Austin swims, the Springs flounders

Mon, Nov 23, 2009


Our city’s leadership class has, as you may have noticed, a new Best Big Cool Friend – Austin, Texas.

That relationship is not unlike that of Vince and Drama on “Entourage”– the devastatingly cool movie star (Adrian Grenier) who allows the hopeful loser (Kevin Dillon) to hang out with him.

Our city’s power people would like Colorado Springs to be just as cool, just as popular, and just as rich as Austin. That’d be great, not just for regional businesses, but especially for the arts.

As one of the trip participants, the estimable Bettina Swigger of COPPeR, noted in her blog that Austin supports the arts in a big way. Bettina wrote that:

  • Live Music contributes $616 million in economic impact and $11 million in local tax revenue
    There are 1,543 music-related businesses in Austin and 1,903 Austin music acts.
  • The not-for-profit performing arts and visual arts generate $532 million in economic impact and $6 million in local tax revenue.
  • The City of Austin provides nearly $5 million annually of the Hotel Occupancy Tax to contract with non-profit arts and cultural organizations for services rendered.
  • Creative industries in Austin generate $2.2 billion in economic activity and create 44,000 permanent jobs.

Can we learn from Austin? The power people think so. They’ve contracted with an Austin firm, Angelou Economics, who charged us a big chunk o’ change to prepare the “6035” study. And last Friday, the featured speaker at the well-attended annual banquet of the Chamber of Commerce was an Austin lawyer, Pike Powers, who has been a major player in Austin’s economic development efforts for many years.

But maybe the two cities are so dissimilar that we can neither learn from nor profit by Austin’s experiences.

Austin is a city of 760,000, the center of a metropolitan area of 1.7 million.

Like Colorado Springs, it has no major league sports teams-and that’s about where the similarities end.

Imagine a city that takes the best of Boulder, Denver, and Colorado Springs-and none of the bad stuff.

Austin has the state capitol, the best newspaper in Texas, the University of Texas, rational politics, a beautiful setting and an equable climate. Since the 1960s, Austin has had a reputation as a cool place to live-a place like Boston, San Francisco, Boulder, Marin County, Aspen, Miami, Charleston, or Santa Fe.

It’s famously quirky, but not nastily so. We have Focus, New Life, and Doug Bruce; Austin has SXSW, Austin City Limits, and Lance Armstrong. We’re about to ban homeless folks from camping along our polluted streams; Austin is the only city in Texas that has no ordinances forbidding women to appear topless in public.

We come close to matching Austin in a single category-Division I football teams. Our Air Force Falcons had a pretty good season, and they may well be invited to the Armed Forces Bowl. Undefeated and third-ranked Texas, which plays in the 100,000 seat Darryl Royal Stadium, may play for the national championship-and why not? They’ve won it four times.

Conclusion: Austin is a first-tier city, a powerfully vibrant metropolitan area with none of our handicaps. Vince can’t tell Drama how to become a devastatingly handsome chick magnet-he can only be a nice guy and let Drama follow him around like a lost puppy.

We’ll never be Austin.

Music? We couldn’t even keep 32 Bleu in business. Public funding for arts & culture? We’re closing the Pioneers Museum. Downtown skyscrapers springing from the ground? Our downtown parking lots have been vacant long enough to be nominated for the national register of historic places.

We’re not Austin-but we’re still a little bit cool. Maybe we could be some other city’s Best Big Cool Friend … Newark, New Jersey?

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15 Comments For This Post

  1. Bettina Swigger Says:

    John, thanks for mentioning my blog. For interested folks, you can read my observations about Austin here:

    You are right that when you compare the Springs to Austin as apples to apples right now at the end of 2009, we’re definitely Drama (or maybe Turtle–I haven’t quite worked through that analogy yet) to Austin’s Vince. But it is interesting and relevant to examine where both cities were positioned in the early 1980s – with real forsight and vision, Austin went on to soar as a creative and high-tech center. It took one weird, vocal dude to start the “Live Music Capital of the World” theme–maybe we can do the same here?

  2. DT Says:

    John, One of Angelos’ comments at the luncheon last week was everyone’s tendency in Colorado Springs to focus on the negatives, you are a great example of that. Colorado Springs has assets that many communities would dream to have. You compete constantly with Austin for new projects. Sure, Austin has some things that Colorado Springs does not have or ever will have it. But that’s not the point, it is about understanding how they got there and learning from their success. Quit focusing on the negatives, take a vacation, something.

  3. Hunter W Says:

    Bettina is right – with proper planning we could really spur on the growth of Colorado Springs, not only in the area of music but in many other areas as well. There is no immediate solution or a magic wand to wave.

    Austin doesn’t have the mountains, does it? When was the last time it inspired a song that is sung by millions of people of all ages? In the summer months when Austin is hot and muggy we’ve got crisp, fresh air that says “get outside and play!”

