Boom Town 2024: Austin thought leaders weigh in on what’s ahead for Texas’ capital — Table of Experts

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Apr 4th, 2024

Austin is ready for its close-up. Hailed as a top contender in the contest for America’s Biggest Boomtown, the Texas capital is having a moment that will go down in history as the time that defined its character as a major player in American business. Although many longtime residents bemoan the losses–the iconic bars and restaurants, the quick and easy commute–they often lose sight of the bigger picture. They forget that not too long ago, if your son or daughter stayed close to home for college, they often had no choice but to launch their careers elsewhere. All that has changed. Yet such a transformation is not without its challenges, and it cannot be navigated without thoughtful and deliberate action.

The Austin Business Journal recently consulted a table of experts and asked them to weigh in on the city’s current strengths, as well as its opportunities for growth during this unprecedented time. Participants included Emily Chenevert, CEO at Austin Board of REALTORS® and Unlock MLS, Kelea Youngblood, Chief Marketing Officer at Austin Board of REALTORS® and Unlock MLS; Stacy Schmitt, Senior Vice President of Communications & External Affairs at Opportunity Austin; Nick Moulinet, Development Services at DPR Construction and Cameron Goodman, Director of Economic Development at City of Georgetown. The discussion was moderated by Abby Mellott, Market President and Publisher at the Austin Business Journal.

Abby Mellott: As we look to the future, the Austin-San Antonio corridor is expected to add 4 million people by 2030. How does the Austin region manage this growth?

Nick Moulinet: We need to embrace our culture of innovation that we have cultivated as a region. We are a community that’s always been entrepreneurial, we’ve always been forward thinking. So when we talk about transportation, why are we doing “rinse and repeat” of others’ ideas instead of proposing creative solutions? If we aren’t doing that, I don’t think we are living true to our identity as a city, nor will we reach our full potential.

Cameron Goodman: While we are just one city in the region, Georgetown is in a sense a microcosm of the Austin region and the rapid growth that is occurring. In my opinion, our city has done a great job of making investments in strategic infrastructure, like our South Lake Water Treatment Plant which will more than double the city’s water treatment capacity. Taking on big challenges like that, while also taking care of the day-to-day issues like managing traffic and ensuring that we provide high quality levels of service to our residents can serve as an example for a lot of the other communities.

Nick Moulinet: We definitely need to be talking about water. The future economy of our city is dependent on the availability of water, and we have let it pass us by. San Antonio has had the foresight to address this issue and they are literally pulling from our backyard. We need to be having real conversations about water and power, and holding our elected officials accountable to working together to solve this problem, because it is not going away.

Emily Chenevert: I think the most critical component of managing growth is being intentional about it. We’ve done a good job of that in terms of building out economic anchors, but we have not been as intentional about making investments in the infrastructure that’s needed to ensure that the growth we’re experiencing is sustainable. We have a model for that in DFW. The governance structure around that region is something that has allowed it to be successful.

Abby Mellott: What does our city need to do to support the growth of emerging industries like life sciences and advanced manufacturing?

Nick Moulinet: We’ve got to make trade school cool again. In the construction industry, we are dependent on skilled workers. With the growth of life sciences and advanced manufacturing, the need is already here. The companies that are leading the growth of that sector are looking to see where these resources exist and whether or not there is an ecosystem to support them. We’ve got to get the message out that someone trained as a plumber, electrician, or welder is equally valuable to a community as somebody with a liberal arts degree in philosophy.

I have two teenage girls, and one of them is applying to colleges right now. We’ve talked about that return on investment. Like I’ve told them, if what you care about is immediately being able to get a high-paying job, trade school offers the same, if not better, career opportunities. The discussion needs to be framed differently. We talk about equity in our community quite a bit, but it’s just as important to talk about equity when it comes to job opportunities and financial security. The trades can provide that for those that are looking for an alternative to a four-year degree.

Stacy Schmitt: It’s really the responsibility of all of us to listen to industry, and what these companies say they need in terms of the workforce. We all know Tesla will need 60,000 employees, but the supplier companies will have jobs also. So at Opportunity Austin, we’ve been working with ACC, TSTC and some of the smaller communities and their school districts to gain a better understanding of industry needs and required skill sets.

ACC is absolutely the shining model in the country, but right now they do not have the capacity to do everything that we need at the rate that we’re growing. The Make It Movement is at the front of that pipeline, but I agree with Nick–there’s a lot of work to be done here. The jobs will be there, but we’ve got to get the message out about training.

Abby Mellott: Let’s shift our focus to the housing market in Central Texas. I hear you’ve got some good numbers for us, Emily. Give us some insight into the housing market and tell us your forecast for the coming year.

