The Price of Our Voice

For more than 15 years the AIBA has listened to its members and voiced their concerns at City Hall. At times we have proposed local policies that could help create a more thriving local business community or to relieve a particularly painful part of doing business. At times we’ve had to react to something the City Council has proposed. More often we’ve spoken to illuminate issues troubling to local business.

Throughout the years we have always advocated for and fought for local business. Until recently this has been a wonderful process of building lasting relationships, of debating the issues of the day, of being heard and considering the perspective of others in our community. Sometimes we’ve had to agree to disagree but ending with respect and a handshake. Local business was never viewed as the enemy—until now.

The City of Austin has recently cancelled $60,000 in contracts with AIBA. These are longstanding contracts that have served both entities well. These cancellations all came within a month of publicly announcing our support of Unconventional Austin’s Proposition B—and with no explanation.

The cancellations were no coincidence. They were punishment for voicing support for something contrary to the City Council’s desire to expand the Convention Center without permitting the public to vote. The AIBA, a local nonprofit and the local business community it represents is being punished for expressing the views of its members. That is not OK.

We are advocating for the public to have a vote on Convention Center expansion and to spend a small amount of Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) to promote local business to tourists. We’ve voted on every Convention Center expansion in the past and this one should be no different. However you might choose to vote on expansion, we just want you to have that opportunity.

Tourists who come to Austin are looking for what’s unique and different from where they live. They are looking to experience a different culture. Local business provides a fabulous expression of our local culture from clubs and restaurants to local shops. It is entirely appropriate that the city should promote our locals. It is also appropriate that as an organization of locally owned businesses, the AIBA should spotlight local businesses to benefit their own business and our local economy. It’s really that simple.

We are not so large that $60,000 doesn’t matter. It does. I have spent hours and hours looking at what services and programs we do for you that could be cut. But there is no fat here. So I’m asking you to step up and support the only organization in Austin dedicated to supporting you, our local businesses.

If you are already a member, consider a higher membership level or becoming a sponsor or partner. If you are not yet a member, join us at www.ibuyaustin.com/join. The City has taken your funding, but don’t let them damage our community. I can be reached anytime at rebecca@ibuyaustin.com or 512-441-2123.

AIBA Proposes A Better Process

Austin politics today are often unnecessarily divisive and destructive. Our community faces challenges in dealing with employer-employee issues such as paid sick leave, livable wages, and predictive scheduling. We have a great opportunity to come together to address these issues and find solutions. We are a smart, creative city. We can find solutions to even the most difficult problems—if we work collectively and respectfully. We need A Better Process.

Local businesses are a crucial part of our community. Entrepreneurs with the vision and drive to create small local businesses exemplify the hopes and dreams of everyone who wants to control their economic destiny. Their employees are part of their team, some consider them family. Local business owners care for their team in every way they can. We’re stewards of culture and commerce.

Cooperation will achieve the best results

Last year, AIBA formed a Better Process Committee tasked with researching other cities and states to find better processes to achieve our shared community goals. What we found led us to create a proposal for a better process to address employer-employee issues.

First, we propose a local study of each issue to identify the full scope of the problems. Accurate data and understanding the scope of a problem will lead to better, more targeted, solutions that help those who need it the most and won’t give state lawmakers cause to deprive us of local control.

The second step is to convene a Workplace Task Force of organizations representing all segments of business and employee organizations. This task force would be charged with reviewing the study of each problem and finding solutions to recommend to the City Council.

The third step is to take the time to do an impact study of any proposed policies. The speed of enacting the paid sick leave ordinance created an ordinance fraught with unintended consequences and left some feeling excluded.

Good government governs in the best interest of all the people, not just one group. Local policy should not provide benefits for one segment by punishing another. By working collectively, other communities have found ways to address their issues that worked for everyone. AIBA is proposing that Austin do the same. We are asking the Austin City Council to adopt A Better Process.

2019 Independent Business Survey Results

This was originally published by the Institute for Local Self Reliance (ILSR). AIBA members participated in the study.