    It will take a visionary leader to get this city going. We can certainly learn from Austin, can’t we? Why can’t we revolutionize our city? I know you think its hip to bust on religion and ostricize any person, group, or organization that takes an absolute stance that is different from yours but you’re dead wrong on this one. Colorado Springs can become the Tobey Maguire to Austin’s Vincent Chase, not the Johnny Drama as you propose.

  4. Karl Mason Says:

    The biggest difference between Austin and Colorado Springs is that Austin is in Texas, a state with no income tax and a place very very friendly to business. Coloradans have made it a point to not be like Texas. It’s too late to start now. Austin was able to attract and keep the high tech businesses it currently has because of tax breaks and less onerous regulation. Until we wake up to the reality that the Chamber and EDC are incompetent in Colorado Springs we will never approach Austin in growth or lifestyle.

  5. Like it'll matter ..... Says:

    ……. and we got no Stubb’s Barbeque, either. I mean, the Firehouse is good (& their building is fabulous) but ……

  6. John Hazlehurst Says:

    Hunter, I’m not sure that we ought to brag about “Rocky Mountain High”-remember, John Denver lived in Aspen! And as for weather-you’re right, I need a vacation. And I know where to go-Austin, where Saturday’s predicted high is 69, and low is 57.

    And Karl, I’m also not sure that low tax rates account for all of Austin’s success. Denver has had much of the success that Austin has had, as has Providence, R.I., and other relatively high-tax environments. The difference is in the perceived attractiveness of the cities among entrepreneurs and knowledge workers-the folks who create the businesses which define the nation’s future. Did the the kids who created Google or Facebook worry about state/municipal tax rates? It costs a fortune to live in Silicon Valley, and the tax rates are astronomical-why doesn’t everyone move to Colorado Springs-or Austin-or El Paso-or the Calman islands?

  7. 'lil wayne Says:

    Yeah, pretty ridiculous comparison to make in the first place….Angelou Economics is obviously opportunistic. I would have at least given the free advice that, from a foundational point of view, Austin and CO Springs have zero in common. Our city council reminds me of the business projects we had to do in high school; only not as well thought out. That money would have been better spent looking at ways to increase the vibrancy of downtown. Build (and fill) the urban core and the arts follow. Doesn’t really work the other way around.

    …and Drama is Vince’s brother, so what option does he really have?!

  8. Another DT Says:

    John, I believe Hunter W was referring to an inspiring and patriotic song written by Katharine Lee Bates while she was high atop Pikes Peak overlooking the majestic view of the great plains – America the Beautiful. You can hear it through the genius of Ray Charles – here’s the link –

  9. Hunter W Says:

    DT – thanks. That was, in fact, the song to which I was referring.

    John – would you be willing to go to Austin on vacation in late July when the temp is in the high 90s with the humidity to match?

  10. John Hazlehurst Says:

    Hunter, my apologies-America the Beautiful certainly trumps “the Yellow Rose of Texas!” And nope-Austin in the summer holds little appeal. But summer in CS, winter in Austin-that’d work…or maybe year-round in Santa Barbara. What do you mean, I can’t afford either?

  11. Hunter W Says:

    I may or may not be guilty of escaping Colorado Springs for warmer climates on occasion. :)

  12. Ken G Says:

    I’m in Austin for vacation…yes I decided to take my family where the atmosphere is warm, live music is great and a walk around Town Lake in the evening is bested only by one of the vibrant restaurant spots near the river…….ahhh, a Shiner and a Taco……

    The two cities – It is greatly ironic to read John’s column, see Bettina’s comments surrounding/comparing the two cities…much less the 80’s comparison (when I was in high down here in Austin). The two cities are like twins, but raised in different households (vision)…both have grown up with very different parenting styles (maturation process) and become very unique adults (taking care of today and planning process for tomorrow)…now they’ll have their own families (future generations) and visit during reunions (send politico groups back and forth to seek how they’ve missed the mark), but have little to compare…..other than dirty diapers (failed execution)….

    Entourage comparison – I enjoy watching Entourage and would say we (C/S) are more like Turtle – lost, confused, great opportunity (his going back to college), fantastic girlfriend (if Austin would go out with us), but generally living out of reality most of the time. We have some similiarities like Drama – making lots of dramatic whining noises, but rarely heard or known….always living the shadow of his big brother…..

