Published in the Austin Business Journal
It’s becoming clear that D.C. will not pass more substantial legislation that is supposed to get small businesses and their employees to the other side of the pandemic. Some businesses will close. Employees who were laid off during the temporary shutdown will not have jobs to return to, assuming they can find a job in their industry at all.
The landscape will be changed forever, not the landscape on the I-35 frontage road between Austin and San Antonio. Those Olive Gardens and Bed, Bath & Beyonds aren’t going anywhere. Most national chains can weather a bad year, even a catastrophic year. That’s the point.
Small, local businesses are not like that. These are vital Austin businesses, the ones that differentiate us from the I-35 frontage road — that put us at the top of national lists and “where to live” articles and bring tourists. They are the businesses that keep us from becoming two cities, one city for the people who live here and one for the people who serve them and teach their kids. Small businesses employ more people per dollar created than larger businesses do and at higher average wages. Good Work Austin businesses advocated for the kinds of benefits, from paid sick leave to a $15 minimum wage, and strict reopening guidelines that make Austin stronger and healthier. All the money that we earn, that our businesses earn, and that our employees earn, stays in Austin. We spend it in Austin. We pay taxes on it to Austin and we don’t get large tax breaks to open here. Instead, we pay the escalating property taxes of our multinational developers as part of our lease agreements, and as all of Travis County is aware those have tripled in some areas since 2015.
This is why, no matter what happens in D.C., regardless of how a state struggling with low oil and gas prices tries to balance budgets (likely cutting social safety nets), now is the time that Austin city leaders must decide if small, locally owned businesses are a part of Austin’s future.
A sliver of good news is that there may be resources that exist to make an impact. There is money sitting idle that is being protected for Austin Convention Center expansion that could be accessed as a combination of grants, loans and forgivable loans. It could be tied to performing jobs with civic benefit like increasing food access or providing space for remote learning and child care. The funds could be used to incentivize the kind of business behavior, such as providing medical benefits and paid sick leave, that keeps Austin healthy. Those dollars could even be replenished, as business returns, through a small fee that could act similarly to the hotel occupancy tax. Hundreds of Austin businesses can be saved and have little impact on future expansion plans. After all, what good is an expanded convention center without Austin restaurants and venues to visit and enjoy?
Understanding the impact of local dollars, a program like the Relief Act at the federal level could support local grants at the community level, and should be a part of any future packages, giving cities and counties the ability and flexibility to target their funding to the businesses who need it most and were left out of previous support.
What we need from city leaders is to be bold and have the backs of our local businesses and the employees that have always broken theirs to serve neighbors and visitors alike. Austin can lead here, focus locally and create a set of priorities that would inform the next decade of policy or we could end up as the biggest rest stop on the way from the Valley to Dallas — which is not a desirable destination for your next convention.