Austin: We're Doing All Right

Scott Francis
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Before I get to the point of this post, let me give some background:

Economic Backdrop

Last week I attended the Angelou Economics Annual Forecast in Austin.  I’ve attended for the last few years and found it to be immensely useful for improving our understanding of the Austin economy and how the national and international economies can affect us here at home. This year, Angelou had some good numbers to share about last year’s US economy:
  • 1.5 Million new jobs
  • 8.3% unemployment (down considerably from 10%+)
  • 16% increase in exports
  • 22% increase in Venture Capital
  • 8% increase in retail sales
  • 3.4% increase in housing starts
  • 90,000 new businesses
There are also some challenges – still a huge number of people without jobs, polarized politics, and a high debt and deficit – all of which act as a drag on the economy. Texas was a relative bright spot in 2011 – with net migration of 421,000 people – which helped fuel a modest expansion.  Surprisingly (to me), despite the net migration of people, the unemployment rate dropped to 8.1%.   Exports grew 26% to $250B.  Texas is now the largest exporter in the United States.  And those exports helped cushion the economic headwinds here. Austin’s population continues on a pattern of doubling every 20 years – a pattern that has repeated over 100 years now.  The diversity of our local economy and the influence of tech on our economy has really helped.  Another 90,000 people are expected to come to Austin over the next two years.  The economic forecast for Austin is bright – not without challenges but the wind is at our backs.

Austin is Different

Angelou said something in particular that got my attention- that Austin is FUN in a way that you don’t really expect it to be.  That we have 1.7 million salespeople.  As he put it – Austinites are unabashed – and really shameless in their booster-ism for Austin.  Austinites love this place: “This isn’t fake, it is natural, and shameless.”  He pointed out a journalist from Delta’s in-flight magazine, who was in attendance doing research for a story on Austin, and said, paraphrasing: “you know, I’ll be very disappointed if, after you finish your research here, you don’t pack your bags and move to Austin immediately.”  Great laughs from the room – but it had a ring of truth to it. There are really three big draw events for tourism in Austin in 2012, besides the normal reasons to visit (BBQ, TexMex, and Live Music):
  • SXSW, and in particular, SXSW-interactive (projected to grow 25% this year) and draw tens of thousands of visitors
  • ACL – again, a huge number of fans descend on Austin in the fall.
  • Formula 1 race – for the first time in November 2012.  135,000 projected attendees.
Angelou says that Austin has always had this tension between the 1970’s or 1960’s Austin – laid back, fun, unpretentious, nature-loving… and the 1980’s and 1990’s Austin – high tech, state government, and driving toward progress.  He made a compelling case that Austin has really reconciled these two competing world-views since the dot-com bust in 2001.  The techies are environmentalists – and more laid back than their counterparts in other cities.  The “fun” side of Austin has figured out how to harness the “drive” of the high tech and business side of Austin.  A good example – C3 events throws a huge party when ACL comes to town each year.  The concert nearly destroys Zilker Park’s (sometimes) lush green soccer fields and grasses each year – sometimes in a muddy pulp, sometimes in a dust bowl.  But C3 has committed to re-sod the field and maintain it as part of their bargain with the community and the City.  It’s a business, but it is also a community. I couldn’t agree more with his assessment.  Maybe the tech and business communities acquired a little more humility during the dot-com bust and recovery.  Maybe the environmentalists and laid back culture of Austin learned to appreciate what business brings to the community when they saw what it looks like in Austin when business contracts, as it did in the early 2000’s. Regardless, there is a sense of optimism here that is infectious. I’ve never seen Angelou as optimistic in a forecast as he was for this one.  Then again, I started attending in 2008 or 2009 – when times were decidedly not that good. To put the exclamation point on this whole experience, I came home to find this clip on MSNBC with Dylan Ratigan – covering Austin’s jobs picture.  Great coverage of the kind of things going on in Austin.  It isn’t just about software – HomeAway, BazaarVoice (congrats on the IPO!) – it is also about hardware and medical devices – and real estate.  Austin is doing all right.  See you at SXSW-interactive.

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