A few weeks ago, a group of residents from Bellevue and the Eastside went on a trip to Austin, Texas. Like field trips we took as kids back in elementary school, the delegation was there to see and learn new ways of doing things, to explore new ideas — and to use that experience to create and renew back home.
Organized by the Bellevue Downtown Association, the BDA Austin Study Tour consisted of more than 50 local community leaders, stakeholders and partners. And what an eclectic group it was. Just about every category possible was represented from Bellevue and the Eastside: Bellevue Mayor Claudia Balducci and Bellevue City Manager Brad Miyake were joined by city councilmembers, staffers and state legislators.
Also in this diverse potpourri were downtown real estate developers and arts, entertainment and theater groups. To add to the mix were progressive and engaged Eastside business and chamber leaderships, principals in the transportation and technology sectors, the financial and medical fields, public utilities and environmentalists.
We were there because we are bound by one common goal: the progressive advancement of Bellevue and the greater Eastside to make it a great place to live, play, work and create. Together, we took a “Boots on the ground” approach to learn about what makes Austin one of the fastest growing and most competitive cities in the nation. We wanted to learn from Austin’s dynamic and innovative best practices, and to educate ourselves on how that diverse community handles the challenges that Austin and the Eastside have in common.
The Texas Legislature meets only once every two years. I asked myself, “How does that state get things done?” Well, I can’t answer for the rest of Texas, but I can tell you that the good folks in Austin get things done with an entrepreneurial “By the Bootstraps” spirit that is a progressive effort to innovate, create, invest and always be moving forward.
With a historic state capitol and university, a vibrant retail and technology zone and a hopping music and entertainment culture, downtown Austin continues to reshape itself through a collaboration of the Downtown Austin Alliance, the city of Austin, the Austin Chamber of Commerce and multiple developers and private, public and nonprofit groups — all partnering toward the work in progress that is preserving and enhancing downtown’s value and vitality. With all that energy, no wonder Austin is such a great tourism and convention venue. And it is not just downtown. With forward thinking land use development, other underutilized or decaying nearby areas are being repurposed as Alliance Innovation Zones that focus on the technology, health and creative arts sectors while centering these zones around a renewed creek and park district. In Austin, they are building it, and business is coming.
Some of my main takeaways from the trip are:
Find our niche. Before all their innovation and progress, Austin’s city leaders have figured out their main strengths and assets. They ascertained what Austin has that no other city in the region or the country can offer. Bellevue, Redmond, Mercer Island, Kirkland, Issaquah/Sammamish and the burgeoning Snoqualmie Valley need to continually ask themselves the same questions: What are our unique strengths? Individually, and as a vital part of an increasingly interrelated East King County micro-region?
Quality of life. Each Eastside city continually needs to ask, ‘What are our needs and priorities? What do we truly value and what do we want to focus on? Business? Retail? Shopping? Technology? Music, theater and arts? Food and dining? Parks and green spaces? To compete for jobs and business, every facet of our cities must strategize towardsways that are supporting the culture, livability and affordability of our downtown corridors and our neighborhood and residential clusters. And that includes transportation and light rail.
The Power of Proximity. The modern work force is motivated to succeed, and needs to work, play and live in close proximity. This collective synergy generates ideas, creative innovation and jobs. To meet that need, successful cities like Austin strive to be urban, pedestrian, integrated, diverse and adaptable.
Integration: To succeed in a competitive global marketplace, our Eastside cities must not only communicate, collaborate and work together, but also brand and market together. Even if one nearby city has something to strategically offer and another city does not, we all still win. When a new business sets up in Redmond, nearby cities, such as Bellevue, Kirkland and Issaquah, benefit. And vice-versa. “A rising tide floats all boats.”
Recruitment: Always outward looking, Austin is on fire with tech jobs. Other business sectors quickly follow. Part of that success is that Austin has an aggressive local, regional and national effort to recruit new business in the retail, technology and arts categories. That means business is moving from other regions in the U.S. to Austin. The Eastside needs to enact a cohesive business recruitment and retention effort before some of our business partners start buying cowboy boots and looking south.
Time well spent: I was truly impressed and energized by Austin’s example of taking destiny in its own hands, and I know my study group companions were as well. Here at home, we need to take Austin’s energy and ideas and put them to use here on the Eastside.
Thanks to the hard-working Bellevue Downtown Association board and staff for making this beneficial trip happen.
William Shaw is publisher of the Bellevue Reporter, Issaquah & Sammamish Reporter, Mercer Island Reporter and Snoqualmie Valley Record.