things to move in this direction. First, we unanimously passed sweeping changes to how business is done at council.

You may have heard the words “Let’s send that to committee” over the past few weeks if you’ve been watching the council, and that’s exactly what we have been going for – proposals that aren’t fully vetted need more time for consideration and greater opportunity for public debate and discussion.

Together, your council formed 10 committees, and each council member chairs one of those committees. The appointments for each committee were made in consultation with the council members. Do you remember earlier fears of a ward politics nightmare that might immobilize your new 10/1 Council? That’s not what you’re seeing. Instead, each council member is embracing their city-wide responsibility, and each council member is developing a city-wide constituency for their committee.

We’re going to do our best not to meet past midnight. To do that, we’re meeting more often. We’re separating zoning case days from other council business days.

We’re moving executive sessions to work session days. And we’re going to make certain that our “time certain” items, the time at which the public is told certain agenda items will be reached, are actually close to the times that we post.

We’ve also spent many days and a lot of time sitting through policy forum workshops as a whole council, organized to inform and educate the council on some of the biggest issues we’ve been facing. It’s taken a lot of time, but it’s been extremely beneficial to working together. We’re developing a shared vocabulary and understanding that will help us as we look to tackle the big issues together. We’re learning about and getting to know each other.

It’s only been 100 days. My how time flies when you’re having fun!

But, we’re just getting started. Now that we have set up the systems, it is time to get to work.

We have already begun to chip away at a long-standing source of grief and pain for our city – the planning and permitting process. We all know about this challenge for our city. By a show of hands, how many people in this room would rank permitting one of the top three challenges for city government? [How many would rank it as no. 2? No 1?]

An unpredictable permitting and approval process artificially directs the portfolio of projects that gets built… It makes building take too long and cost too much.

Permitting impacts us all. We need small businesses to be able to build locations without leaving town and homeowners able to add a bathroom when they need one.

As I’m sure you know the city recently released the Zucker Report, a document ordered by the City Manager to help us diagnose and repair problems with the city’s permitting department. The author says the level of stakeholder dissatisfaction with Austin permitting was the worst he’d ever seen in the country. Does this surprise anyone in this room?

We will fix this system. Along with Council Planning Committee Greg Casar and his committee members Council Members Sherri Gallo, Pio Renteria, and the

Mayor Pro Tem, we are making this challenge a front and center and priority issue. Tomorrow, council will sit at the council meeting with the City Manager and staff to set out the path and the goals to fix this challenge. Working with the City Manager, the Council will request the following things:
– The Manager will present a plan within 30 days to eliminate the backlog of permit applications.
– Present a response within 60 days to the Zucker Report with a recommended implementation plan to address the challenges laid out in the report.
– The response and plan will include:
o Improving the utility of the One Stop Shop with a focus on customer service, communication, and responsiveness.
o More engagement with stakeholders including neighborhoods and businesses.
o Metrics for performance goals and objectives to measure success.
o Recommended policy and budgetary changes to ensure reforms are completed successfully and swiftly.
– The City Manager will report back to the Council every 60 days on the progress of the reforms.

And finally, the resolution lays out specific metrics for measuring success in the following areas:
o The number and backlog of pending requests
o The time required for developmet review
o The consistency of rule and ordinance application by staff
o Strengthening the culture of customer service and assistance
o Providing a positive experience for development and permit applicants.

Our council-manager form of government is designed to work this way.

The Council will work with the City Manager to solve these problems, each of us performing our role as intended by the Charter. The Council will set clear expectations and the Manager will meet them.

And this leads us to the re-write of our land development code. There is perhaps no greater immediate challenge in our city. We need to forge the community land development agreements that we’ll follow for the next ten to twenty years. We need to have the hard conversations and reach a social compact about development and then codify it. And then implement it.

To get there, we need the process to realign, including strengthening the community code advisory group so as to have the broad community participation that will enable the ultimate community buy-in necessary for a new city-wide code. We need to re-focus attention and priority. We need a process that is thoughtful and deliberate, but also one that gets to the final product as soon as is reasonably possible.

