Tuning Into Austin

Can Madison—should Madison—be more like the central Texas city of music, tech and opportunity it’s so often compared to?

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The founders of social networking app Instagram speaking at the South By Southwest Interactive festival in Austin.

BIGGER, FASTER, BETTER

“High-speed celebration: Austin lands super-fast Google Fiber network” read the Tuesday, April 9, headline on the Austin American-Statesman’s website the day after my arrival. Only the second city in the country to be so lucky (Kansas City was first), Austin’s meteoric rise in the last ten years to high-tech hotspot and one of the fastest growing, most affordable and most livable regions in the county was about to go galactic.

In Googleland, “super-fast” means a hundred times faster than your average broadband, or a one-gigabit network that will power Internet access for businesses, schools, government, nonprofits and homes in every neighborhood across the city with the help of its city-owned utility partner, Austin Energy.

“With the installment of Google Fiber, the case can be made that Texas is one step closer to becoming the nation’s next technological hub, inviting some of the boldest and most creative visionaries to call Austin their home,” Governor Rick Perry told the crowd gathered in downtown’s Brazos Hall for the announcement.

Hugh Forrest, Austin native and director of South By Southwest Interactive, the current darling of the city’s signature three-legged festival of music, film and emerging technologies, was one of the three hundred people in the audience when Perry spoke. Naturally, the news was very good for SXSW, which drew 302,700 attendees in March and poured $190.3 million into the local economy in 2012. Forrest views Perry’s motives a bit cynically—“He’s now very good at getting in front of stories like these”—but credits him for creating an environment that lures tech companies to the state. Nevertheless, he cites bandwidth and hotel occupancy rates as two of SXSW’s biggest challenges. Even in this wired city, I had the same challenges with patchwork Wi-Fi hotspots that I do back home, and I did notice new hotels and hotels in the works dotting the cityscape.

Hugh ForrestI caught up with Forrest at SXSW headquarters a few blocks west of the Capitol in the Market District, where residents and businesses waged a years-long war against a new Wal-Mart. I can see why they fought. “South By,” as the natives refer to it, shares a street corner with “The Tiniest Bar in Texas” (really) and the opposite-of-tiny flagship Whole Foods Market, a destination in its own right. At three o’clock on a Wednesday afternoon the place was buzzing with shoppers, diners and drinkers (the bar was full!) milling about more than a dozen different departments, from beer and cheese to seafood and charcuterie. This giant, eighty-thousand-square-foot chain felt more like an indoor, village-style public market—the kind our mayor wants to build in Madison—than a grocery store. Across from Whole Foods sit BookPeople and Waterloo Records, locally owned treasures, and around the corner is HomeAway, the global online vacation rental company that went public in 2011. A Super Wal-Mart in this neighborhood would feel either a little too weird or not nearly weird enough.

Forrest stands tall at 6’5” but balances his commanding physical presence with an aw-shucks modesty that might mask his accomplishments if they weren’t so completely outsized. An English major at Kenyon College in Ohio, he’s been with Interactive since its launch in 1994, and he stuck with his little start-up as it hobbled along on the coattails of music and film. When the effects of the dot-com bust and 9/11 subsided, and mobile technology and social media came galloping into our lives, Interactive took off.

There are rumblings that South By has grown so big that it’s lost that trademark organic, alternative feel. Nevertheless, its reputation globally is synonymous with creativity and clout, and Forrest is a favorite son. Part of the reason for this is that he plays well with the traditional business suits—showing up at Opportunity Austin meetings and hobnobbing with chamber executives. Another part of his appeal and success is that he’s a nice guy who struggles with a contradiction: remaining true to the spirit of his ventures while also protecting his own interests, which feels a little corporate. “I’m not completely comfortable being one hundred percent in that world,” he says.

He remembers back in 2003 when South By booked Richard Florida to speak. A bit of a prima donna, Florida asked for a first-class plane ticket and the fledgling Interactive couldn’t swing it. When they went to the chamber for help, they were declined. Now, after “remarkable, crazy, what’s happening here” leaps, Interactive has its own slide in the chamber’s PowerPoint. As Forrest reflects on all this, there’s not a whole lot of spilled milk on his messy little desk, which is piled high with paper, including the latest chamber newsletter.

“As much as the chamber didn’t pay too much attention to us ten or fifteen years ago, that’s kind of a good thing,” says Forrest. “If we worked with them more from day one, it would’ve been a very different event, and it might have been very viable, but it may not look like what it looks like now … We’re this reflection of Austin, we’re this beneficiary of Austin. As it grows, I mean, does it water down what was so special about it in the first place? You can make plenty of arguments that it does, you can also make plenty of arguments that there’s still all these very cool things about the city that haven’t changed. And it simply has become a much more viable city for more people to live in, more people to pay the rent in.”

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