How Austin Became “The Human Capital”

Image credit: Flickr Contributor Philip Kromer

Establishing an effective city brand — one that is both inclusive and specific — is a difficult task. But if one city has made it look easy, it’s Austin. From slogans like “Keep Austin Weird” to “The Human Capital,” Austin has managed to attract new talent with its progressive ethos, quirky atmosphere, and country roots. How did the city achieve this reputation? And what challenges lie ahead as it continues to expand?

To answer these questions, we caught up with Drew Scheberle, a Senior Vice President at the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. On June 6, Scheberle will participate in a panel discussion on talent attraction at City Nation Place Americas, a two-day conference co-hosted by the NYUSPS Urban Lab at the Schack Institute of Real Estate.

The nature of Austin’s economy is changing rapidly. What is your strategy for branding a city in a constant state of flux?

When the Austin region started its first economic development strategy in 2004, we were focused on talking with industries like pharmaceuticals or semiconductors. Today, with convergence, we are focused on concepts: innovation in clean energy, advanced manufacturing, education technology, and big data. No future-focused industry is standing still.

On its website, the chamber describes Austin as a city that “defies stereotypes” with its “progressive and fiercely entrepreneurial” environment. How do you market a city as progressive when its neighboring areas do not share the same ethos?

Image credit: Flickr Contributor Earl McGehee

Those may be fighting words. Since the state’s founding, Austin has been in the midst of the Texas Hill Country counter-culture. For decades, our counties were full of German and Czech free-thinkers focused on freedom, logic, hard work, bootstrapping, powerful music, and great beer. Austin and the Hill Country were the Republicans and pro-unionists during the Civil War and beyond. We have been the home of a national research university, the home of Lyndon Johnson’s economic nationalism, and of a core belief that we don’t move ahead through subtraction. While every family has its disagreements, when you live on six inches of topsoil, you have to be pragmatic.

Many cities today are heavily focused on capturing millennial talent. And yet Austin already has the second-highest share of millennials among large metros in the U.S. Moving forward, what other populations or demographics are you looking to attract?

The Austin region needs more STEM college graduates willing to take risks and follow their passion. We don’t have a local-serving university and no region has enough well-rounded graduates who can program, design, and create successful businesses. And more wealthy early stage investors is always nice.

Austin is known as a successful incubator of small businesses. How is the city marketing itself to attract larger companies with a more widespread economic impact?

The Chamber through Opportunity Austin is marketing the Austin region as the Human Capital. We are approaching companies in target industries and selling the value proposition: Texas regulation and taxes and Austin talent, innovation, and work-life balance. The State partners with local communities to attract large capital investments through the Texas Economic Competitiveness Act (Chapter 313), high paying jobs through the Texas Enterprise (deal-closing) Fund, and large redevelopment through the Texas Enterprise Zone. We don’t promise to offer the biggest cash package. We offer a place where their company will fit in the Austin region.

“A brand has to be true to the experience of those who live and visit it. Twenty percent of our residents were born in a different country.”

Tell us how the chamber arrived at the tagline, “You’ll fit right in.” What are some strategies for developing an effective city brand?

Well, we really love Austin: The Human Capital. We have a lot of folks who think our tagline is Keep Austin Weird. But regardless, a brand has to be true to the experience of those who live and visit it. Twenty percent of our residents were born in a different country. One-third of our public school students have families who speak a different language at home. There is no “gay part” of Austin. We have 110,000 veterans. We built a statue to Willie Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughn. There’s not a stuffy pecking order to the business community. People say howdy whether they know you and we don’t honk. People who visit here get all three taglines. That’s why SXSW, F1, Austin City Limits, and visiting your Austin-based satellite office are so critical to understanding Austin.

Austin has often positioned itself as a cost-effective alternative to major cities like San Jose or Los Angeles. But, in recent years, the metro’s housing prices have risen dramatically. How is the chamber making sure that Austin is still seen as an affordable destination?

Image credit: Flickr Contributor Andreas Kambanis

During the global recession, Austin still experienced net in-migration. However, a credit crunch meant our region fell behind the housing supply curve. Prices rose. Compound that with a poorly functioning — though improving — City of Austin permitting department and an outdated land use code. City real estate prices rose. Because regional communities had different municipal politics, housing supply outside Austin has rapidly expanded in the last few years, somewhat mitigating price increase — especially for non-single family dwellings.

The Chamber is banking on a non-traditional partnership through Evolve — a Coalition between business, environmental, social justice, and urbanist organizations — to lobby the Austin City Council adopt CodeNext. While we have months to go, our goal is for CodeNext to serve as the land use code that plans for the growth Austin expects, expands entitlement by right, and accelerates administration of permitting. Politics are hard and it’s not a spectator sport.

The Austin Chamber sits at the forefront of talent attraction. What is your advice for other cities looking to grow their talent base?

I have a lot of thoughts that are much better heard than seen. But they start with ensuring your middle and upper middle class families don’t leave your urban public schools, that expectations rise, and that your public higher education must accelerate their rate of change.

Drew Scheberle is the Senior Vice President of Policy, Advocacy, Mobility, and Talent at the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, where has has worked since 2005. Previously, he was the Director of Outreach for the Texas Business & Education Coalition.