The results of the 2019 Independent Business Survey from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance demonstrate the strength and resiliency of small, independent businesses. They also speak to the forces independents see as significant threats and roadblocks to their businesses: a playing field made uneven by policies that favor their bigger competitors, highly concentrated markets for key supplies and services, and difficulty securing capital, among other barriers.

As we have documented in previous surveys, independent businesses have proven nimble during a period of dramatic shifts in technology and consumer habits. Much of their resilience can be traced to the distinct benefits they provide to their customers, industries, and communities.

Yet, despite these competitive advantages and their broader importance to the U.S. political economy, independent businesses are under threat and declining in most industries. The findings of our 2019 Independent Business Survey suggest that the problem isn’t changing technology or consumer habits. Instead, independent business owners say they are often competing on a unlevel playing field. Many public policy decisions in recent years have fueled market concentration and favored their big competitors….READ MORE.

Unconventional Austin Turns in Petitions

AIBA has endorsed the petition created by Unconventional Austin to require a vote on the expansion of the Convention Center and to reallocate some of the Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) revenue to support music, arts, parks and local businesses (Read more about our support). The issue at had is not whether to expand the Convention Center or not, but rather should the public have a vote on expansion and should the HOT revenue be allocated in a different way. The distribution of Hot revenue to support the things tourists really come here for is more in alignment with other cities in Texas.  Whether you are for or against expansion, you should have the right to vote.

Bill Bunch, director of SOS Alliance, met supporters at City Hall today to submit 30,000 signatures to place this issue on the November ballot.

Now work begins to educate people and to get out the vote. Unconventional AUstin has post cards and posters. If you would like some of these for your business, please let me know, rebecca@ibuyaustin.com.

Convention Center Opinions and Facts

I wrote a blog last month about the petition to call for a public vote on expansion of the Convention Center and how the Hotel Occupancy Funds (HOT) revenue might be allocated. AIBA has endorsed the petition. For more information on this, see www.unconventionalaustin.org. The petition is not calling for an expansion or not, it is calling for a vote on the issue.

In that blog (Expand the Convention Center? The Choice Should Be Yours), I also state my opinion. My opinion was formed from facts I learned at the Visitor Impact Task Force. I shared this information because part of my job as Executive Director of AIBA is to inform our members of issues that might affect them. I clearly stated that is was my opinion.

Council member Flannigan wrote a blog opposing my opinion which he is certainly entitled to do. However his blog reduced the debate to references to Game of Thrones and referring to me as a dragon and a queen who might be controlled by dark money. Frankly, I find it appalling that an Austin City Council Member resorts to calling me names on Facebook because my opinion differs from his. I’ve never seen Game of Thrones so some of the inference is lost on me. But it’s a sad state of affairs when social media name calling takes the place of civil dialogue.

But he did something else. He called out the validity of my factual statements which brings my integrity into question. I must apologize to my readers. I should have sourced my statements in the first blog and I did not do so. I am sourcing them here.

When I learned that the Convention Center produces only 4% of Austin’s tourists but garners more than 70% of all public tourism funding, I was left scratching my head.
Actually I’m wrong here. It’s worse than I stated. In Visit Austin’s Visit Austin Marketing Plan for 2017/2018, page 7 shows that 27.4 million people visited Austin in 2017. In the recent UT Study commissioned by the City of Austin, Frameworks for Placemaking, Alternative Futures for the Austin Convention District, page 260 states that the total estimated attendance at the Convention Center was 546,385. Simple math tells us that’s 1.99%. Let’s just call it 2%. The 4% came from hotel rooms, not visitors. If you include hotel rooms booked by conventions as well as estimated bookings by other sources (hotels.com and other travel services), the Convention Center is responsible for about 4% of booked hotel rooms annually. This is included in Visit Austin Presentation to Tourist Commission, March 18, 2019.

