Laura Huffman CEO @ Austin Chamber of Commerce
Please visit austinchamber.com to find out more about the Austin CoC and get involved.
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[00:00:10] Welcome back to friends in Austin today, have Laura Huffman on the podcast, and she is the CEO of the Austin Chamber of Commerce.
[00:00:17] Laura, thanks for coming on. Hey, thanks for having me. And we're talking a little bit before I don't know much about Chambers of Commerce. A bunch of people. I've heard of them. I thought it was a government organization, but it's not so.
[00:00:28] Can you tell me what they are and what they're all about and what you're trying to accomplish with them?
[00:00:31] Yeah, you bet. So Chambers of Commerce are really old institutions that exist in cities all over the country, and their purpose varies according to what city they're in. But they're primarily there to be an organization that represents the business community and that can sometimes extend into areas like workforce development and readiness. But it's basically an economic development business community organization that has existed for a long time all over the country.
[00:00:58] OK, do you know how that originated? I mean, Chambers of Commerce in general, you know, I think probably no, not specifically.
[00:01:08] But I'm guessing that as cities were growing and business communities were looking for a way to amplify their voice, chambers were created in order to provide that place where business concerns and business issues could be discussed.
[00:01:21] And so Austin Chambers of Commerce, probably a fairly old organization.
[00:01:25] It is an old organization. And we've got other chambers of commerce in Austin that have emerged over the last few years. Many years we've got an LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce, we've got a Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Asian Chamber of Commerce. And so we actually have a really nice, lively chambers community in Austin.
[00:01:44] OK, so, you know, it's for economic development. How exactly is it structured and what kind of projects and stuff do you guys take on to. Yeah. Economic development.
[00:01:55] Yeah. So how does that work. Right. So think of the chamber as doing three big sort of buckets of activities. One is economic development. So that can be anything from working with companies that are looking to potentially locate in Austin. We might help them with site selection, introducing them to potential supply chains, introducing them to other community members, helping them literally find a place and a site where they can do business.
[00:02:23] It can also extend all the way to economic development incentives. So that economic development piece is a really, really wide range. And I think it's important to say to it also includes small business economic development. So 20, 20 was a weird year, and that was a year where in our town a lot of small businesses were suffering disproportionately because our music industry, our tourism industry, restaurants and bars. And so there was important economic development activity to do there, to do whatever we could to have as many of those businesses stay in business as possible.
[00:02:58] So that's one bucket. A second bucket is the policy work that we do around state, local and even some federal policy making. And that is to keep an eye on those conditions that are helpful to businesses. But it can also extend to things like Project Connect. So the voters of Austin just approved Project Connect by a pretty nice little margin, just Prop eight, right? Prop eight. Yeah. And so we worked really hard on Prop eight, not only in consulting with Metro in the city of Austin as they were designing it, but also we the transportation is just a critical piece of infrastructure for Austin as we grow. Of course, we've all had the pleasure of sitting in traffic in Austin. And so we know that for the business community, having good transportation systems is really, really important. So that policy bucket can include a lot of different kinds of things that just help Austin. I mean, think of it this way. If Austin is a great place to live, work and thrive, then the business community does well. And so our policy work can be pretty broad ranging in that way. And then the third bucket is to connect businesses to each other, but also to important information. And so, for example, this year we held over 50 webinars for our members and they ranged from hearing from the governor to hearing from the controller on what's going on with the state budget. But we also had people from the mental health community come in and talk about what people's workforces were experiencing because twenty, twenty was a rough year for mental health. And we want to make sure that our businesses are getting the best information that's out there on a whole range of topics. So those are the three big things, economic development, policy work and then connecting businesses to each other and to vital information.
[00:04:46] OK, cool. So let's go to the first one. Did you mentioned companies when moving into Austin? Yeah. Yeah.
[00:04:53] But also existing companies, right.
[00:04:54] Yeah, which is great. But so I'm just curious, since there's so much news about I mean, tons of companies are coming here as this year have been, you know, pretty crazy as far as the people coming here and connecting with the Chamber of Commerce.
[00:05:07] Yeah. In fact twenty twenty was. The strongest year that we've had for job growth from relocations since the inception of our economic development program called Opportunity Ellerston, so is as weird as 2020 was, it was a great year for Austin's economy. Now I say that with the important note that if you are a small business, a bar or a restaurant, if you're in the tourism industry, the music industry, it was and still is a rough time for sure.
[00:05:37] For sure.
[00:05:37] So, you know, there's companies like big companies like Tesla and stuff like that coming here. And then they basically kind of like put out this bidding system right to where they find the city that's going to give them the least amount of taxes.
[00:05:51] You know, so, yeah, let's talk about that. So when you're doing economic development, think of it as a toolbox, right? I mean, for some companies, for example, Oracle expanded its campus and brought its headquarters to Austin last year. They're already had a footprint in Austin. They were already expanding that campus to facilitate growth. And in that case, they had everything they needed in order to make the decision to put their headquarters in Austin. In other cases like Tesla and Austin or some other place in the region might be competing against three or four other cities. Now, more than ever, you're competing internationally as well. There are countries and cities all over the world that would love to get a Tesla gigafactory. So in the case when there are competitions, then companies are asking local communities to see what they can do. Usually it involves some form of tax rebate. I think that's a really important point. This is all really performance based. These aren't checks that you write to these companies just to come to Austin. These are contracts and the company has to perform on their end. So like in the case of Tesla, they have to make the investment they promised to make. They have to make they have to hire the people in the jobs that they promised to create. They also promised to create a community benefit fund so that as they come to Austin, we can do some important work on transportation or affordable housing.