Emily Chenevert: We finished the year strong in the sense that there was a lot of instability last year, so we weren’t sure what to expect. We’re thankful that we didn’t hit the potential recession that we talked about at the beginning of last year, so we had a bit of a soft landing. But it’s no secret that interest rates are playing a significant role in the housing market right now. We can’t really compare today’s market to how things were just a few years ago because there were a lot of unusual things going on. We’re still only at 3.2 months of inventory as of January of this year. The housing economist we hired tells me five months is an appropriate number for Austin, so we’re still well under supply. We are currently under-serving at the moderate to low ends of the marketplace, which we all know. So teachers, firefighters, EMT workers–the people who make our community go round–these people cannot afford to live in Austin.

Kelea Youngblood: People are going to need to settle into what they can afford. Because of the big companies moving in, there’s a demand for housing and it’s not really letting up. We’re not pumping the brakes on that. So whatever we can do to create that missing middle housing, we absolutely have to do it. But I do think it is interesting that we now have sort of a full year’s worth of data, and we’re still seeing people who want to buy in Austin, so I think that’s a good thing.

Abby Mellott: Looking north of the city, Georgetown has been named the fastest growing city in America for two years in a row. Cameron, what has the City of Georgetown been doing to successfully manage that recent growth?

Cameron Goodman: We’re very fortunate to have a forward-thinking city council and leadership team. I’m proud to be a staff member of a city who has put significant energy into being strategic about our growth and this is reflected in several efforts including our Future Mobility Plan, Downtown Strategic Plan, and long-range water planning. Georgetown can compete for economic development projects because we have the capability of meeting the needs of employers while still being a great place to live for all of our residents. I think Georgetown has really found that sweet spot of planning for the future, while also taking care of the day-to-day administration.

Nick Moulinet: I wouldn’t underestimate Georgetown as a partner. The city’s willingness to understand what the priorities are, and work to solve the problems that come with some of this growth is remarkable. Georgetown’s leadership has been able to quickly address their issues before they get stuck and become problematic, and they deserve some recognition for that.

Emily Chenevert: Georgetown has a diversity of housing types, and they have been very intentional about creating housing opportunities for individuals with different needs across generations. I think it’s a really good model for what we hope to see across the rest of the region.

Abby Mellott: How is our transportation ecosystem going to handle all of this continued growth when we are already behind? Stacy, when you guys are doing recruitment, is that one of the big questions people have about Austin?

Stacy Schmitt: It does come up, but honestly 130 is a big selling point, because we do have that outlet. Now, we’ve got to continue to look at it from a regional perspective. As the construction on I-35 moves forward–and it’s going to take a while–a lot of that traffic is going to move to 130. So we’ve got to plan ahead. Last session we worked really hard to try to get another connector in the southern part. We were not successful with that. However, we will continue to collaborate with our friends and neighbors in San Antonio, because it’s important for them too. We need those east-west connectors to move the traffic that way. We’ve got to work with TxDOT, and well as the city councils in multiple counties.

Nick Moulinet: Again, when it comes to transportation, our lack of imagination is stunning. We are going to build a 100-year-old technology through the middle of downtown, the crown jewel of Austin. Why are we building something that is not innovative, and is not true to who we are as a city? We have seen hundreds of companies move in to Austin over the past several years. These companies are on the leading edge of technology and innovation. We have a company five miles from here who are landing spaceships on inner tubes in the ocean. Why aren’t we talking to them about their ideas for a better way to improve mobility for ALL Austinites? If we aren’t challenging ourselves to think differently about transportation, for the money that will be spent, we are doing ourselves a disservice.

Stacy Schmitt: Yes. We’re known as a tech community. We need to be bringing in people with innovative ideas to solve these problems.

Abby Mellott: We’ve obviously got some huge projects coming down the pipeline–not only Project Connect, but new construction by Tesla, Samsung and the Austin Convention Center. How do you see these things impacting Austin over the next 5-10 years?

Nick Moulinet: These are incredible opportunities for our city. There will be career possibilities here that we have never had before in Austin. With ample access to job skills training, future generations can build lives here. But we must also ask these companies to lean in and engage in the issues that affect quality of life in our city. The relationship between these companies and Austin must be mutually beneficial and we need all of them, and those that work there, to play active roles in our community.

Abby Mellott: Cameron, how is Georgetown positioned to handle all of this growth, particularly in regard to the available workforce?

Cameron Goodman: Georgetown is very fortunate to be located at the intersection of SH-130 and I-35 and we can draw a large workforce from both the north and south sides of the region. For example, we offer a great location for employees who live in areas like Belton or Temple who are seeking high quality jobs. Travis County is the third highest-ranked workforce, but Williamson County is ranked fifth, which is very impressive in its own right. We are well positioned to fill the needs of many different types of companies.

