“Keep Austin Weird,” “Don’t Sell Out” and other xenophobias make Austin people want to horde our little Central Texas treasure.   Allow me to ramble a bit about economic development, the Arts, and tourism.Austin has again and again proven that it has difficulty with growth and expansion.  For example, our major roads seem to make no sense and are constantly congested at the worst times in the worst places, far disproportionately to our population size.  Light Rail (and by extension, a badly needed commuter rail from North Austin and suburbs) was struck down by the Pickup and SUV bearers that drive the 1/2 mile to their local HEB to pick up a gallon of milk (and I freely admit I’m guilty of such laziness).

Public transportation? Bah.  It’s not as bad as everyone says, but it’s not as good as it could be… that’s because, like all of Texas, Austin suffers from city sprawl.  Furthermore, there really isn’t that compelling of a reason for people to “go into the city” for shopping/entertainment/etc. (besides the quirky little spots here and there).  4th-7th streets, on any given night, feel alive… South Congress, is the poor man’s version (but not that poor, mind you).  But it’s the party crowd, and not the families.  North Congress, near the Capitol building (i.e. the Paramount, Driskell, etc) serves a different crowd; upscale, for sure, but it doesn’t feel… sustainable.

“Live Music Capital” eh?  Sure, if you like smoky bars or being scared by the preponderance of Confederate-flag-bearing, serious-cowboy-hat-wearing, line-dancing populus.  There are gems, of course, but they also feel underground and not sustainable.

I took a visitor to our version of an Art Museum (i.e. the “legitimate” one on Congress… not the myriad of individual, uncomfortable, folk-art studio spaces… which I love, incidentally (covering my bases for the future, mind you)).

Her comment was that the museum was “sad.”

She’s right.

Where do the Arts stand in Austin?  There was a deep article in last week’s Chronicle about how money and Austin arts interplay in this current economy.  I think the artists and their organizations make valliant efforts, really I do.  The article’s author makes an argument that its dangerous to turn to pump money in the arts to help “Save the Economy.”  Rather, the view should be that the Arts are both a contributor and a symptom of a healthy, vibrant community.  We have tons of really creative people in this town.  Nonetheless, there’s a second-rate, off-off-off-off-Broadway feel to what happens in our “legitimate and sanctioned Arts.”

So every once in a while, people cook up ideas to urbanize central and downtown Austin.  (I should point out the gradual gentrification of East Austin, particularly on MLK).

I like the idea of Austin infusing some specific economic development in our most urban of spaces.   I want “going into the city” to mean more than just going to Logan’s to get drunk with buddies or to see the latest avant garde film festival at the Alamo Drafthouse (although with their opening up yet another location not more than a few miles from me, there’s less incentive to deal with the PARKING… Remember?  There is no rail or adequate buses to save me a 45 minute trip in the car).

I want to “go into the city” to hang out, and meet friends who have apartments there (because they are affordable), window shop, eat good food, and take in some of the Arts.   And I want to do that without having to step over some college students’ vomit or deal with the Keep Austin Weird pretense.

BUT A CASINO?!??

Today some money slingers proposed a $440 million renovation to Downtown Austin (on Waller Creek).  It includes some stuff they are calling “Artists lofts,” “Dining & Retail,” and an ampitheater on town lake (which, I’ve been told would have a stage surrounded by water).  In the second phase It would include some hotel space and even more retail space across from the Convention Center.

Oh, yeah… the centerpiece would be a casino.

I’m torn on this one, big time.  On the one hand, it would represent a true infusion of money in this town; estimates say $200 Million of profit a year (taxed for local schools, mind you) and 2700 jobs.  The center would give another reason “to go into the city.”  They would fold in the Waller Creek Tunnel flood-control project (which has been stagnating now, for a while).

The bad?  It’s a casino.  It can be done tastfully, sure, but throw “Keep Austin Weird” out the window.  It would attact tons of tourists (assuming, of course, that Houston and Dallas wouldn’t follow suit and do it better… and they would follow suit, you better believe it) to a small area of downtown… Being in and moving around downtown, without light rail and public transportation mind you, is a nightmare NOW… can you imagine 7000-10000 extra people a day in the area?!??

Now here’s the rub: with my long term robot-show ideas, having a resident show in a people-dense area is icing on cake, not to mention a cash cow.

The truth is, it’s going to be a long and hard battle for these folks:

  1. The Texas Constitution has to change to allow Casinos outside of Indian reservations (like the Tigua “Indians” in El Paso… One of my friends insists that the Tiguas are just Mexicans, which is technically true… but that’s a digression. It’s important to note that that very poor area that I visited on school trips (to see the ladies bake Indian Bread) is now OOZING with prosperity… the casino, itself, is gorgeous, and there’s a lot of money flowing around the tribe.)  This would make Texas the only other state besides Nevada that would allow non-Indian, dry land casinos (the riverboat thing, by the way, is funny to me… Mike and I went to a casino in New Oreleans that was “on a riverboat.”  The thing was just a building, shaped like a boat, cemented onto a riverbed.) To pass an ammendment, first the Legistlature would need to agree to the chance, and then the Texas voters would take a stab at it.
  2. Austin voters would need to approve the Casino, next.  This means that even if Texas allows casinos, Austinites (who I predict would be violently against this) would have to approve a development locally.  In the meantime, Dallas and Houston would have a far easier time getting their casinos built, and Austin starts to sufficate as the bigger cities leech away money from our area.
  3. City Council has to approve the entire development package (i.e. nitpick over the details of proposal).  I cite historical City Council shenanigans for why this is a roadblock, here.

Here’s a link to an ABJ story: link