[00:07:14] Interesting. So the community benefit fund there are there helping to donate to this particular fund to improve these things?
[00:07:19] That's right. That's right. And so the theory there is that if you get you know, if you're lucky enough to get a Tesla, Tesla has an opportunity to kind of raise boats in Austin. And what we find is that companies are really willing to do that. So much so that in the case of Tesla, they're working with Workforce Solutions and Austin Community College to make sure that they are targeting people in traditionally underserved low income communities to create specific opportunities. And in a company like Tesla, that works pretty well because they'll train people. So if they can find local talent, then they'll train people to work in their factory. And then you're really doing some work that's hard to get at, which is to do that matchmaking between people who are really in need of a job and and the jobs that are coming to Austin.
[00:08:05] Yeah, that's awesome. So do you know anything about Samsung's? I know there's a huge Samsung.
[00:08:11] I don't I don't know if it's a corporate office or if it's a factory or whatever it is over there. Parmer area right there. We're talking about bringing another large factory of some kind or corporate office where they said the average salary was going to be 100000.
[00:08:25] So here's so Samsung has been in Austin for twenty five years long history here and a really successful history on a number of fronts. One, it's a fab site. Right. So we were lucky enough two decades ago to have Samsung make the decision to come to Austin, which sort of anchored us in that emerging technology sector. So that was huge for us. I mean, now we take it for granted that Austin sort of a tech town, but twenty five years ago, used to be really thoughtful about who you were recruiting to Austin to make sure that you were setting up for the future of a tech world in Austin. So Samsung was a big part of that. And the things that they have done for minor ISV, the school district out there are just amazing working with kids on STEM skills, those kinds of tech careers. And then, of course, a lot of jobs have come with Samsung. So they're they're celebrating their 25th anniversary here in Austin right now. And I think we've been lucky to have them.
[00:09:23] And so but here's the deal with tech in this. I know this is a statement of the obvious that people forget to stay cutting edge. It requires constant investment and constant innovation. So as Samsung looks for its next big expansion to produce its next generation of technology, they're going to need a site in order to do that. And it is an international company already. So they've got lots and lots of choices on where they can do that. Austin, you know, in some ways makes a lot of sense because they've got investment here already, but they've also got the possibility of building the plant at their headquarters in Korea. So that's an example where you really are talking about a global competition. And our interest in Austin and having a Samsung next generation facility here is making sure that we continue to anchor that tech industry for ourselves. And since Samsung has been such an important part of that, continuing that partnership would be a great win for Austin.
[00:10:20] Yeah, for sure. Are there any other news of big companies, Tesla, Samsung or anything like that coming in?
[00:10:26] You know, last year we had so many announcements. And so let me give you a sense of kind of where they where they fell. Lifesciences has really emerged as an important sector in our economy. And here's where you really want your economic development and your community planning to to just be beautifully stitched together. The Dell Medical School is actually a big reason why that life sciences is. Coming to Austin and is growing as a sector, and it was, you know, a lot of people worked really hard on that medical school to make sure that we could have that vibrant sector in Austin in addition to better health care for Austinite. So there is an example where everybody benefits from Dell Medical being here, and it created a whole suite of businesses that have since come to Austin. The Army Futures Command was a big deal location in Austin in twenty eighteen because that's the next round of technology and innovation for the military.
[00:11:23] I forgot about that. That was big. Yeah, it's huge. My friend in cybersecurity was like, oh, this is amazing. There's so many jobs from so many jobs.
[00:11:32] And other companies came here because the Army Future Command is here. So we saw that in life sciences. We saw it with Army Futures Command. We've seen it with the finance field is choosing Austin over and over again. Of course, the tech and innovation, we're like a magnet for that sector at Tesla gives us automobile manufacturing, which is new for us. And so that'll open up a whole new sector. So, you know, people always sort of scratch their heads and wonder how is it that Austin tends to emerge from a downturn first?
[00:12:05] That was going to be my question is, what is Austin doing to make all this happen?
[00:12:09] Well, that's I mean, that's really a lot of hard work by Chamber of Commerce and Opportunity, Austin, and not not just getting any job that we can get, but making sure that we're building really innovative and modern sectors for the future. And so that's that's where all that work starts to pay off.
[00:12:27] OK, OK. Yeah. So can we go over the three buckets again? The. Sure. The first one was companies coming here. Economic development, anomic development. The second one is kind of like lobbying, right.
[00:12:38] Yeah, it's advocacy. So it could include lobbying, it could include direct policy work, but it also includes things like we do a lot of work in the school to work transition space. And the reason that makes so much sense for us is because the number one thing that companies are looking for is talent. So anything that we can do to make sure that there's talent coming to Austin, that we're growing our own talent, that's good work for us. And so the policy work can extend into areas like education.
[00:13:08] So what are some things may be going on right now that you're working with in that bucket?
[00:13:12] Yeah. So the I would say priorities for us are that school to work transition and I would put with that upskilling. And so we've known for a long time that the jobs of the future are going to require some kind of digital literacy. And what right now, what we've got with 2020, we had so many job losses in those sectors I talked about earlier. Right. Like so restaurants, bars, live music, those things. Well, we have an opportunity to target those people that lost their jobs, provide some upskilling. So they're ready and they're ready to go when a tassel makes the decision to come to Austin.
[00:13:48] And so that kind of education, workforce upskilling is a big bucket and another one is transportation and infrastructure. So that's everything from Project Connect to the improvements on eight thirty five. Those are things that we worked really hard on. And other areas include. We're always paying attention to the health sector in Austin and making sure that Dell Medical School is successful, partly because it was just evolving the health care system in Austin. So that and of course, the legislature's meeting now, they gaveled in a couple of weeks ago. So we'll be paying close attention to what's happening at the legislature as it relates to both Austin and economic development.
