By Deborah Hamilton-Lynne
I have been watching Hell on Wheels on AMC, a series about the building of the trans- Pacific railroad. The last episode was about the growing pains of a boom town, namely Cheyenne, Wyo. Determined to get in on the spoils and riches of the vast land and exploding growth, the law had come to town when Wyoming became a territory in the name of government, law enforcement and tax collections.
So far, things aren’t going so well in a town that refused to be tamed, where business as usual was anything but usual. Tune in for the next episode. While I was watching it, I thought about Austin as a boom town. Accolades for Austin abound, particularly when it comes to business.
The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce says, “Austin defies stereotypes,” being both “progressive and fiercely entrepreneurial, pro-business and proenvironment, as well as easygoing and hardworking.” Both the Kauffman Foundation and Forbes have named Austin the most business-friendly city in the US. Kiplingers has ranked Austin the No. 1 city for business growth in the coming decade.
We are the fastest-growing large metropolitan city in the U.S., and boast the fastest-growing job market, with a low 5.3 percent unemployment rate. In 2014 alone, Angelou Economics predicted that we will add more than 30,000 jobs. Austin was named one of the 10 best cities to launch a startup, and has been touted for its entrepreneurship and innovation by the likes of Fast Company and Bloomberg Businessweek.
Housing prices are up, retail sales are up and venture-capital investment is through the roof. People are moving to Austin in droves at the rate of 125,000 per year, and 52 percent of those who make the move have at least a bachelor’s degree. Time magazine named Austin America’s Smartest City. Bloomberg cited the McCombs School at the University of Texas Austin as having one of the top 10 entrepreneurship programs in the world.
Austin is indeed a boom town. To get a feel for what lies ahead, we decided to take a look at the men who make the business of Austin their business, the leaders of the influential chambers of commerce. On its website, the Greater Austin Chamber states its vision: “For Austin to have the country’s most prosperous business community.”
Based on the accolades Austin has already received, one might say, “Mission accomplished,” but most business people believe that Austin is only at the beginning stages of that vision, with many more good things to come. This is the story Steve Uhler details in his interviews with the men of the chambers. As they found out dramatically in Cheyenne in the late 1800s, rapid growth brings its share of problems. Lack of a cohesive public-transportation system is becoming problematic for businesses and residents alike, with traffic being cited as one of the major concerns of most Austinites.
While business is booming, affordable housing is on the decline and cost of living is on the rise. The gap between the haves and have-nots is growing. Austin was recently named one of the top 10 cities where poverty is soaring. Fond of a laid-back lifestyle and famous for its party atmosphere, Austin has also been named one of the most drunken cities in the U.S., prompting a local television station to partner with the city to launch Drive Alive, an initiative to combat the alarming increase in annual DWI arrests and deaths due to drunk-driving crashes.
The drought, coupled with the rapid growth and demand for water, has left us wondering when the well will run dry. Austin has also become a hub for human trafficking. So as with all boom towns, there is good news and bad news.
Boom town! This is the place where the five candidates who have thrown their hats into the ring for mayor find themselves. Because of the historic nature of this election, due to changes in the structure of the city council and what that will mean for governance, we tasked Andy East with learning how the candidates plan to balance growth, economic development, business development and expansion with the challenges of transportation, education, affordable housing and environmental concerns. With backgrounds and interests as diverse as Austin itself, these candidates make for an interesting read and their stories are a prelude to an equally interesting election.
As we entrust our next mayor and city council with the soul of our city, I urge you to become an informed voter and to exercise your right to vote in November. I have friends who mourn Austin becoming a boom town. Some have left for remote locations and cooler (literally and figuratively) climates.
Personally, I do not think I could ever leave because there is something about this town and the people who call it home that touch your heart and leave you forever changed. So, I say, “bring it on”. We are up to the challenge, and although it may at times be hell on wheels, what fun would it be if there weren’t a little of the Wild West left in our innovative, entrepreneurial souls?
Photo by Destry Jaimes.