December 25, 2009
For the Central Texas economy, this past decade looked like it might one day be remembered as the Cyclone – and whether you were talking about the storm or the roller coaster, the name once seemed appropriate.
The decade opened at the peak of the region’s prosperity. Then downturn hit, spreading pain across industries and demographics in Central Texas.
But we recovered. And while there’s still a lot of uncertainty for our employers and too many people looking for work, there’s no question that Central Texas is economically stronger than most other places and well-positioned to prosper as the economy rebounds.
So I think we’ll remember the 2000s in terms that sound a lot more stable.
The economic legacy of this decade, I believe, will be this region’s determination to find our footing, take control of our destiny, and embrace core values that will define Central Texas.
I want to focus on three efforts that were effective and far-reaching in their own right, but that also demonstrate how the Central Texas economy will continue to grow in a lasting, meaningful way.
As we entered this decade, it appeared almost certain that Central Texas would be designated as having fallen out of compliance with the federal Clean Air Act. Such a status would have allowed federal officials to impose a range of new restrictions on the region to improve our air quality.
So, serving as mayor of Austin, I started working with elected officials and business leaders from across the region to clean up our air and reduce additional pollution – pre-emptively taking action ourselves before actions were imposed on us.
The result, an agreement known as the Clean Air Compact, was signed in 2002. The program worked so well that the region remained in compliance with current federal rules even as it grew substantially. And even if new health research leads federal officials to tighten clean air rules (as it seems likely), Central Texas is well-positioned to do what’s needed to protect the health of our citizens.
But more than that, the effort demonstrates the strong link between the economy and our environment. It shows how businesses can work with the public sector for common-sense solutions to environmental problems, ensuring that the region remains an attractive place to live and work.
There were many lessons learned from the downturn at the start of this decade. One of them was that Central Texas needed to do far more to diversify its economy.
So the business community, led by the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, launched Opportunity Austin – an effort to market Central Texas, attract new employers here, and truly enter the economic development arena.
Gary Farmer – who has held every major title at the Chamber, including serving as the first Chair of the Economic Development Corporation – and Chamber President & CEO Mike Rollins can’t be thanked enough for getting Opportunity Austin started and for building it into a success. I was also proud to serve as Chamber Chair in the early stages of this effort. It was key to our successful campaign to bring Samsung’s microchip plant expansion to Central Texas. And it’s helped our economy weather the effects of the national recession.
Since Opportunity Austin was created in 2004, the region has attracted nearly 122,000 jobs. The group’s efforts have helped keep Austin’s unemployment rate nearly a full percentage point lower than the state rate (as of October) and more than two points lower than the national rate.
The business community has redoubled its efforts to grow the economy with Opportunity Austin. It’s an important campaign, and it will be even more important as our economy recovers and grows over the next decade.
Because of decisions made at the end of this decade, Central Texans will see a number of important, tangible transportation improvements in the next couple of years – including construction of the Manor Expressway, new flyovers on Ben White Boulevard, a safer State Highway 71, plans to add capacity to MoPac Boulevard, and a faster route to East Austin and the airport.
Such improvements will have a powerful effect on our economy and quality of life. But I think other changes will make an even bigger difference.
The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization – or CAMPO, the region’s main transportation planning agency, which I currently Chair – re-formed its board and opened up its decision-making processes to increase transparency and public input.
The board not only approved badly needed highway improvements, but also instituted a set of policies to ensure that drivers are not abused by toll road operators. And we created “Decision Trees,” allowing Central Texans to fully analyze and ask questions about potential road and transit projects.
In addition, the legislature passed a bill I authored to reform the Capital Metro Transportation Authority, the region’s primary transit provider. The new law will increase transparency and accountability within the organization, allow a top-to-bottom performance review by the state, and put management and financial experts on the agency’s board.
All of these changes have created a stability that I think will be among the most important legacies of this decade. They’ll help move transportation decisions out of political fights, and they’ll put an end to unpleasant surprises by making sure questions are answered up-front.
With this foundation, the region is poised to make even bigger strides in the coming decade.
That idea of a foundation, I think, will be the way people remember this decade. It’s stronger than the economic storm that looked so threatening, and it’s steadier than the roller-coaster ride that made us all queasy.
No, the 2000s, or whatever we end up calling them, now look like a decade that Central Texas can build on. And I’m excited to see what we’ll do with the next 10 years.