[00:14:31] So can you tell me a bit about Project Connect in the main? I don't know objectives of that. And maybe some of you know what what what was hard about getting Project Connect done?
[00:14:41] Yeah, well, what so Project Connect is a multimodal transportation vision for the future for Austin. And in it's great because it's not just one thing. Right. It's everything from making sure that we've got rapid busses to rail to bikeways and pathways. What was hard about it was coming up with a vision that was comprehensive, that really did hit on all of the needs that we see as a community and then to find a funding mechanism to pay for it. And so the what voters voted on was the funding mechanism in order to make sure that there's money in place. And this is a twenty to thirty year vision. It'll take a long time to implement all this. So that that was big work right there.
[00:15:23] Yeah, yeah. I mean, how do you feel about.
[00:15:27] Yeah. I mean, just the influx of people and the gap between getting these transportation things done.
[00:15:32] I mean, I feel like we're kind of going to be stuck like how we are for a while.
[00:15:35] Yeah. But, you know, look, twenty, twenty there were some silver linings, right? So congestion in Austin dropped like a rock in the early part of twenty twenty. And, you know, I was eighteen miles away from you and it took me about fifteen or twenty minutes to get here. And so commute times have definitely gone down this year, and I think one of the things that we can take away from 20/20 is that with altered work schedules, we can have a pretty big impact on congestion in Austin. So I think there is some innovation that might help us between, you know, during these periods of time when we're getting this new technology, know, this new transportation stuff online that can help to help encourage companies to offset people's hours and allow more work from home.
[00:16:15] But without it for sure, I mean, no doubt that would be great if people if they would do that just to alleviate some of the traffic for sure.
[00:16:22] Yeah, but it's also a way that businesses compete for talent. Right. I mean, a lot of people want the flexibility of being able to work at home or remotely for a day or so, a week. And so there is a nice getting to give there. There are some community benefits to that, but it's also a way to attract and retain talent.
[00:16:40] Totally agree. I talk with my friends about that all the time. That's something that just is always coming up. And some people are like, is my company going to make us go back to work? Yeah, I might quit if they do, because so-and-so might hire me and they or straight work from home now.
[00:16:54] So it's like these people that want them to come back in the office are going to have to face that question of like you're going to lose some of your talent, because if it's a good person, they know they could go somewhere else, work from home.
[00:17:05] And I mean just the flexibility to be able to visit, I don't know, the closest town like or just like if you want to go to Denver and still work from home, but then, like, go hiking or just do whatever, it's almost it's really hard to give that up. Yeah.
[00:17:19] And why should people. Right. I mean, I think that one of the things that 20-20 taught us is that in a lot of cases it works. People are working from home. And, you know, there are you know, people have experienced some problems with isolation and things like that. But, you know, as part of a work schedule, I think that we we've seen that it can work for a lot of different industries.
[00:17:39] For sure. For sure. So let's go to the third bucket. And I've already forgot what the third bucket was not.
[00:17:46] I need to work on my messaging. Let's go back and talk about one more thing on the second bucket. So there are also some tough issues in central Texas that the chamber gets involved with. So there's your project connect. Complicated, tough issue and also expensive to provide the solution. Homelessness is another issue that we've engaged in because, you know, that touches everybody in this community even more so as we saw the numbers grow in 2020. And you know, from our perspective, how we address the issue of homelessness in a really heartfelt and dignified way in Austin is a reflection of the community's value system. And so that's an important issue to us.
[00:18:25] And and we understand it's a complicated issue. The ultimate goal is permanent housing and get, you know, getting people who are experiencing, you know, the most stressful part of their lives, probably on a track where they're working, where they have shelter, all of those things. But it's a path to get there. So that's a you know, that's a more front and center thing that we've been engaged with in public safety has been pretty controversial in this community over the course of the last year. And so the you know, our policy work will extend into issues that affect all Austinite because, you know, the truth is a help a healthy business community and a healthy community are one in the same for sure.
[00:19:06] So, yeah, people need to feel safe. And I've talked to more than one person, just like they don't feel like downtown really feels as safe as it used to in Austin. Always used to feel really safe to me. I mean, I used to live pretty much right downtown. Yeah. No, I would go walking around around the trail even late at night with my dog. Didn't care enough. Yeah, no worries. But yeah, we talked about actually the last podcast, we talked about the Save Austin Now thing. Yep. And the petition to reinstate the ban and then I don't know if you saw the drama on Twitter, but Greg Abbott is like calling out Austin and saying, you know, like and then Steve was like, well, what we're doing right now isn't working. And so, yeah, this isn't working. Of course it's not working.
[00:19:45] Yeah. Yeah. Well, Twitter drama is not necessarily the best way to solve problems, but it's true, right.
[00:19:52] I mean, we've something's got to give on the homeless situation. And I don't think that anybody really, really believes that what's happening in Austin today is the most dignified approach that we can have for those people among our community that are just experiencing such distressing circumstances. You know, I think the good news is something's got to give and everybody knows that. True. Then the question becomes, what are the first you know, what are the most important things that you've got to do first in order to provide some relief and some dignified alternative for people who are experiencing unsheltered homelessness?
[00:20:26] What do you think that looks like? I mean, you said building shelters and all that stuff, but like, how do we get from where we are now to where, you know, we have shelter, we have some kind of program that helps train these people or whatever they need to do to rehabilitate them and, you know, get them on the right track.
[00:20:44] How do we get like, what does that look like?