We need a code that is predictable. When you start a project, you should know where you’ll end up. Neighborhoods also should not be threatened with uncertainty. They should know what they can expect and rely upon, too. We can protect neighborhoods and neighborhood character and still achieve the density and supply this city needs for the anticipated growth. We can’t keep planning this city through a practice of variance and exception. Approvals should come with greater frequency administratively, because the rules are known and clear.

We continue to have a Transportation and congestion challenge in this city. Just because the bond election was lost does not mean the problem has gone away.

We have gone from being the 24th most congested city just about ten years ago to being the 4th most congested. More congested than NYC.

To deal with transportation, we need to look at short term, mid term and long term solutions.

Last week the City Manager, along with Council Member Ann Kitchen and me, presented a host of initiatives that will help us get started on fixing our transportation crisis. We have to try new things, and we have to do something – we can’t just sit around and throw our hands up in the air. The Council Mobility

Committee, chaired by Ann Kitchen and with Delia Garza, Sheri Gallo and Don Zimmerman is moving forward.

Everything we try won’t work. But that’s okay. This is Austin, Texas, and we try things. Things that work, we’ll keep. Things that don’t work, we stop or fix.

The most immediate thing you’ll see is the presence of police officers at some of our most congested intersections. They’ll be there to enforce the law so that we are making sure that no one blocks the box – the intersection, that is. Drivers that block the box will be ticketed.

Did you know that Austin has one of the most sophisticated Traffic Management Systems in the world? We have a system capable of dynamically and in real time synchronize and coordinate traffic lights based on the level of traffic and delay at any given moment? This system is extremely powerful. But we have not had the personnel trained and able to use the system to its full capability. Soon we will.

We’re going to change lane directions in key points to allow better traffic flow.

We’re also going to do more to remove impediments from travel lanes. That means no more deliveries during rush hour, so that trucks don’t block travel lanes. It means limiting left-hand turns where appropriate. It means less construction getting in the way of traffic flow, and it means doing more at night when construction is needed.

We’re going to reduce event closures in Downtown core by 20% by denying new events, limiting car access, and requiring park and rides. I know that every race wants to end with the capital as a backdrop. But there are other beautiful and iconic vistas in this city and they should be used, too.

It means that City departments and private construction that want to close streets will coordinate in one office so that no long-term street closure is within five blocks of another.

Next, we are going to do all that we can to improve infrastructure at key locations. It’s time to make short term infrastructure a priority by accelerating the timetable on the IH-35/51st Street Interchange project where money is currently designated. But we also need to move forward on Loop 360, at the Y in Oak Hill, at intersections near Four Points. There are 180 intersections in Austin with offset grids that need to be corrected.

There is also a lot that you can do today. I’m calling on you, the Civic and Business leaders of our city, to sign on to the Mobility 20/20 plan – the goal being to reduce the number of single-occupancy cars driven by your employees by at least 20% by the year 2020. We can do a great deal if we were able to just convince a few people here and there to stagger work hours or telecommute… take transit, share a ride, or try a different mode of transportation.

If just the City, the County, the State, and the University of Texas, and some large employers, did this, we’d seen a substantial and material change on our roads.

If we have only 17,000 fewer cars on the road, we could lighten traffic to levels we only enjoy when a state holiday has about that many state employees staying off the roads.

We need you and your company to join the growing number of companies who have agreed to become part of the Austin’s Mobility Solution. You pledge to have 20% of your employees using mobility options by 2020. We will get your team the help they will need to develop implementation strategies to get your company to 20% by 2020.

Last year the Austin Chamber of Commerce, Capital Metro, and the City of Austin partnered with local mobility experts from Movability Austin and The Thrival Company to pilot this kind of voluntary public/private collaboration.

Some of the entities that have already joined are: Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), AISD, Austin Community College, Bazaarvoice, Capital Metro, Freescale, NetSpend, Parkway Properties, TxDOT, and University Federal Credit Union. Let’s give these companies a hand for being a part of the solution.

But we don’t have to wait for 2020… The City Manager has directed that the City staff will meet this goal by the end of this year.