    Economic report, Bergstrom, Pinon Canyon – The irony of C/S spending thousands for a ‘when I become a big boy’ report to an Austin based economics consultancy……the city could have paid me significantly less for the same professional information…in fact, in 99-2001, when I was active in our chamber, I lobbied Jeff Crank and Will Temby to work hard to forge relationships with Austinites to see where they were winning their battles with locales…..Austin fought hard in the late 80’s to build their convention center so Austin would stand out amongst it’s competitors – then shortly after the ribbon cutting ceremony, Austin had the issue of how to DOUBLE the center’s size. To become a real city, Austin fought vigorously and decided to pay their Mayor and council more than ‘stipends’ so they could promote and deal with daily city business versus ours who (moonlight in their public offices) Austin had Bergstrom AFB BRAC’d and negotiated with the government to fund a new airport, rehabilitate the base for affordable housing, build a thriving international cargo facility……Austin-Bergstrom is now a thriving economic boon for the city and central Texas……Directly and indirectly related, when the DOD wanted to expand Pinon Canyon (placing a 2500-4000 person Brigade of soliders at the site) rather than make it work, Gov Ritter signs law forbidding the sale of educational owned land….No wonder the DOD went elsewhere…..Who to the one who thinks just because millions are being pumped into Ft. Carson that this post is immune from future BRAC’s……

    Taxes – everyone talks about high the taxes are in Texas…..if you add our property tax, income tax, vehicle tax, personal property tax, enterprise storm sewer tax, sales tax, etc you will quickly realize we average within .5 – 1% to Austin’s real estate and business property tax base….PS – only my 99 Harley costs more to register in Texas, my other 3 vehicles that cost me over $1000/year to register in Colorado….I guess it will be $1120 with Ritter’s new vehicle tax……

    Incentives – It does take incentives to relocate companies to our great city…..Austin figured that out 20 years ago and acted on it….the company(ies) received tax relief, not the 200,000 new employees who bought homes, new cars, paid their property taxes, and spend their earnings locally…..earn it in Texas, spend it in Texas is a livelihood, not a mantra……HP is replacing/relocating hundreds of their jobs with a datacenter that will require less than 50 people to operate….the NSA just announced $1.5B datacenter in Utah….like on other blogs – did our EDC even have an inkling of talking to someone at NSA about bringing that datacenter to Colorado Springs…where Intel just left a cheap, dual fed utility supplied, ready to move in 1.x million sqft facility?

    Weather – Now, I will not argue with the weather…It is hotter than haites in Austin May – September. July and August are completely miserable, unless you have an indoor air conditioned job and a 3rd income to pay the utility (cooling) bill during the hot months….Ironically, despite the heat, many companies continue locating to Austin and San Antonio – while we sit on the sidelines waiting for a company to talk with our EDC. So C/S does have a strong positive versus Austin for the summer weather – oh wait, that is why so many Texans now summer in Colorado (not so much in Colorado Springs though)…

    Pause – sorry had to run to the locally owned yogurt place to get a snack…at 930PM…it’s in a suburban neighborhood and stays open until 10PM. Last time I went to get a coffee in northern county – all three places close at 9PM…no late night java for me..

    Traffic – I also will not argue traffic. C/S has delays on a clear day and has done decent job of starting to build out road infrastructure versus Austin. Example: I left a buddies office in north Austin today to meet my kids for a movie just south of Downtown (Alamo drafthouse for those who’ve been to Austin). I35 (one of 3 main arteries N and S) and it took me nearly an hour to travel 30 miles…….MOPAC is congested nearly 24 hours a day and Loop 360 is backed up for miles with congestion. Colorado Springs – this is a qualifier to quality of life for C/S for sure.

    Colleges – C/S has several, but not at the population level of U of T. To C/S credit – this is a good thing. As the students do spend their dollars in Austin, but are a drag on the resources of Austin. In the 80’s UT was becoming more liberal, today the school is 99% liberal and that lifestyle does permeate through out the community…..Austin is ready to open it’s first Marijuana Café – I don’t think this would pass our city zoning commission much less population scrutiny.

    My wife and I chose Colorado Springs in 1996 to relocate from Austin to C/S to raise our family. My wife is a public school teacher and I recently started working for a Colorado based IT company. We love Colorado Springs as much as we love visiting Austin. They are two great cities – with very different paths to success. Austin formed it’s vision and with the tenacity of it’s sports players – forges ahead continuing to execute it’s vision ( ). Colorado Springs continues the committee who thinks about forming a committee to figure out our future while execution is left up to someone or somebody ( ) with no vision information….

  13. Dick Burns Says:

    What we obviously need is a new downtown rugby stadium! Meanwhile, we can all go see the new Morgan Freeman movie and dream our hearts away!

  14. John Hazlehurst Says:

    Ken, thanks for your informative post. It’s interesting to note that Austin’s continuing economic strength was reinforced, not damaged, by the closure of a once-significant military base. For decades, CS leaders have fretted over our overdependence upon Fort Carson and/or the possibly disastrous consequences of closing the mountain post. Like Pueblo once was with CF&I, our local economy is so skewed in one direction that we find it difficult/impossible to imagine a future without it. But that future will come some day-the great wall of China no onger has soldiers along its ruined watchtowers, the Maginot Line is long since abandoned, and the submarine base at Key West now houses overpriced condos. And when that day comes, residents of the Pikes Peak region will have no choice but to work together and join the reality-based community.

  15. marc Says:

    Hello! Your post (Austin swims, the Springs flounders – Hazlehurst’s Blog) does so well that I would like to translate it into French, publish on my french blog and link to you. You have something against it? Regards