[00:20:46] Well, you know, here's the deal with complicated problems. It'd be nice if there was a. Our bullet solution, but there's not and so I think it's a whole suite of things that we have to do as a community. One thing is that we've been working on at the chamber as Camp Esperanza, which is over near the airport ofman topolice, and that is a state owned site that is a sanctioned camping area. And so part of it is finding places where people can be safe. Storage can be a really big issue for people who are experiencing homelessness and making sure they've got a place to put their stuff. And then, of course, you've got to get in there and provide the wraparound services because you have to be equipped to deal with whatever issues people bring with them. This is a human condition, right? It's not just a housing condition. And so making sure that people have access to whatever those services are, whether it's mental health, addiction, job readiness, in some cases, it's helping people get basic identification. You know, for you and I, we can go pick up our utility bill and prove that we live someplace and get identification for other for people who are homeless. That's a much harder thing to accomplish. And then you want to keep moving people through the system as knights have, you know, voted for money that's dedicated to making sure that people have not just homes, but affordable homes. And so you want to not just worry about that front end of the spectrum where you're providing an opportunity that's different from camping downtown tonight. But you also want to be thinking about what's the future for these people and how do we get them into permanent housing. So it is complicated. But, you know, it is also a problem. That is it's not we're not talking about millions and millions of people that are homeless in Austin. We're talking about thousands. And so I feel like now I'm a native Austinite, so I have a lot of faith in my community. I feel like this is one of those things where if we all lock arms and agree on a suite of solutions and just dig in, we can really, really solve this problem in our community.
[00:22:44] I would think so, because it's not terrible here yet. I mean, it was this this year it seems like it's 10x what it was a year and a half ago. But I mean, it's still nothing like California or something like that.
[00:22:55] We hear that all the time. The people that come from California are consistently recognizing that this is this problem is not nearly as bad as the places they've come from. On the other hand, if we don't act and act now, I mean, there is a sense of urgency for us.
[00:23:10] I think I agree. And that we do need to figure out what is this community's response to homelessness and and how do we get how do we move from unsheltered homelessness to permanent housing? And we have to be willing to understand that that's going to take multiple steps that won't just happen in one fell swoop. And and then there's so many people in the community that really want to help.
[00:23:33] I mean, I think this is one of those local problems here for us, that if if people were given a call to action, I mean, they'd roll their sleeves up and do it because everybody wants to help in this area. So I think there's also an opportunity to do some really good community building and some good understanding of what really are the issues involved with homelessness and how can we as a community approach this in a way that has just a whole lot of heart and really, really helps people out and gets them permanently out of that condition for sure.
[00:24:04] And it's an actual good use of taxpayer money because you can see your tax dollars at work.
[00:24:09] Right? There you go.
[00:24:10] There you get an invisible use of taxes. That's right. And, you know, if it gives people, it helps these people and then also helps, you know, people feel like downtown's cleaner and safer as well. Yeah, exactly. Exactly. You want to go to the third bucket now?
[00:24:27] I want to ask you real quick about so prop A and what do you think about property taxes in Austin? Because one of the reasons that some people would vote against Prop eight or did it pass, but like it's like property taxes already really high. Texas has the highest property taxes in the country. Right. And then they increase them further, which I mean, I think we can all agree we need more transportation. But how do you feel about property taxes in Austin? And I had a real estate guy on and he was like, what they're doing is like they're taking a small plot of land and, you know, they're putting two houses on it, three houses on it. So the density is increasing. So there are increasing how much they're making on property taxes, yet they're still increasing the property taxes and say saying, well, that's that is a ball of wax issue.
[00:25:10] I would say this about Project Connect. It was a good test question for this community, which is, are you willing?
[00:25:15] Are you willing and will you agree to higher taxes for yourself and your business in the name of this transportation vision? And the fact that it passed is a good indication that if, you know, if our local governments can create a value proposition that people can get behind, then they will agree to to higher property taxes. Project Connect proved that. And and also, Austin has a pretty high success rate with its bond programs, whether it's affordable housing or open spaces or a whole myriad of other things. When people are asked the question for this purpose, would you be willing? To increase your property taxes, generally, the answer is yes. Now, that said, part of the growing pains of living in central Texas is cost of living and property taxes and affordable housing are two big pieces of that puzzle. So I would grow that issue to be affordability. Right. So it's not just property taxes. It's that if if we want, you know, people to be able to stay in Austin, that I've lived here for a long time or move to Austin, then you have to look at all the aspects of affordability. And I would add access to that, too. Right. Like so last year we learned a lot about day care, for example. I mean, we learn that daycare is infrastructure. If you're a parent and that piece of your system crashes, you're out of luck.
[00:26:36] Then you have to work and you have other things.
[00:26:38] And I think we've all been on some calls with kids crawling on couches and all that stuff. I mean, so daycare, I think we got a bright light put on daycare last year is really, really important infrastructure. So for that reason, I would also put that in the category of affordability and access and Austin, huge issues. And as we grow, I always say I saw I was born in Austin, I yeah.
[00:27:01] Yeah. You want to come back to that.
[00:27:03] And so, as you know, I was a university professors kid. I was part of that sort of different hometown, Austin, that you still see glimpses of. But the key, the key to Austin has been forever. We have been growing for a long time. And I always think the key is how do you grow with grace and how do you retain those pieces of your personality that make you so uniquely Austin, whether it's, you know, ACL or South by Southwest or their green spaces or, you know, the food truck scene or the live music scene, whatever it is, you want to work really hard to protect those things. And affordability always comes up as cities grow.
[00:27:44] Yeah, yeah, for sure. It's a tough problem. Hey, listeners, just before this episode is over, I want to give you one more quick, friendly reminder to please like and subscribe to the podcast on your favorite podcast player.
