City promotes ‘weird’ culture amid affordability challenges

Guitar sculptures are displayed at Austinu2019s airport.

Guitar sculptures are displayed at Austinu2019s airport.

With its creative sector generating billions of dollars in economic activity and an estimated 50,000 locally owned small businesses, the city of Austin has a vested interest in “keeping it weird.”

City promotes ‘weird’ culture amid affordability challengesThe city of Austin has executed policies and programs aimed at preserving the city’s unique culture; its artistry; live music; and local, independent businesses. Initiatives, such as the city’s Art in Public Places program, live music at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and a preference of independent businesses over big-box stores, have been around longer than the “Keep Austin Weird” catchphrase has been pressed onto tie-dye T-shirts.

“Weird” has become so ingrained in the DNA of the city that it found a place in the glossary of terms of the city’s 2012 comprehensive plan, Imagine Austin: “Strikingly odd” or “unusual” is how the official planning document defines the word.

However, some Austin City Council members worry the continued rapid expansion of the city and its increasing cost of living is putting its uniqueness at risk.

In February, Mayor Steve Adler introduced the Austin Music and Creative Ecosystem Omnibus Resolution, which lays out a set of goals for sustaining the music and arts industries in the city as well as the residents who make a living off their creativity.

By June 1, City Manager Marc Ott is expected to present the City Council with proposals that would address the concerns expressed in the resolution.

Jason Stanford, communications director for the mayor’s office, said Ott is expected to return “specific, concrete plans of action” for City Council to

We don’t want [city staff] calling for another survey,” Stanford said. “We know what the problems are. We need to know exactly how to solve them.”

Sustaining the creative economy

City leaders credit the creative industry for helping Austin weather the storm during the recession.

“Right after the recession, we as a city took stock of what the creative industry looked like,” said Kevin Johns, director of the city’s economic development department. “During the recession between 2005 and 2010, while the rest of the economy was flattening out, what kept Austin the top economy in America was that the creative industries grew 25 percent. Now it’s [a] $4.35 billion [industry with] 49,000 people and generates $71 million in tax revenue. [The economic development department] is very much aware that this is what keeps Austin the top economy in America.”

City promotes ‘weird’ culture amid affordability challenges Musician Lainey Wright plays at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport The airport has six music venues where travelers can catch live shows from 1-5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.[/caption]

But studies in recent years have shown the city’s affordability crisis is affecting Austin’s creative workers disproportionately. The Austin Music Census, conducted by the city’s music office in 2015, found that 70 percent of the respondents to its survey of musicians were living below the poverty line.

Johns said with the data and anecdotal evidence culled from those studies, the city arrived at the conclusion that artists in the city are under duress. A call to action has since emerged to strengthen the creative industries—whether it is music, art, gaming, film or television, he said.

Don Pitts, director of the city’s music office, said the mayor’s omnibus resolution is shifting the office’s focus from professional development to revenue generation. Pitts said recent activities have been aimed at helping local musicians create income streams. For example, he said many local performers are unaware of or are not actively pursuing royalties they are owed.

Musicians can sign up through the city to receive unclaimed royalties from such media as videos on streaming website YouTube that use their songs.

CTA-2016-04-30-9“It was alarming for us that there were 140 Austin artists that weren’t signed up,” Pitts said. “There were several—I won’t mention any names—but there were some that were headlining [the free Austin concert series] Blues on the Green. So these weren’t just bands that didn’t know; they were pretty established bands.”

Stanford said another initiative that is being worked on as part of the omnibus resolution is to use a land trust, similar to the Housing Trust Fund the city uses to preserve affordable housing in the city, for sustaining music venues. He said music venues can be bought and put in the land trust. Then private companies, who could own any improvements made to the facility, could continue operating it as a music venue, he said.

Sustaining local small businesses

The “Keep Austin Weird” catchphrase began to pick up steam in Austin as the slogan of the Austin Independent Business Alliance, which was founded in 2002 to advocate for and promote local small businesses.

City promotes ‘weird’ culture amid affordability challenges

AIBA Executive Director Rebecca Melancon said she would have liked to have seen more initiatives aimed at preserving local small businesses in the omnibus resolution. Although Melancon said she has seen more interest in independent businesses among the 10-1 City Council than before the single-member districts were adopted in 2015, its hands have been full tackling other issues. She said because the small businesses are not in a “crisis point” the council is not devoting as much attention to them right now, but concerns may begin to percolate.

“[The state of local small businesses] is in good health with affordability being a big issue,” Melancon said. “[Business owners] will tell you business is good, but it’s not that good.”

Joy Miller, who coordinates information for the economic development department’s small-business program, said similar to how the creative sector serves as a bedrock for the city, small businesses have also strengthened the economic health of the area.

“What we’ve seen is the very large corporations kind of ebb and flow,” Miller said. “When times are tight they are going to cut back and lay people off, but what the mom and pops do is they stay steady. ... So they really serve as a platform of strength during economic downturns.”

Johns said the city and its residents have created a “weird” blueprint that other cities are trying to replicate.

“Our focus is to maintain the integrity of Austin as it is,” he said. “With ‘keeping it weird,’ I think you’ll find out when you talk to other people that we very much want to make ourselves unique; we want to make ourselves a prototype of how communities of the future grow.”

By JJ Velasquez
The Central Austin editor since 2016, JJ covers city government and other topics of community interest—when he's not editing the work of his prolific writers. He began his tenure at Community Impact Newspaper as the reporter for its San Marcos | Buda | Kyle edition covering local government and public education. The Laredo, Texas native is also a web developer whose mission is to make the internet a friendly place for finding objective and engaging news content.


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