When I learned that SXSW alone represents 30% of the 4%, I started to ask questions.
Visit Austin reported 150,000 attendance for SXSW. SXSW reported registered attendees (those utilizing the Convention Center) were 79,906 including speakers and media. I can’t account for the difference. Both are for 2017, the last year all data is available for. 150,000 is 29% and 79,906 is 14.6% of 546,385.

When I learned that Visit Austin wants to expand the Convention Center to the (now estimated) $1.2 Billion, I started calculating return on investment.
Taking the newest information above, $1.2 Billion (and you know it always costs more than the original estimate) buys us a Visit Austin projected baseline increase of 38% or 200,000 additional attendees per year. This is also from City of Austin, Frameworks for Placemaking, Alternative Futures for the Austin Convention District, Executive Summary, page VI. My question stands. It seems like we could bring in so many more visitors with investing in other local venues.

I encourage you to sign the petition (see UnconventionalAustin.org) so that we may all have a vote. The Austin community voted on the Convention Center when the city proposed putting it at Auditorium Shores and we voted again on the last expansion. Why are our leaders so against a vote this time?

I also encourage you to educate yourself through UnconventionalAustin.org and other sources so that, if given the opportunity, you may cast an educated vote.

Expand the Convention Center? The Choice Should Be Yours

More than a year ago AIBA became involved with the Tourism Task Force in working to reallocate some of the Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) to promoting local business to tourists. After all, we are a huge attraction to tourists. Tourists don’t come here to experience what they have at home. They come here to experience the flavor of our local culture. And local business is one of the greatest expressions of that local flavor. Unfortunately, we weren’t successful.

I didn’t start out being against expansion of the Convention Center. I really didn’t know enough to be for or against it. But what I learned sitting in hours and hours of meetings and presentations enlightened me and left me with an opinion—a very strong opinion.

When I learned that the Convention Center produces only 4% of Austin’s tourists but garners more than 70% of all public tourism finding, I was left scratching my head. When I learned that SXSW alone represents 30% of the 4%, I started to ask questions. When I learned that Visit Austin wants to expand the Convention Center to the (now estimated) $1.2 Billion, I started calculating return on investment. It didn’t take long for me to realize this makes no sense. The convention industry is flat. Even if the Convention Center saw a 50% increase in business (extremely unlikely, when did you last see a 50% increase in business?), that’s only a 2% increase in visitors. Cultural tourism (that’s us local businesses) is what’s growing.

All this led me to ask “If Austin has $1.2 Billion to invest in attracting tourists, how could that money be better spent?” If 96% of our visitors come for reasons other than an event at the Convention Center, what could we do to attract more? What could we do that could also benefit Austinites too? More arts venues? Taking care of our parks? Supporting the music community that we all love 365? Bring more tourists into local businesses so that money could circulate all over Austin? Enhance something in every part of town instead of just downtown? The possibilities are almost endless. And this is where I landed. Squarely against expansion of the Convention Center. It doesn’t make sense on any level.

But this isn’t my decision. Right now, it’s not yours either. The HOT revenue is a community asset that should be treated as such. AIBA has members who would like to see the Convention Center expanded. They believe this could be good for their business. I can respect that. But as a community asset, I believe it should be up to us, all of us, how it is allocated. While I may be against expansion, out of respect for all our members AIBA is not taking a position on expansion. My role here is educational advocacy—informing you of the facts so you can make your own decisions.

However we are partnering with SOS Alliance and others to give you the vote. We’re doing this through a petition to have a ballot measure added to call for public votes when spending billions of your dollars. In the coming weeks you’ll be hearing more from us about the petition. To be clear, the petition isn’t to stop expansion of the Convention Center but to let the public decide. I hope you can all get behind this choice.

For now, read more information on this at www.unconventionalaustin.org. It’s still under construction but all the basics are there. If you have any questions or just want to talk about this, please don’t hesitate to contact me at rebecca@ibuyaustin.com.

AIBA is endorsing the petition to allow the public to vote on Convention Center expansion, not advocating on the expansion itself. The opinion expressed in this blog is mine alone and not necessarily that of AIBA, our partners or sponsors.