[00:27:55] Thanks again, my friend Jack, who was on the podcast last episode. He also grew up in Austin. And we went we're just looking at houses online. We're just like he's like, you know, some people that grew up here. And it's like you want to live close to your family. It's just like you can't I mean, it's just the houses are so, so expensive. Yeah. But I mean, I don't know what you do about that. I mean, demand increases price and I mean, the demand is because this is a nice place to live and it's growing. There's a lot of job growth and stuff like that. Right. So it's not like it's anybody's fault. It's just it's just I can see if I had grown up here, it would be frustrating, like if I wanted to buy a house down the road from my parents, but the value of their house went up 10x.
[00:28:33] Yeah, that's frustrating. Yeah. Yeah.
[00:28:36] And I think for a long time, affordable housing has been a priority for the city for that very reason. I mean, you in order to grow in a way that keeps everything neat and cool in Austin, we got to have a diversity of people living in the city and we can't price certain people out. And so affordability within the urban core, I think is really important now. And that does lead to density, by the way, you know, that is a way to create affordability is to add some density to in places where it makes sense, where it doesn't create an unnecessary burden on the transportation system or things like that. But really thoughtful density can be a good tool for affordability.
[00:29:16] This is kind of random, but that made me think of on South Congress, they built those condos and they didn't put parking garages in them. I love that some of my friends are like, that's appalling.
[00:29:25] I work pork. And I'm like, well, you can't put a parking garage there. Like, if you want to live there, just don't have a car. And those are the kind of things that are going to have to happen, right?
[00:29:33] I mean, well, it's a lot of people, you know, that's a fun debate, I think, really.
[00:29:37] And and it is lifestyle choices. I mean, people that are living downtown just don't find that they need cars as much as other people. And so if we want to encourage people to use other forms of transportation, that's part of that equation. But is a hotly contested. Right. And one of those hotels is on. Not only does it not have a parking garage, but it was actually built on a surface lot that I don't know if you were here when it was it was sort of where all the cool trailers were.
[00:30:05] Yeah, I was here. I lived on East Riverside, close to South Congress apartment complex. I'd walk up and down there, the bees in the trash cans, like everyone glorifies those food trucks. But I'm like, good riddance. The South Congress Hotel is gorgeous. I would much rather have salt Congress hotel than a bunch of bees swarming everywhere.
[00:30:25] I don't know. There was something about the cupcake trailer and the guy that used to play the guitar out. I mean, there's some pretty cool there is neat stuff about aspects of that. Yeah.
[00:30:34] But like, I went to the hotel more just to chill in the lobby and have a drink that I went to the food trucks, you know, I don't know. Well, there you go. There you go. I like the hotel, but the food trucks are cool too. And there's there's they're still they're scattered. Yeah.
[00:30:46] And that is actually probably a pretty good example of. You can't have it all every time, but there are times when you can have it all, and I think that the Ostende food scene is a great example of I mean, you can get some of the best food in Austin out of a truck. And that's a great way to grow that local chef community and experiment with new kinds of cuisine in Austin. And and then when it makes sense for them to invest money in a bricks and mortar place, they've already tested the concept. They've tested what they've got. And so I think that's kind of an interesting marriage of innovation and traditional restaurants.
[00:31:21] Yeah. Yeah. So should we go to the third bucket now? Yeah, right. Let's go. Time's up.
[00:31:26] Let's go. Tell me what I remember. I forgot the third bucket. You did. Yeah. Sorry. Yeah, that's OK. It's hard for me. I'm always thinking too much while I'm talking to someone. Some sometimes it's like I miss things. Now we're trying to make sure that there's still like a path.
[00:31:42] Yeah. Yeah, no worries. OK, so we talked about economic development and the importance of getting new businesses to Austin, but also growing and sustaining the existing business community. And I think it's really important that people understand, you know, yes, that includes Tesla, but it also includes are really vibrant small business community. The second thing we talked about was policy. And that's everything from, you know, when do you give incentives to a company that's coming to Austin when it really is a global competition like Samsung to public safety, homelessness, education, workforce development. So then the third bucket is connecting businesses to each other and also to really vital information. So the big thing that we did last year was in addition to producing an enormous amount of content, you know, we did what we did a couple of webinars a week all year last year, but we also led a task force of over two hundred businesses. And the mayor and the county judge asked us to do this to help figure out how do we reopen and how do we manage through the pandemic as a business community. So, for example, we were able to service the issue and really put it in front of the policymakers that child care. You know, it was collapsing and it was a core piece of infrastructure for the business community because so many people depend on that in order to get up and leave the house.
[00:33:05] The other one was broadband broadband as an Internet.
[00:33:09] Yeah, yeah. And I would actually break that down into three areas. And it's, you know, last year feels like two or three hundred years ago, but it was really just last year. And so it was broadband said it was also devices. We learned that and the education system when families would have one device and you've got people trying to work from home and go to school from home, and then it's digital literacy. So making sure that people have the basic literacy that they need in order to get the jobs of the future use of an operating system, you name it. Yeah. Yeah. So those are the you know, those are some of the ways that we helped the community see the needs of the business community and really to connect some dots.
[00:33:50] But then we also did a lot of stuff early on about how to get P.E. equipment. You know, we had sessions where, you know, restaurant tours, got to talk to one another about, well, how are you setting up your dining room now and what does that going to look like? And what are you doing with TEGO service? We had mental health experts come in and talk to employers about what are people really experiencing. 2020 was a rough year when you look at it from a mental health perspective and employers have both an obligation and a desire to understand that. So it's, you know, it's information on a whole variety of fronts.
