In 2003, with Central Texas mired in the fallout of the dot-com bust, the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce created a foundation designed to help raise money and direct spending for special business development projects.
Gary Farmer, president of Heritage Title Co., took over as chairman of that organization and helped guide the first of what has now become a trio of five-year initiatives designed to spur regional economic growth. A decade later Farmer is still at it, out beating the bushes and raising money for the third iteration of that flagship program—Opportunity Austin 3.0, which will run from 2014 to 2018.
In the time since Farmer helped launch the first Opportunity Austin plan, Central Texas has seen unprecedented population and job growth. Even through the recession in 2008 and 2009, the Austin metro area’s economic and business growth continued to outperform much of the state and most of the country.
Yet Austin is also experiencing its share of growing pains, particularly related to transportation issues, and not all of the area’s residents have been lifted by the rising tide. Acknowledging that, the latest iteration of the Chamber’s program includes a much broader set of economic measuring sticks.
The Austin American-Statesman caught up with Farmer recently to get an update on preparations for Opportunity Austin 3.0, the expanded metrics included in the new initiative and what he hopes the Austin economy will look like after its five-year run.
American-Statesman: How far along have you come with the fund raising and other preparatory work to put Opportunity Austin 3.0 in place? Will everything be ready to go by the new year?
Farmer: Our fundraising is going quite well to date. We are approaching the 50 percent mark of our $25 million goal. We are ahead of pace regarding dollars raised and investors committed as compared to our campaign five years ago. Our prior investors are renewing at an exceedingly high rate and we are attracting new investors at a handsome rate as well. All of that said, we are attempting to raise significantly more money than in previous campaigns so we are a long way from the finish line. We need to remain diligent and work to achieve our financial goal if we want to have the desired impact on our economy and our community during the 2014-2018 timeframe.
This version of the plan incorporates several broader economic measurements that weren’t in previous plans and lie outside the usual areas of focus for a business community—things like poverty rates and per-capita income. Why add those?
Opportunity Austin is focused on sustainable economic prosperity for all Central Texans. It is of great concern to us that our community’s poverty rate is expected to grow over the next five-year period. If Opportunity Austin, working in partnership with the public sector, can better address the areas of educational attainment and career skills training—the core contributing factors of poverty—then we should be able to slow the rate of increase. Our ultimate goal would be to decrease the poverty rate and increase the per capita income figures. Needless to say, these two metrics work hand in hand. We added the measures so that we could monitor the impact of our efforts.
While we are working exceedingly hard to encourage increased high school direct to college enrollment so that we remain competitive for high tech/high skilled jobs, we must also focus on recruiting companies that will hire Central Texans that have achieved a high school diploma or GED. We need to attract companies that will create good jobs accessible to those with less educational attainment, provide a full suite of benefits and create the opportunity for a sustainable career path. In order to attract these types of companies, we must make certain that we adopt public policies in the economic development area that will be competitive in the global marketplace. If we can increase our educational attainment, improve our career readiness and make certain that jobs are available for the full spectrum of the Central Texas workforce, we should be able to have a favorable impact on poverty rate and per capita income.
From where you sit, what are the biggest challenges facing the Austin-area economy, and how does Opportunity Austin 3.0 address them?
From my perspective, the biggest and most immediate challenges to continued economic growth and prosperity are complacency and mobility issues.
We have worked exceedingly hard to become the most prolific creator of jobs among the 100 largest Metropolitan Statistical Areas in America. We have been ranked No. 1 in job growth when measuring the past year (2012), the past four years (2009-2012) and the past nine years (2004-2012). We should not forget that for the five years prior to the Opportunity Austin program (1999-2003) we were ranked 24th in job growth. Because of our successes over the past nine years, some people have started to promote the myths that we do not need to work as hard in the future, we do not need to use public investment, we do not need to pay attention to the concerns of business, we do not need to honor our agreements as a city and we do not need to be concerned with what other cities are doing in the economic development arena. Taken together, these approaches would create a complacency which would be a “kill shot” in my estimation. We will work diligently to avoid this fate.
Our mobility needs grow every day. We need to approach mobility with a seriousness not seen in a long time. We must demand that we have a regional approach to transportation and that every project—whether road, rail or bus—pass muster when considering additional capacity and congestion mitigation. Unfortunately, we have limited financial resources, so every expenditure should be measured carefully to ensure it will have the needed impact to justify the project. And we need to be quick about it, as it is time for action on all fronts. While transportation/mobility is a business issue, it is incredibly more important as quality of life and safety issues for everyone in Central Texas. I should note the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority is doing a fantastic job with the several projects that it has underway, but we need to give them and all other governmental entities with transportation responsibilities a clear view of our expectation that the roadway package approved by Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO) for inclusion in the Transportation Improvement Plan in 2007 should be timely constructed. Additionally, we need to expedite long term solutions for IH-35. We must continue to advocate at the state and federal levels for additional funding options. We have doubled our budget allocation for transportation advocacy in Opportunity 3.0.
Opportunity 3.0 is planned to run from 2014 to 2018. A lot can change between now and then, of course, but what do you hope Austin looks like by the time this latest iteration runs its course?
Opportunity Austin 3.0 will be the third five year plan the Chamber has executed. These five year iterations have worked extremely well for our purposes to date. However, we have also done mid-course review in each of the previous plans and made corrections as needed. We will do the same in Opportunity Austin 3.0. Having said that, we hope that this initiative will allow the continued diversification of our economy. We will achieve better sustainability through diversification. We will hope to attract another 150 primary employers while retaining and growing our existing employers. We will hope to create an additional 103,000 jobs and $7.0 Billion in new payroll. We hope to increase the average annual wage rate by $3,568, per capita income by $2,412 and the educational attainment for bachelor’s degrees or higher by 1.3 percent—all over and above the current trend lines. But we also hope to reduce the poverty and child poverty rates by 6.2 percent and 7.0 percent, respectively. [We hope to lower] the Congestion Index by 0.12 percent and the number of drivers who drive alone by 2.9 percent. Simply stated, we want to continue to create jobs for families and return for taxpayers while recruiting the very best corporate citizens to Central Texas. We are playing on a global stage.
About this series: Statesman Sunday Interview
There are many interesting and insightful people in the Central Texas business community. On Sundays, the American-Statesman business team brings you in-depth interviews with some of them, focusing on topics that matter to our community. To nominate someone for the Statesman Sunday Interview, email Statesman business editor Barry Harrell at firstname.lastname@example.org.