I recently joined several colleagues and the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce on a trip to Austin, Texas. Austin is regularly featured on the same “Best Of” lists as the Triangle, and we compete for economic development on a daily basis.
Austin, like the Triangle, is a boomtown. During our visit, there were 28 construction cranes visible downtown. The downtown district contains 7,400 hotel rooms, almost 6,500 more than downtown Raleigh. Austin’s convention business, led by the South-by-Southwest Festival, is second to none. The city has a well-deserved image as a place where entrepreneurs, musicians, artists and other self-starters can enjoy life in a cool town and make a difference.
But Austin also has problems. Because suburban districts are separate, over 70 percent of the children in the Austin Independent School District qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. Austin’s business recruitment effort is often in the position of having to guarantee that the city will assist in recruiting qualified workers from elsewhere to fill jobs, rather than being able to promise that an educated and well-trained workforce is already there.
The economic vitality that is leading to soaring numbers of tech jobs is not necessarily reaching down to lower income levels, while issues of affordability affect those lower levels greatly. Austin’s highway system is overwhelmed, while a recent effort to build a light-rail system was defeated at the ballot box.
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Austin offers Wake County several lessons. First, investment in a community-wide education system is vital to sustaining economic growth. Being able to recruit businesses on the strength of our workforce has been a trump card for the Triangle for years. If we fail to invest in our school system, we risk turning it into a warehouse for poor children. True economic growth brings opportunity for all levels of society.
Second, transportation problems are always more expensive to fix than they are to avoid in the first place. In Austin, earlier leaders believed growth could be controlled by turning down infrastructure investments. The city is now looking at rebuilding a road network on a budget that is insufficient to meet the challenges. We must get out in front of our transit needs before solutions are too expensive to attempt.
Third, the one public resource that cannot be increased is clean water. Austin has a limited supply of drinking water. Our region is blessed with more water than the Southwest could dream of having, but we have to protect it from runoff and pollution. No matter what the General Assembly says, we cannot fix our clean water issues with magical spinning machines.
As we returned from our visit, we flew over the deep green landscape of Wake County. From the air, it is easy to see why this is an increasingly popular destination for young families seeking opportunity and a high quality of life. Like Austin, Wake County offers fertile ground for dreams. But it is up to us to invest in our community to ensure that we continue to offer that opportunity, even as we grow.
John D. Burns
Wake County commissioner
The length limit was waived for a fuller discussion of the issues.