[00:34:26] Gotcha. So you became CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, right? Basically one covid started, right?
[00:34:34] Yeah. Yeah. You you jumped in right. When things were like as crazy as possible. Right.
[00:34:39] I jumped in like. Right a little bit after the beginning. So maybe let's say in the middle of the beginning. But it was so much in the covered environment that the entire hiring process was online and in fact the offices were closed. So, you know, I've been in the job almost a year and we still have not been in the office. Full force. Crazy.
[00:35:01] Yeah. So a lot of my staff, I've never met in person and they're awesome. I mean, I know I know all their cats and dogs. And, you know, in some ways I probably am a little better than I might have. Yeah, that's true. But, you know, there's some stuff that's weird about it. Like at one point I'm like, are we all the same height or does it just look that way because we're in a little boxes on a screen all day long.
[00:35:20] So I'm super looking forward to being back in an office with people. But yes, I came in somewhere towards the beginning of the pandemic.
[00:35:30] So you told me earlier that you grew up in Austin. Can you tell me about, well, how how do you get to, you know, becoming the CEO of Austin Chamber of Commerce before you even got interested in that job? What was your background?
[00:35:43] Yeah, good question. Um, so my background was I went to. A&M for undergraduate and political science, and then I went to the LBJ School right here in Austin and started my career with the city of Austin, I was really interested in city management and I was in city management for nearly 20 years and working for the city of Austin and also for San Marcos, which was great because I got a really nice regional perspective on how the smaller communities, you know, how they feel being part of a big city, you know, environment, but also what they contribute individually. I'm super fond of San Marcos, spent my kids, grew up, you know, jumping in that river every Friday night.
[00:36:26] We call them river baths, but also working through the outlet malls and the town gown issues. So I did this the town gown issue. Well, Texas State University is you know, it is a dominant employer in San Marcos. So this is like Austin 40 years ago where it was kind of the big thing in Austin. And just making sure that you've got as you have a student community living in a community, you'd get noise issues, all sorts of issues. But then there's opportunities, right? So you've got all these students that if you really call on them to make contributions and volunteer in the community, then you've got some cool stuff going on. So we worked on all those issues and then I came back and worked for the city of Austin for a while. And then I took a big turn and went and worked for the Nature Conservancy, which is the world's largest conservation organization. And I ran the Texas chapter of the Nature Conservancy and also helped construct the Nature Conservancy's urban conservation program.
[00:37:26] And so is the Nature Conservancy government, or it's a 501 c three.
[00:37:31] So it's a nonprofit organization. And the Nature Conservancy, their primary revenue sources are philanthropy, individual foundation and corporate philanthropy, that there are some government grants that come in for specific work. But it's it is a philanthropy.
[00:37:46] OK, so what you know what all of that is it is it very local?
[00:37:51] It's a global organization. But the execution of the work, as with all conservation, tends to be local. So in Texas, the big priorities were water. And I worked through both a drought and a flood. I actually worked through about two droughts in a couple of floods.
[00:38:07] What was the worst drought you saw? I remember Lake Travis was down like one feet one year. Yeah. Yeah, that was nuts. Yeah, it was crazy. I would go there and then I would, I would I would go there before the drought. Well, the drought was kind of happening already, but then then I'd go there and it was like everybody had this huge staircase all the way down to the like their docks and sometimes not. So I mean, I couldn't believe it then that one year we got so much rain. Like, I was like, it's awful.
[00:38:31] Yeah. Here we are. Here we are like, oh my God, it's full again. Yeah. Well, that's what climate will do.
[00:38:37] So water is a really big issue in Texas. Land protection, as it turns out, Texas, which has, you know, is a beautiful state and has landscapes ranging from East Texas force to West Texas deserts and coastal areas. Um, our big land areas are fragmenting at a faster clip than any other place in the country.
[00:38:57] Fragmenting and in what way?
[00:38:58] So that's growing cities. It's also the infrastructure, the roads, the utilities, all of that that you've got to have in place in order for cities to function properly. And so a big part of what we did there was to make sure that we were protecting both the land and the waters that Texans both love and depend on.
[00:39:17] Yeah, one of the reasons I moved here, actually, is because I won. I didn't know much about Texas.
[00:39:20] I actually expected to be desert like, well, there are we have won exactly what it was like.
[00:39:26] This is way greener than I ever thought it would be. Yeah. And then it's got Lady Bird like, you know, like Austin, Lake Travis, the green belt. I was like, and I like water a lot. That's one of my favorite things. Just just to be able to go outside your own water Hamilton pool, then you got San Marcos over there. It's just like there's tons of outdoor water activities to do here.
[00:39:44] Yeah, central Texas is beautiful and we do have a lot of really cool natural resources when it comes to water. Have you been to Jacobs?
[00:39:52] Well, I was going to mention that I have been to Jacobs. Well, yeah, yeah. Jacobs well was one of the projects that we did while I was at the Conservancy to protect that. And it's a super interesting little jewel right there.
[00:40:04] Yeah. Like last night. Yeah. My my friend was made reservations.
[00:40:07] We had to cancel for some reason. I don't know if it was Cauvin related or not, but yeah. Yeah. Put it on the priority list for sure. For sure. So you worked at the Nature Conservancy Conservancy and that is now just international now global. Global, a global organization. And but you worked in this area. Did you like that?
