Chamber sets new economic roadmap with Opportunity Austin 4.0

The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday will unveil Opportunity Austin 4.0, the latest iteration of its economic development roadmap and one that seeks to expand on existing efforts to help more Central Texans share in the region’s prosperity.

While the architects of the new version did not call for any surprising new strategic shifts — as its predecessor did with the addition of plans to reduce poverty and increase wages — they did allocate more resources toward efforts to address the region’s major challenges and take advantage of key opportunities.

“It’s taking (Opportunity Austin) 3.0 and putting it on steroids,” said Mike Berman, the chamber’s senior vice president of communications and marketing.

The new plan will transition more resources toward efforts to address transportation and affordability, including ways to develop more regional employment centers around the metro area. But it also envisions a bigger push to capitalize on newer opportunities, such as the innovation district emerging around the Dell Medical School.

And while Opportunity Austin 4.0 includes many outward looking elements — continued robust recruitment efforts, the addition of direct transpacific flights and programs to encourage more foreign direct investment in the Austin — it also includes a broader shift toward investments in local companies, workers and issues.

“We will still have a robust attraction program,” said Gary Farmer, president of Heritage Title and chairman of Opportunity Austin 4.0. “But we think we can really advance the ball by spending more time with our existing companies, both large and small.”

Typically, about 80 percent of the jobs created in a metro area emerge from existing companies, Farmer said. So the new plan envisions more programs that assist local firms and help enhance the region’s business environment as a whole, but especially for startups and growth businesses.

Farmer and his colleagues at Opportunity Austin, the chamber’s economic development affiliate, again laid out an extensive set of goals to measure progress along the way. At the top line, they said they hope to add 161,000 net new jobs by 2023, the last of the five years included in version 4.0.

Other targets include increasing the share of metro area residents with an associate’s degree and boosting the region’s average annual wage to $66,000, which equates to growth of roughly 3 percent a year.

The new plan also sets a target to decrease the Central Texas poverty rate to 9.5 percent from the current 11.7 percent mark, Farmer said.

To get to those numbers, Farmer and his colleagues say they hope to raise $30 million to carry out the range of new programs envisioned in Opportunity Austin 4.0. In 2013, officials raised about $21 million of a targeted $25 million to fund the version 3.0, which runs through the end of next year.

Most of those funds would go to expand various existing initiatives, including the usual recruitment and retention programs typically associated with economic development efforts. But depending on how fully it’s funded — “Go big or go home,” Farmer said with a laugh — the new plan will add a variety of novel new programs as well.

For example, Farmer described one new concept called “Opportunity Studios,” a sort of temporary think tank the chamber could spin up to focus on a particular problem or opportunity, and then wind back down as the issue is resolved.

Aside from those new twists, the Opportunity Austin blueprint still dedicates much of its resources to traditional economic development efforts, such as recruitment and retention. But the new version continues to ratchet up the chamber’s efforts to tackle broader regional challenges as well — including reductions in poverty rates, which dropped by 2 percentage points since version 3.0 went into effect in 2014.

“I think we’ve made progress, but clearly our work is not done,” Farmer said. “We need to focus even more in that area, and we will.”

To help draw that down further, the chamber would expand existing education initiatives to include more support for two-year degrees and similar workforce-training programs.

During the 14 years since the first version of Opportunity Austin went into effect, the chamber has focused primarily on direct high school to college enrollment, and those efforts have helped boost both graduation and matriculation rates.

“Where we have not previously focused — and now will focus — is on that 30 percent that will not go to college,” Farmer said. “If we can get that portion of our young workforce into more productive areas, that will be a real win for us, and we’ll see a lot of those (poverty) numbers start to tumble.”

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