Spirit of East Austin forum addresses economic inequity in city


Small groups scribbled onto Post-It notes and stuck them onto boards as they discussed and offered answers to one main question: How can Austin overcome a past built on inequity — in which a “negro district” was created east of Interstate 35 — and ensure the city’s newfound prosperity is shared by all, east and west?

Some notes read: “Strong middle class is needed for strong Austin.” “Nothing is more important than stopping the increase in property taxes.” “Black people still feel discrimination. We need to fix this. We are all equal.”

Such sticky-note musings were part of the Spirit of East Austin event that drew about 450 people Saturday to the Travis County Exposition Center, including Austin-area residents, politicians, city and county staff and political candidates.

City Manager Marc Ott, one of several speakers who kicked off the event, recalled the reaction when he brought up “the hardest demographic line that I have seen” when meeting with groups in Austin after first starting his job about eight years ago.

“When I said that to folks, most of the time, almost every case, the people around me didn’t look like me,” he said. “When I said that, do you know what happened, what I saw? I saw expressions on their faces change. You know what I mean by that. They quickly found a way to change the subject.”

Mayor Steve Adler said that, by the end of the year, the goal should be to identify and start working on three to five “substantial, material, achievable big goals or projects that will move the needle and forever change the direction of our city’s eastern crescent.”

Toni Rayner, who lives near U.S. 183, said the city should consider writing a plan that guides future development in eastern Austin, similar to the Imagine Austin plan. At other city events she’s attended, such as those held for the Imagine Austin plan, Rayner said she felt like her input would be thrown in the trash afterward.

“This feels different. This feels like a sincere wish for connection and communication,” said Rayner, who participated in a small group conversation that focused on housing and affordability.

Darin Kirschner, who lives in Kyle, was drawn to a small group conversation about transportation. He outlined the headache his son faces just to get to his classes at Austin Community College: start at the downtown campus, take a bus south and transfer to another line to get to a second campus, sometimes arriving late for class after two hours of traveling.

If Capital Metro had lines that connected the community college campuses, not only would it be easier on Kirschner’s son — it would also make higher education more visible to the bus-riding population, he said.

“Austin has all the parts and is not using any of them,” Kirschner said.

Reyes Rodriguez, who lives in the Springdale-Airport neighborhood, said he was troubled by the long speeches and “name-dropping” by city and county officials at the start of the event. He thought Saturday’s forum was supposed to be about those leaders listening to the community, Rodriguez said.

“Instead they spoke, and we listened,” Rodriguez said. He would have preferred the event include a format similar to citizens communications during City Council meetings, during which some residents get a chance to address the whole room.

As people trickled out of the expo center, city Chief Innovation Officer Kerry O’Connor was taking pictures of the sticky-note-filled boards with an app from 3M.

O’Connor is coordinating a group of volunteers who will analyze the data collected with the app and present their findings to local leaders and the public. The information will also be posted online so anyone can dive into the data, O’Connor said.

The Spirit of East Austin forum grew out of the City Council’s deliberations on a proposal to build two luxury golf courses on city-owned parkland at Walter E. Long Metropolitan Park, which some residents supported because they felt the development would bring much-needed jobs and other amenities to the eastern part of the city.

In May, the council tabled the golf course issue to take a broader look at economic development in eastern Austin.



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