[00:40:27] Loved it. Loved it. I loved having a statewide perspective that was really interesting and just really exploring. You know, Texas is so rich in its natural resources, but there are huge varieties across the state because we're a big state and we're a more diverse state than a lot of places when it comes to our environmental resources. So I loved that. I really. They enjoyed working on the city's program for the Nature Conservancy because, as you know, most of the population growth that we're seeing in this world is concentrating in cities and so we can grow our cities without thinking about the impact that cities have on natural resources. And as people get further and further disconnected from nature, it becomes more and more important to preserve nature. And so that was super interesting work.
[00:41:14] I want to go back a little bit to you. Working at the city of Austin. Feel like people have an idea. I have like a Ron Swanson idea in my head of like people just like waiting for their pension, working for the city.
[00:41:24] Oh, no, no, no, no, no. Was it good? Were they doing good thing? Yeah, I really, really liked working for the city of Boston. I mean, what I can tell you is there's I mean, think about all this.
[00:41:33] And we have so many people that are talented and passionate and want to have careers that give a little back. And my experience of the city was their brilliant, brilliant city staff. They're brimming with ideas for how to make us, you know, how to help Boston grow into its potential, how to solve the problems that we were experiencing. And I found that it was actually pretty rare to have the Ron Swanson version.
[00:41:57] That's good to know. Yeah, yeah. There's a lot of talent there.
[00:42:01] Mm hmm. OK, so we talked about the third bucket and we're OK. We're on you're on your career. That's right. So we went from the city to the Nature Conservancy. Yep. And then so how did you you work there for a while and you really liked it. So how did you come across the chamber job and what made you want to apply for that?
[00:42:19] Well, the Chamber had a longtime CEO, Mike Rollins, who worked there for many years at a beautiful job. And as he was retiring, the folks reached out to me just to talk about what what's the time for in Austin.
[00:42:35] And as we think about this leadership position, what contributions can the chamber and its economic development arm opportunity? Austin, you know, we're best for us to focus. And what is our maximum contribution to this community? And the more that I talk to folks about, I was like, you know what? It'd be really, really nice to dig in locally again, that I loved working for the Conservancy, loved working for a global organization. But it's also really fun just to work through the tough issues locally all the way through.
[00:43:06] And it was an interesting time in Austin because we had so many big issues happening at once. We had a pandemic. We had a growing homeless problem, a lot of social issues in Austin that we haven't quite made our way through. So I just thought it'd be really fun. And I'm a native Austinite, right? So this is my favorite place. Austin is my happy place.
[00:43:27] I can see it being it looks like a great opportunity to make a real awesome impact, like totally affects you and very relevant to you.
[00:43:34] Yeah, no, I love that part of it. I mean, it's, you know, and it's fun. I've got four kids and, uh, both my in-laws live in Austin. My mother lives in all sides. And it's just fun to have those conversations with people that you love around you about the community. Because one thing that and I'm sure you've seen this about Austin people we love to talk about ourselves.
[00:43:54] We're constantly talking about ourselves, whether you know, the good or the bad or whatever. But we're a community that likes that kind of engagement. Austinite love Austin. We do. Yeah. And so does everybody else.
[00:44:06] So it's like when you tell people, you know, I'm living in Austin now, what's what's the general reaction?
[00:44:12] Oh, people ask me all the time like, oh, hey, how's it going? Are you still in Austin volleyball. Yeah. Like, is is it fun? Emeco It's great. The weather's awesome.
[00:44:19] Yeah. I don't have an extra bedroom.
[00:44:23] That's funny. Yeah. I can see working for the Chamber of Commerce, that sounds like an interesting blend between public and private sector type work.
[00:44:31] It is. It is. Yeah it is definitely. Because it, it is definitely an organization that works in between those two arenas. And so and my view of public policy is that public policy, usually when it's done well, it involves the private sector. There's just not very many problems that government can solve all by itself anymore. And so there's almost always partnerships that have to emerge in order for anything to get done.
[00:44:59] Well, do you would you say you have a a positive relationship with the city? Yeah. Usually productive or is it sometimes difficult?
[00:45:08] It is sometimes difficult, but I would say it's productive. Right. I mean, I think the sign of a good community engagement is that you don't agree all of the time. I think that means that people are really thinking hard about issues. So we enjoy a really strong relationship with the city, the county, the school districts. They were really helpful when we had this task force on the pandemic and how to reopen. And there were so many questions about when and how schools would open. We've got great relationships at the state and the federal level. So, yes, that does not mean we always agree. But but when we disagree, where we want to be, that entity that comes in, that institution that comes in really thoughtfully with an eye towards problem solving. Not just an eye towards, you know, tweeting it out or whatever.
[00:45:52] Yeah, yeah, sure. So what's what's your daily job like working for a for Chamber of Commerce? Is it different every day? Is it.
[00:46:03] Yeah, it can be. It can be pretty different, which I love. Right. So no two days are ever exactly alike. I would say in the past year the sort of the big issues that we've been working on at the chamber, economic development, because so many companies have been relocating to Austin, has been a huge component of everybody's job. And also public safety and homelessness have been a big centerpiece issues for us. Project Connect was a big issue for us. And then also really thinking about the gaps that have been revealed by the pandemic and when I say revealed, I think we knew about them, but I think now we can't ignore them.
[00:46:40] And really thinking being really thoughtful about, you know, how can we take this moment in time and get serious about upskilling and get serious about that school to work transitions. You know, we know those are issues. The pandemic put a bright light on them. So what can we do to meaningfully move the needle so that, you know, those are some of the priorities that we've been working on and then a ton of online content for members. People were hungry for content this year. So we did more webinars and more Zoome meetings then, of course, ever before.
[00:47:12] What what do you do? What value do those provide in those different things for different people?
