Today I have seen posts on social media from my friends who are economic developers in Asheville and the Triangle who are in Austin, Texas for the best conference of the year. (Yes, I am very jealous!)
The South by Southwest (SxSW) festival is actually three different events that overlap with a focus on the Interactive, Film and Music industries. (Think Hopscotch on muscle head steroids!)
I have seen the impressive impact that this festival has on the Austin economy such as 18,000 attendees with a $24 million impact through hotel rooms, food and cold adult beverage sales, cowboy boots sales and such.
The economic developers from Raleigh and Asheville are in Austin to meet US and international technology companies and learn about their expansion plans with the hope to create jobs in North Carolina.
But I have a different ask for these economic developers: Please learn and steal something from the culture of Austin, and bring that back to North Carolina too.
Austin is the place that claims “Keep Austin Weird” and battles Nashville for the “Live Music Capital” title.
Austin chose to focus on landing a Formula One Race that helped to attract an upscale global fan base.
Austin does not have professional basketball, football, hockey or non – college sports besides the Minor League Baseball team in the suburb of Round Rock, where Dell Computers is headquartered.
You don’t have to plan when to visit Austin as you can always find a good time to balance your work life. Austin has the live, work and play balance at a greater city wide level than just the American Tobacco Campus.
Both Asheville and Raleigh areas have things that Austin would love to have. Austin and all of Texas would love to have the entrepreneur infrastructure of CED and the success in the life sciences industry in RTP. The Triangle also has the unique focus of the basketball universe when UNC and Duke play, especially when the game is in Durham. Austin drinks Texas brewed Shiner Bock beer, but would probably love to recruit the new breweries coming to Asheville from the makers of Fat Tire (New Belgium) and Sierra Nevada.
So I understand our strengths and I like to live here in North Carolina, but there is room for improvement in RTP and beyond. I know the people at the RTP Foundation are working on creating additional options to MEZ as the only social gathering place and decent restaurant in a 50 year old research park.
Our older political and economic development leaders have always made the business and industry competitive analysis of RTP to Silicon Valley and Boston for the IT and life sciences jobs. Quality of life is often quoted but quality of place is equally important.
I don’t want to live in Silicon Valley again (one summer) and I am as far north as I plan to live. Boston is cold and expensive and if you watch a Pawtucket RedSox in Durham or a Bruins game vs the Hurricanes, Boston people are migrating here.
Learning from Austin
Keep in mind four of the largest and fastest growing economies in US are based in Texas. Sure Dallas, Houston, San Antonio are growing, but Austin has what the Gen X and Gen Y or Millennials want. And yes, politicians and the like will be very quick to point out the economic advantages of Texas with the lack of state income taxes.
Raleigh and Asheville have a lot to learn from Austin. Austin is also state capital with a large college campus. Austin is also very laid back and the liberal “blueberry in the tomato soup”, much like Asheville in western North Carolina. Sixth Street and Red River are the entertainment hubs of the city and easily walkable for a variety of options. Texas and Austin in particular is doing a great job of growing an entrepreneurial culture and doing a better job of retaining serial entrepreneurs and helping them become angel and venture capital investors through tax policy.
Austin and Sixth Street is unique and “South By”, as it is called by the locals, is very unique in the landscape of bland technology conferences. I have been to six SxSW Conferences between my time in Charlotte and in Asheville. I fell in love with Austin and wanted to help Asheville evolve into a place that supported business and a laid back lifestyle by recruiting technology companies that would enjoy the pace and beauty of the mountains.
Austin to Asheville
I made a real effort to bring Austin to Asheville. I started by trying to promote Asheville as a place to bring your technology company as part of the SxSW Interactive Conference. AdvantageWest soon after began to promote the film industry and sponsored the awards event section at the Film Conference. (Parts of the Jennifer Lawrence led Hunger Games movie was filmed in western North Carolina.)
I brought Kirk Watson, former mayor of Austin and consultant with Richard Florida (Rise of the Creative Class), to Asheville for a speech at an AdvantageWest Annual Meeting and the Tri State Regional Summit event with people from Eastern Tennessee and Southwestern Virginia. Mr. Watson is now a Texas State Senator with higher ambitions, but much like as is often said about former NC Governor Jim Hunt, he will always be the Mayor of Austin. Mr. Watson is leading the push to build a new medical school in Austin and the state is catching up in life sciences industry.
Pam Lewis of VentureAsheville and her team have found even more success by taking Asheville to Austin including something most economic developers would NEVER dream of doing. She brought a reporter from the local Citizen-Times newspaper. Her team invited the wonderful people she met in Austin to give speeches in Asheville and learn how Asheville can become a balanced economy in addition to the strong tourism economy. She has also added Startup Weekend, Ignite and TED events to the Asheville entrepreneur culture.
PLEASE visit Austin, TX, especially during the SxSW festival, and then work with me and others in the Creative Class to make something unique happen here in North Carolina.
I am not just exposing a problem, but I have been part of the solution since I moved to North Carolina in 1996.
Editor’s note: Jim Roberts was involved in starting technology entrepreneur bootcamps in Charlotte in 2000, started the entrepreneurial council and angel investor network in Asheville and has worked for NC Department of Commerce and Center of Innovation for NanoBiotechnology since moving to the Triangle in 2008. Jim is founder of RedSpire Connections, a consulting firm for business development, lead generation, marketing and a leader of industry related events. Jim can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Jim on Twitter: @redspireusnc