Despite a last-minute flap over cost, Charlottesville and Albemarle are sending staff and elected officials to Austin next month for talks and tours they hope will help city and county replicate some of the Texas city’s economic successes here. But even as details of the trip take shape, some are still concerned it’s a waste of money.
Local travel agent and Charlottesville-Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau board member George Benford came up with the idea for the Austin outing, and said about 20 people are expected to go. Six of them are elected officials and senior planning and development staff from the city and county, and at about $1,550 a head, their participation in the two-night trip will cost taxpayers in both municipalities a total of about $9,000.
So what will they be doing?
A lot of listening, said Benford, whose travel agency will get a commission of $80 for each member of the delegation—not enough to cover the time he’s put into the trip, he said, but he doesn’t mind. The schedule is pretty packed: They fly in Tuesday, February 26, and participate in paneldiscussions from 1 to 5pm. Talks start again at 7:30am Wednesday and go until 5pm, and there are two seminars and a debriefing Thursday before everybody flies home at noon.
There are dinners and visits to music scenes scheduled for the evenings, including a potential behind-the-scenes tour of the set of Austin City Limits, which is filmed next door to the posh W hotel where the delegation is staying—at a special reduced rate of $259 a night, Benford pointed out. But “there’s no free time whatsoever,” he said. “This is not a fun trip.”
Benford has had help in planning from the Richmond Chamber of Commerce which organized a similar trip to Austin last year. The schedule isn’t finalized, but Benford rattled off a list of more than 15 Austinites who had agreed to meet with the delegation, and it’s diverse: the city’s deputy director of economic growth and redevelopment; the music editor for the Austin Chronicle; the dean of the business school at the University of Texas at Austin; the superintendent of the city school system; venture capitalists and angel investors; and many others. They’ll cover a lot of topics, Benford said, but there will be a strong focus on the development of the technology, music, and film industries; energy efficiency; redevelopment; and ways to get government, schools, and private companies working together.
Austin is a decade or more ahead of Charlottesville on a number of economic development fronts, said Benford, and there’s a lot to inspire when it comes to urban planning. There’s the Pecan Street Project, a grant-funded initiative to develop smart-grid technology that officials hope could inform a total overhaul of the way the city delivers electricity, and has given rise to an entire neighborhood of homes with advanced energy technology. There’s busy, beloved Zilker Park, 350 acres of bikeable, walkable waterfront. And there’s Rainey Street, where tiny, shabby bungalows have been renovated into a string of little bars, helping create a thriving street scene and nightlife.
The city has also had some big ideas that have paid off. SXSW—now a $167-million-grossing festival of music, film, and ideas—“started out like Tom Tom,” said Benford.
The Charlottesville City Council unanimously approved the trip in November, and the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors gave it the O.K. shortly before, despite the objections of Supervisor Duane Snow. Some are still unhappy with the use of taxpayer dollars. Albemarle County Board of Supervisors Chair Ann Mallek unsuccessfully tried to push the Board to reverse its support earlier this month after she said she realized too late they’d be paying to send an elected official—Supervisor Ken Boyd—as well as two staffers.
“My initial reaction was ‘Why?’” Mallek said. She participated in a lot of continuing education programs as a teacher, “and I know how difficult it is to carry substantive information home and put it to work.”
She’s also less than starstruck with the destination. For one thing, Austin’s metropolitan area population of more than 1.5 million is about 10 times that of Charlottesville’s. And Mallek said it’s important to note that the Texas city’s big strides in development aren’t seen as good news by everybody. “There are many people in Austin grievously concerned about their rapid growth,” she said.
A far cheaper way to get some insight would have been to head to Richmond and learn about the city secondhand from officials who traveled there last year, she said.
They could, said Benford, but to immerse yourself in a new place with peers is much more valuable, as local officials have found during other planning retreats and city visits.
“It’s sitting down to dinner and talking to somebody next to you and saying, ‘What did you think of that discussion’—that’s where so much of the value comes from,” he said. “If they come back with one idea for, let’s say, sustainable energy, it could save every taxpayer so much money.”
Mallek said she’ll remember that argument when Board members balk at giving money to groups like the Piedmont Council on the Arts, which she said offers a great return on taxpayers’ investment. In the meantime, she’s calling for “a real schoolteacher session” when the travelers return, with serious presentations of what they learned in Austin. “That’s their challenge and their assignment,” she said. “That they’ll make it worth our while.”
Community leaders—including city and county elected officials and staff traveling on the taxpayers’ dime—are headed to Austin next month to see how the city’s successes could inform policy here. They’ll meet a lot of movers and shakers in Texas, but some at home are still not pleased with the plan.