Q&A: New Austin Chamber CEO Laura Huffman says community safety, opening the economy do not have to be 'forced trade-off'

Austin Chamber CEO and President Laura Huffman officially stepped into her new role April 20, taking over for Mike Rollins, who announced his retirement in the fall. (NIcholas Cicale/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin Chamber CEO and President Laura Huffman officially stepped into her new role April 20, taking over for Mike Rollins, who announced his retirement in the fall. (NIcholas Cicale/Community Impact Newspaper)

Austin Chamber CEO and President Laura Huffman officially stepped into her new role April 20, taking over for Mike Rollins, who announced his retirement in the fall. (NIcholas Cicale/Community Impact Newspaper)

The Austin Chamber of Commerce officially welcomed new CEO and President Laura Huffman on April 20. The Austin native and former assistant city manager replaces Mike Rollins, who announced his retirement in the fall.

As Huffman steps into her role in the midst of the economic and public health crisis caused by the coronavirus, she shared thoughts with Community Impact Newspaper on what a possible recovery could look like. She said the Austin area's road toward thriving again may happen in fits and starts, but it will be marked by innovation and collaboration.

Q: Governor Abbott announced April 17 he would create a task force and look at ways to reopen our economy in Texas. Before we get to some of the bigger-picture questions: After hearing what the governor said, what are your thoughts on reopening the economy as it relates to Austin and our business community here?

A: I was really pleased to see that the governor has included a task force that will offer him a variety of perspectives from around the state, including some really nice strong Austin voices, like Sen. Kirk Watson, Michael Dell, Kendra Scott and folks like that. I think the reality of the situation is none of us really have a playbook on how to reopen businesses during a pandemic. And because no one has done this before, it calls for an awful lot of collaboration and transparency about how you're making decisions.

It's important to acknowledge that you may move forward, find that you've moved a little bit too fast and have to take a half a step backwards. And I think building that kind of flexibility into a statewide plan is smart.

This sets us up to have local decision-making around the specifics of what the reopening looks like. The county and the city, I think, are prepared to make some decisions around how we have a similar kind of approach here in the Austin region so that we're being thoughtful about how to move forward with reopening the economy, what kinds of metrics and triggers inform a decision tree about that, and then, some metrics that would have us roll back if that becomes necessary, and hopefully, it doesn't. So this all feels like it's heading in the right direction to me.

Q: Gov. Abbott mentioned one thing he will do is allow retail stores to offer to-go services beginning April 24. Not all businesses in the Austin Chamber have a product they can put in a van, deliver out to people's homes and recover some revenue that way, so do we need different solutions and different ideas for, say, startup tech companies or companies in office parks—some of those chamber members that cannot rely on retail?

A: "Yes" is the answer. And I think that the key to the reopening policies in order to meet the needs of a whole range of businesses in our community is to have an approach that is not so prescriptive that it doesn't allow for innovation. We've already seen a lot of innovation. We've seen companies that produce alcohol switch over and produce hand sanitizers. I heard a story the other day about a company that traditionally did upholstery turning to face masks. If you have been to the grocery store, you have seen plexiglass and covered ATM pads and all the rest of it.

The key to any local policy—and frankly, any state policy—is to establish the broad parameters, get really smart about the metrics and then, allow people to innovate. It's way more than just retail and high-tech. You're looking at an entire entertainment industry: Their business relies on gatherings of people, and so we want to leave room for that kind of innovation.

Then, you also have to leave room for those businesses to make smart business decisions. If I'm running a business that relies on having a high turnover of people in the business, how do I balance a slower turnover [and] a smaller crowd with the cost of opening that business back up? And all of those are practical concerns that businesses will have to wrestle with by themselves. What you want is a policy that errs on the side of community safety and opening up the economy. I don't think it needs to be a forced trade-off. I think this is a great example of the "Yes, and."

Q: As you are stepping in, I'm sure you have had thoughts about what this recovery will look like over the next few months as you take on the new role. Tell me about that. Big-picture, how do you envision this process? How do you see businesses coming back and the economy thriving in Austin again one day?

A: Ideally, what we see is a multiphase reopening of the regional economy. That could be all sectors a little bit at a time. It could be sector by sector. I think that conversation is what it's time for now. Hopefully, we'll be able to move from phase to phase successfully so that the health indicators remain positive so that you can move to that next phase. That is my hope. I don't know specifically what the right timeline is for full reopening. I think that's part of the discussion, and frankly, I don't think anybody has the answer to that because after each phased opening, you have to stop, reflect and evaluate the facts.

My hope is that we capture every ounce of innovation that we have learned from this and that we [do] not treat this as a weird point in time in the spring of 2020, but that we capture some of the lessons learned. The innovation in my mind ranges from how people have pivoted to provide services in new and different ways to knowing that we can all work successfully. People that are used to offices can also work successfully from home knowing that technology, while it can be frustrating at times, [is] also an efficient way to get something done in a lot of instances. This interview is an example of that.

For me, the region has a shot at being better off than before if we capture the innovation—if we look honestly at the parts of our economy that thrived and the parts of our economy and community that were exposed as weak, and we pay attention to that and learn from it. That's a big community conversation. That's not just the business community. That's the health care industry. That's higher education. It's Austin and other school districts in the area. There's a whole spectrum.

Q: Is this going to have to be a collaborative effort with other chambers in other areas?

A: Absolutely, and your competitive advantage will have everything to do with your willingness to collaborate. That includes designing the decision trees and the metrics for bringing people back to work and restarting economies.

And I do think, in particular, because governors are being looked at as sort of the big unit of government around which the major frameworks are established, it will make an awful lot of sense for there to be similarities between how, for example, major Texas cities reopen, so that if you're someone that's got a business in more than one city, you don't have to learn the ropes in every city.

Public health science should inform some reasonable approach to establishing a phased-in recovery. And I know that Texas is strong when all of its economies work together. It's "rising tides" thinking, and we should be thinking about each other's boats. That goes for the region of Central Texas, and it goes for the sum of the regions that form our state.