Emily Chenevert: You know, when Samsung were site-selecting they asked, “Where will my people go?” and that’s a reasonable question! I don’t know where the people who are here now can go, unless we make a more significant investment in housing.

Stacy Schmitt: Also, once people are settled, we need to protect the quality of life. We need to think about childcare and public safety. Right now we have some issues in the core of the city, but as the city grows out, so will these undesirable conditions, if we do not address them. When companies go on site visits, they don’t just want to see the site itself. They want to drive around and see where their people are going to live, because they know they’ll need to consider that when they’re attempting to attract and retain talent.

Nick Moulinet: They also have to attract their business partners. They fly into town, they stay in hotels. So, the perception of our city from their partners is equally important.

Stacy Schmitt: Right. How easy is it to fly in? We need more direct flights to Asia. We’re working on these things.

Abby Mellott: Let’s talk about the Austin City Council, and more specifically–the land use changes proposed as part of HOME Phase Two. What are the potential short and long-term impacts on housing affordability in Austin?

Emily Chenevert: I’d like to start by thanking the council for making more rapid and meaningful investments over the last year than there have been in many years. HOME Phase One was a part of that, by giving people the opportunity to build up to three units on a single lot. HOME Phase Two will take it a step further, making it actually feasible to deliver on the previous policy decision. I’ll remind everybody that the land development code was last adopted and overhauled in 1983. While we have been unsuccessful in a complete overhaul of that code, we can take significant bites at the apple through initiatives like HOME Phase One and Two.

Property owners should be able to leverage their assets in a way that serves the community and brings them financial sustainability, right? The opposition to some of these changes make claims that allowing this kind of infill development will strip these neighborhoods of their character, but where’s the character in forcing people out of a community where they can no longer afford to live? I don’t think that’s consistent with our values and Austin either. And so my pushback is to suggest that we have an obligation to maintain that character in a way that’s meaningful for everybody, not just the people that can afford it.

Nick Moulinet: Sometimes I’ll drive around in our historic neighborhoods, and I’m surprised by the number of apartment buildings I see. At some point in time, we forgot that a growing city requires all types of housing. We have to do what we can to provide access to housing for all Austinites, but we must also find more tools that can allow for residents to stay in place without the worry of getting priced, or taxed, out of where they live.

Emily Chenevert: Hyde Park is super cool, and it represents the type of opportunity I’m talking about.

Abby Mellott: Election season is coming up. We could potentially have six new council members and a new mayor. What issues would you like to hear candidates discuss?

Nick Moulinet: I would love to hear candidates talk about quality of life–not just for a constituency or a special interest, but for everybody. If you are homeless and living on the streets, you deserve a quality of life, and that’s going to look different than if you’re wealthy. A proposal for a climate bond is currently making its way through city council. With so many of the important quality of life issues we are discussing in this conversation, these types of global topics are convenient distractions for candidates.

Cameron Goodman: I agree with Nick on the importance of maintaining a high quality of life for residents. I’m not a resident of Austin, but a rising tide lifts all boats. If Austin is succeeding, then that helps Georgetown to succeed as well.

Emily Chenevert: No surprise here—I think they should talk about housing! I hope they will focus on leadership as a skill that will be critical to wading through these major projects. Leadership is hard, especially under pressure and change. They will need to figure out how to be bold while they make tough decisions.

Abby Mellott: Looking at metropolitan economies across the nation, the Austin area clocks in at #22, with a regional GDP of $222 billion. Where do you see this growth stemming from, and do you see it continuing?

Stacy Schmitt: There’s really not one industry sector that stands out. I think that’s how we’ve been successful, actually. We were the first to come back from the recession years ago. We were the first to come back from COVID. We’ve rebounded well because we have diversification. Because of that, we must continue to leverage and build on that diversity of industry sectors.

Nick Moulinet: I agree, and thank God for Opportunity Austin, and the work it has done in Austin for the past 20 years. We wouldn’t be where we are today without it. Long ago, we had the state government and UT. That was it. Now we have aerospace, auto, pharma, life sciences, advanced manufacturing and more! I would say double down on your investment in Opportunity Austin. It is the best thing that we have going that is actually meeting its stated goals, and I truly believe it is improving the quality of life for all Austinites.

Cameron Goodman: Economic development is competitive, but we all win when a Tesla or a Samsung comes into the region because you have hundreds of suppliers who join them. This impact helps to create a significant number of jobs for our residents and future generations.

Stacy Schmitt: That’s why my job is so rewarding. I get to sell this place, but I also get to connect different groups to work together for the same end goal. That’s really satisfying, because at the end of the day, I really believe in Austin’s potential.

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