My office will join the 20/20 Mobility Partnership but meet the goal this year.

We still need many more employers involved. My office will help recruit the next 50 employers, focusing on Austin’s largest employers or employers in two of most congested areas downtown and Capital of Texas Highway.

In discussing my plans with a few companies, I’m proud to announce that some new corporate leaders have stepped forward and now commit to this pledge: Silicon Labs, Jackson Walker and Seton. Is Wade Cooper, Matt Dow with Jackson Walkeer is here… is Tyson here or someone from Silicon Labs? Ashton Cumberbatch from Seton. Stand. Up. Let’s give them a hand.

Soon, my office will host a CEO breakfast to close the deal and get more of you signing up. If already know you wish to attend speak with John Michael Cortez in my office or grab Jeremy Martin, Chamber to let them know.

And last but not least, we cannot wait another 14 years for a transit plan that will serve our city. We need it now. We’ll also create a new Strategic Mobility Plan for all modes of transportation. This will be part of a more regional approach to our problem.

We need a comprehensive transit system plan, and it must have the buy-in from all parts of community. We need to deal with congestion from the NE, SE, NW and SW. We have to show the city that the plan will serve everyone. And when we get people downtown more quickly, we need for them to be able to circulate.

Austin is becoming an increasingly expensive city. Too expensive. We are losing people and communities. Our children can’t afford to get a home and live in the city where they were raised. San Francisco last year became first city with a median home price over $1 million. That’s the path we’re on if we’re not careful.

We need affordable housing for our diverse communities, and also the artists, musicians, service industry workers, and everyone else that helps make Austin a great place. If we lose those folks then Austin will be less desirable for companies looking to expand or relocate.

As I said earlier, according to the 2014 Comprehensive Housing Market Study, Austin needs more than 48,000 units that rent for $500 a month just to serve households that earn $25,000 or less annually. To make real progress now in meeting Austin’s expanding affordable housing gap, we must be innovative and go beyond previous measures.

We need a major initiative on housing that sets us on a path to bridge the gap between those needing housing that’s affordable and the stock of available housing that’s affordable. And we can’t be looking just, or even primarily, to bonds.

How does this community land bank affordable properties? We need to take advantage of the law passed ten years ago that authorizes us to create homestead preservation districts. We have a nature conservancy, why not an urban conservancy?

We need to pass a 20% homestead exemption, even if it’s phased in, to give property tax relief to homeowners in Austin.

We make Austin more affordable for everyone not just by making things cost less. We need to help put people in the position where they can pay more. We need more middle class jobs and middle class job training for folks that live here. We should be focusing incentives on investing on those jobs and grading ourselves on that basis.

When we create jobs that don’t pay a living wage, the city, the state, and the federal government have to pick up the slack somewhere. It costs all of us. For example, the public health care cost for one worker making minimum wage averages nearly $1000 a year. That’s just health care – and doesn’t factor in housing and food costs.

Our students need good public schools and job training programs to ensure opportunity. If families don’t have access to quality education, then opportunity dries up for our students.

Of unemployed workers in Austin aged 25 to 64, nearly 40% have a high school diploma or less. So we’ve got to get moving on a large-scale job training initiative in which we partner with ACC and our local universities.

Finally, how do we preserve a water supply? What does the twenty year business model look like for our city’s water company, and our energy company, since with conservation and sustainability we can’t continue counting on making more and more money sell less and less water and power?

But, I’ve talked too long. Remember the State of the City is April 13.

We’ve got our work cut out for us if we are going to set this city on the path to a new way forward.

It will take all of us here in this room, together, to get the job done. Whether you’ve helped make Austin the city it is today or whether you just got here last month, we’ve all got to pull on the same rope, to make our collective efforts greater than our individual efforts. So I’m going to need your help, and the Chamber’s help, on that.

But know that your new Council is pedaling as fast as it can. It is making changes and it will tackle the big and important challenges facing this city.

Austin is a wonderful and magical place. We need to protect that. And even while it grows, we will.

Thank you all for being here today.

It’s the honor of my lifetime to serve as your Mayor. Thank you.