Wednesday, September 5, 2012

is halifax weird enough? lessons from austin, texas

North, by North-east Coast? What Halifax can learn from Austin, Texas

By Jon Tattrie

Jonny Stevens was staring wide-eyed with delight at the thriving city of Austin, Texas, when he had a revelation: Halifax needs to get weirder.

Austin is weird. That’s not an insult – it’s the city slogan. “Keep Austin Weird.” It boasts a Cathedral of Junk. It has a Graffiti Park. It has a Museum of Natural & Artificial Ephemerata, described as a “treasury of stuff that may exist.” It is an odd place. And for Austin, weird works.

Its South-by-South-West (SXSW) festival started off drawing 700 people for a few songs in 1987, and the city rallied around it. It now draws 200,000 people, including Jonny Stevens, for its bonanza of music, technology and culture.

When Stevens is not being wowed by Austin, he’s organizing the Halifax Pop Explosion. It’s growing by 20 per cent a year, but is still a long way short of SXSW. Stevens thinks Austin can assist Halifax, so he’s flying a city planner from Texas to Nova Scotia to offer us an education in eccentricity.

“We saw what was possible in a city that was a similar size and history to Halifax,” Stevens explains. “We saw some of the great things that were able to happen when a city’s council, government and people got together and made sure they had a cohesive cultural plan for Austin.”

Both are capitals, both are university towns, both are the 13th biggest cities in their countries, and both have undergone awkward growth spurts of suburban sprawl. Austin is a convention centre city; Halifax is building a new centre. While Halifax is crazy for density and smart growth now, Austin did it a decade ago and is reaping the rewards.

When Stevens evangelizes for Austin, it’s not surprising he starts with music.  When Austin City Hall puts you on hold, you listen to local musicians. If you go to council early, you get a free concert. In HRM, you get muzak and a pre-council prayer. When Halifax did spend big-time in live music, it brought Paul McCartney and the Black-Eyed Peas, rather than investing the money on building the local music scene.

Stevens points to details, too: street closures for big events and multiple live-music venues, complete with special loading zones for bands.

“We see the similarities, but we also see where Halifax is falling a little short,” he says. “We are focused on some old debates and some old way of thinking. Wouldn’t life be great in Halifax if we were just a little closer to Austin, Texas?”

A big shift he’d like to see is mental – to take the “No” out of Nova Scotia. Instead of debating street closure endlessly, why not try it out and see what happens? “Have everyone say, ‘Yeah, how can we make something great happen?’” he says. “Let’s make Halifax a little bit weirder. We’ll all have more fun.”

One of Austin’s chief weirdos is Don Pitts. The former Gibson Guitar employee is Austin’s music manager and he’ll divulge his secrets as part of the Pop Explosion’s HPX Digital Conference in October. 

“I’m hoping that we can share some ideas. Kind of share what works for us and what didn’t work for us,” he says. “Austin has really grown a lot in the last six or seven years and the way that we were conducting our business, it was kind of like we were still that very small town, and then we’ve woken up and said woh, we’re now the 13th largest metropolitan city in the United States and we need to start acting like it.”

The first step was to attract more downtown residents. Once densified, the city could grow up, rather than out. “As my grandfather used to say, they’re not going to make any more land. We had to figure out where to put all the people.”

Five years ago, the city skyline was cranes – a sight not unlike Halifax today, with its new library, Kings Wharf in Dartmouth and other developments finally moving forward.

Austin also grew by retaining its university grads, a perpetual challenge for Halifax. Pitts points to past graduates who started Dell Computers. It remains an important company in Austin.

He’s coming to Halifax to learn, too. “We constantly get called and looked upon as, you guys have got it figured out – what’s the secret of your success? We’re kind of scratching our heads, because internally, we’re still trying to figure it out.”
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