The Austin Effect

If we're actually going to learn something from Austin, it can't just be talk

It was my idea to send editor Brennan Nardi to Austin for a little journalistic spade work on this city Madison is being encouraged to emulate.

Despite its Texas-sized reputation, I don’t think a lot of people really know the whole Austin story. I know I’ve learned a lot in the last eighteen months or so, enough to convince me there is considerable merit in using Austin as a model for a successful, regional economic development strategy, and give some valuable context to the last five years of work by the Collaboration Council/Thrive/Madison Region Economic Partnership.

But I wanted to be sure. So did Brennan. If we were going to adopt the let’s-be-like-Austin thing, we wanted to be sure we really wanted to be like Austin. And I believe we do. Want to be like Austin. But not be Austin. And that’s a big difference.

I direct your attention to Brennan’s story in this month’s magazine for the well-researched and presented details. It’s helped move my thinking forward quite a bit, an evolution in twenty-first century urban living conceptualization that I think is healthy.

Madison, and the surrounding region, needs an aggressive but realistic plan. It needs new businesses, new jobs and new opportunities for creating wealth. It needs a distinct identity that separates it from every other city/region in the world. It needs a story. It needs more visionary, committed community leaders, more investment, more modern mass transit and a signature event. A clever slogan wouldn’t hurt. Dozens of cities around the country are saying exactly the same thing. Austin’s got ’em. Thus the emulation part, as in “to strive to equal or excel.” But not “to become.” That’s different.

It seems to me we have two tasks ahead of us: The first is to take advantage of the lessons Austin’s learned. The second is to mold those lessons into Madison.

The lessons are not insubstantial. Opportunity Austin’s Gary Farmer (again, check out Brennan’s story for details) told Madison Region Economic Partnership (MadREP) folks to:
        1. Commit to the plan.
        2. Earn the respect of regional partners.
        3. Expect contributions from EVERYONE.
        4. Have fun.
        5. Prepare for obstacles from no-growth proponents by being rock-solid sure of the merits of growth. (“And your arguments better be good.”)
        6. Include your young people.
        7. Raise the bar for everybody. (“Set goals higher than what you think achievable.”)

These are dead-on recommendations. We’d be dumb not to follow them.

This is going to take money. I’ve said that before. And without it you can kiss this chance goodbye. Austin’s raised a ton, north of $20 million most recently, I’m told.

But you want to know how they’re spending it? Thirty-two percent on primary and secondary education. Seventeen percent on transportation. Farmer says Opportunity Austin 3’s target areas are congestion and the poverty rate, especially the child poverty rate.

Oh, do we have a lot to learn from Austin. But that’s the point. Looking at investments in education, transportation and child poverty as economic development is working in Austin, but it feels so Madison, doesn’t it? Same for water quality, agriculture, food systems and production, biking and co-working space (think Capitol East District)—all assets found uniquely in the Madison region.

We don’t need to be weird. (We’ve already mastered that.) We need to be Madison.

Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine. 

Find more of his columns here

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