[00:47:17] I mean, last year? Well, no, last week we just had our annual annual event, which is a chance for our incoming chair to lay out the agenda for the year. It is. It's a place where we honor what we call the Austinite of the Year this year, Susan Dawson, who's been a big part of our community fabric for a long time. It gave us a chance to celebrate her.
[00:47:39] What what is her role?
[00:47:42] So Susan runs what's called the E3 Alliance, and she's came out of the high tech field and data and then really wanted to put her heart in her mind to work on education in Austin. So we wanted to honor her. So that was you know, that was a high level discussion of what's the chambers sort of agenda for the next year, but also a celebration. And, you know, I know we all got really serious in twenty twenty, but we can still celebrate. And, you know. Right. There's there's still good news and we still want to celebrate. But then everything from getting pretty consistent updates from the airport, like what's going on with the flights, how, you know, how's the airport running, what do you foresee?
[00:48:20] We had some sessions with Southwest Airlines, which was super interesting just to hear what was happening in the airline industry from their point of view and what they were forecasting for the next 12 to 24 months. So just tons and tons of content for people.
[00:48:35] Yeah. And what ways do small businesses interact with the Chamber of Commerce to, like, get value for themselves or connect with other businesses?
[00:48:46] A lot of ways in particular this year we did a we did one of the things we did was we partnered with the University of Houston and the city of Austin to do a sort of a pandemic research project. And what we wanted to know was what are what are those things that are the most necessary for our small business community in order to survive through the pandemic.
[00:49:07] And we wanted to do that in order to help inform how covid relief dollars would get spent when they came down from the federal government. So, you know, you hear about these big relief packages. Well, somebody has to decide how to spend the money. And so we really wanted those to be informed decisions so that we saw as few businesses as possible go under during the pandemic. And so that we're replicating that study right now. I think that's a huge value add to our small business community. There's a lot of I mean, a lot of the stuff that we do in policy. We do it on behalf of our members because that takes a lot of time and a lot of attention in order to get knowledgeable about policy, to track exactly what's happening, whether it's at the city or the state. And so we provide that service so that they don't have to think about the policy or or we do the work and they can help us think about sort of the direction that we're going. And then we do lots of celebrating of small businesses and connecting businesses to one another.
[00:50:04] Mhm. Is there any community involvement or is it basically I mean no individuals wouldn't necessarily interact with the Chamber of Commerce or not, I mean outside of an individual in a small business or whatever.
[00:50:15] Right. I mean this other chamber is designed to be a business organization. So businesses typically join, but individuals within businesses get hugely involved. OK, and we've got a group of what we call ambassadors who really welcome new businesses, help celebrate whether it's a ribbon cutting or an expansion. So part of that is to help promote and celebrate what's happening in the community. So there's lots of benefits for people. And then you see the results of our work every day. Right. So we've got a program, for example, where we help kids and families get those FAFSA forms filled out for college. And, you know, I don't know who's listening to this that's ever experienced that, but it's really horrible.
[00:50:57] And so helping people navigate that, because it turns out if you help someone navigate that, their chances of going to school are dramatically increased. And that's a super individual way that we help individuals and families in Austin.
[00:51:11] What we're running towards the time. I just want to ask you how you feel about twenty, twenty one in Austin. The economy, I don't know. Is it going to be good? It's happening. What can we look forward to or not?
[00:51:26] Well, so here we are, an early. February, I you know, I think a lot of people are like we thought when we rung in the New Year, like twenty 20 done it was just going to be like over.
[00:51:37] Yeah. And so it's not.
[00:51:40] And so I think they're I mean, I think on the one hand, people are just, you know, everybody's just so ready to, you know, get out of their houses to get back into moving around the community. We are kind of an outdoor community. So I think people are really wanting to get out there and engage. But we got to stay buckle down. That's just the bottom line. And so until we get everybody or as many people as possible vaccinated, we have to do in 2021 what we were doing in twenty twenty. So I know that can be kind of frustrating on the economic development side. It's going to be another good year for Austin. We made headlines last year and will be making headlines this year with, you know, important companies and strategic companies either growing in Austin or moving to Austin. So I think that'll be really good. We're going to see Project Connect launch and that's going to be really interesting for our community.
[00:52:30] Yeah, I don't doubt you have the exact timeline memorized, but like, when can we expect to see not just breaking ground on that, but like the first use for it?
[00:52:40] You know, because I mean, you said it's 20 years. Right. But like, I'm sure like there'll be some availability unfolding as that 20 years.
[00:52:46] Yeah. You'll start you'll start to see some changes to the mobility system even this year. OK, now some of the bigger changes like, you know, tunneling downtown, that's going to take some time. But some of the changes around fast busses and some of the station site acquisitions and things like that, you'll start to see that in the next few years. You know, the other thing I hope for twenty, twenty one is I really hope that this community can get its arms and its heart around the homeless issue and reach some agreement that's really important to us that the chamber reached some agreement about, you know, what are those things that we can do that will, you know, make a difference.
[00:53:20] And I think this is a great business community want to be like, what can we do that we can measure? What promise can we make to the community that we can commit to? And I think that is really important work for us. And and I hope that twenty, twenty one, we see great progress there.
[00:53:36] We do. And I think that you're spot on when you said it's I mean, this is a good community. Everyone knows it's an apparent problem. Right. Don't see a lot of pushback in any given direction to.
[00:53:46] Yeah, except now I think mostly people want to know what they can do to help.
[00:53:49] Exactly. Yeah.
[00:53:51] Cool. Hey, thanks, Laura. This is amazing. Thank you so much for coming on. I learned a whole lot and you know what it is now.
[00:53:57] I know the chamber is and I think it's also my mission accomplished. Thank you. Thanks for having me. Appreciate it. And.