Boom, Not a Bust
For years, the Capital Region has wanted to be Austin, Texas,
the spunky little capital city with a major tech boom.
But how willing are we to commit to avoiding Austin’s mistakes?
That’s the open question being asked by “High-Tech Growth
and Community Well-Being: Lessons Learned from Austin, Texas”
(http://cwig.albany.edu/Austincasestudy.htm). The report is
a result of interviews with many of Austin’s big movers and
shakers during its tech boom and after, from CEOs to government
officials, and was published by the Nonprofit Executive Roundtable,
a project of the University at Albany’s Rockefeller College.
Its message is dramatic. Basically, the boom left so many
people behind that it shot itself in the foot. The rapid population
influx and booming economy drove up the cost of living. Little
to no effort was put into helping people upgrade their skills
for the new high-tech jobs. And people who understood the
needs of the poor and disadvantaged were not included in any
of the major planning efforts.
As a result, racial disparities increased, the poverty level
stayed high despite an increase in average wages, and low-wage
earners had serious trouble finding affordable housing. At
least one semiconductor company decided to expand outside
the state because they were “limited by the availability of
labor.” Looking back, that company’s CFO told researchers
that his company had been “silly” and limited its profits
by not “properly invest[ing] in the human capital.”
Nonprofits—whether in Austin or the Capital Region—not only
have to deal with the effects on the region’s more vulnerable
populations of a rapid increase in cost of living; they are
also the ones with the knowledge and skills in workforce development,
affordable housing management and community planning that
are needed to avoid the problems Austin faced.
Austin’s experience tells us loud and clear that these groups
should not just be allowed at the table because it’s
the right thing to do. They should be invited, solicited for
their input, specialized knowledge and connections.
The people who are fighting for a community benefits agreement
with the Albany Convention Center (and those who have at least
floated the idea for the Luther Forest Tech Park) should not
be having to fight to have a CBA exist. Much of what they
are asking for should be assumed to be part of these projects,
and essential to the project’s long-term success. The neighborhood
activists and nonprofit leaders should be hammering out the
how, not the if.
This is big stuff.
Now, this report came out last May. But it’s now, as the authors
determinedly shop it around, that we’re going to see if its
message takes. A report is worth nothing but a grant to its
authors until someone changes their way of doing something
based on it.
Judith Saidel, founder of the Nonprofit Executive Roundtable
and a co-author of the report, is optimistic. The report has
gotten universally enthusiastic response, she says (at least
in places where they have been invited to present it), and
new connections are already being forged in response. The
roundtable has a seed grant from the Bender Foundation to
start a Tech Valley Civic Forum to work on implementing its
lessons. Chambers of commerce from Albany, Schenectady, and
Southern Saratoga County have expressed interest, as has the
Tech Valley Chamber Coalition, and groups of consultants and
nonprofits. In every group that listens to the presentation,
“we can see other connected audiences right behind them,”
Of course, the co-authors are just starting to get to government
officials, and have not yet reached out to state and federal
representatives like Joe Bruno and John Sweeney. In a world
where economic development efforts tend to involve massive
public subsidy, the commitment of folks like these will make
or break the effort.
Meanwhile, many of the nonprofits on the front lines of housing
and business development are trying to take the report to
heart, even while they assume they may be the only ones who
do so. At a meeting on Sept. 13, representatives from housing
and financial nonprofits serving low-income folks around the
region met on to follow up on what they’d heard in a presentation
of the report.
They expressed frustration at still feeling like the Nonprofit
Business Council of the Tech Valley Chamber Coalition was
mostly involved in “soft” projects like connecting volunteers
with groups, and not brought into the heart of economic development
planning. They shook their heads at the idea that turf wars
and ugly politics could be set aside to make this massive
a change in the way business is done. Halfway through the
meeting they were already talking about needing to create
a new table because they didn’t expect to sit at the existing
one. They sounded tired.
conventional way of doing economic development has a very
long history,” acknowledges Saidel. “It will take a sustained
effort to change it.” She mentions an additional interview
she did since the report with Pike Powers, the chair of the
Texas Techonology Initiative, who played a central role in
the project that launched Austin’s boom. “He emphasized the
necessity of remembering how difficult these changes are,”
reports Saidel. “This region does not have a stellar history
of regional and inclusive planning. I think everyone would
acknowledge that. There is an urgency to reverse this course.”
Powers’ other major comment to Saidel was that to make such
an effort successful, everyone, especially politicians, need
to leave their egos at the door. How true. How difficult.
But it seems that many of the nonprofits who could contribute
deeply to a regional planning process will need to see some
clear evidence of that before they can trust that they will