Outgoing board chair Brian Cassidy, managing partner at Locke Lord, reflected on his time as chair at the Chamber's Annual Meeting on Feb. 5.
It has been not only been a privilege to serve as chair of the Chamber over this past year but also to do so with Mike Rollins serving as the president and CEO as he has done for the past 17 years....
2019 was a busy year for the Chamber, our city, and our region and it has been an honor serving as Chair of the Chamber during this time.
During the year we continued our efforts to make the Austin region home to the most prosperous business community in the nation. In 2019, the Chamber helped create 37,800 jobs and added $2.3 billion to payrolls.
SmileDirectClub, Amazon, H-E-B, Zoho, Arrive Logistics. These are just some of the companies that brought new operations or expanded existing operations in our region during 2019.
And as we talk about job creation, it is important to remember that the impact of a job created doesn’t end at a company’s bottom line, it’s where the impact begins. The growth numbers we have experienced look good in newspapers and on TV, but the most important thing that happens when a job is created is the difference it makes in the lives of the people who live here. It provides a chance for them to find work, pay their bills, and provide for their families while achieving prosperity. It helps the employers providing those jobs fulfill their mission with a skilled workforce. And job creation also contributes greatly to community prosperity by helping local governments provide services and improve quality of life for every person across the region. More people working means more people contributing to the greater good.
In addition to efforts to sustain our economic growth, 2019 saw several other Chamber initiatives as well. We had a legislative session where we actively supported the continued availability of economic incentive programs. The Chamber supported the vision for high-capacity mass transit for the region, and with our colleagues at the Real Estate Council created a framework for issues to be considered and addressed as the vision for Project Connect becomes a specific plan. We are now getting some of the specific details, and, under Craig Enoch’s guidance, the Chamber will be assessing whether the plan adequately addresses those issues and balances the need for transit with what the community can afford.
We also worked on issues related to I-35 and the addition of capacity in the most critical and most congested corridor in our regions. The state is looking to fund a $4.5 billion gap, and it would be shame to raise and spend that kind of money without getting the most effective solution possible, which means variable tolled managed lanes that can accommodate transit in the same way that the Mopac Managed lanes have provided a very popular alternative in that corridor. We also continued efforts to address workforce development issues and needs, as our employers begin to feel the squeeze on finding qualified employees as our job creation success continues.
But the one issue I never would never have guessed would be on the Chamber’s list when my term started in January of 2019 is the issue of homelessness in our community. The Chamber’s engagement on the issue of homelessness really began last March, as we began hearing from some of our members and Opportunity Austin investors who own businesses or downtown properties that issues related to homelessness, and interactions between members of the homeless community and tenants or their employees, was increasing. We formed a task force to begin looking at the issue, which grew into a much larger broad-based coalition of businesses, nonprofit organizations, churches and other faith-based groups, led by the Chamber and the Downtown Austin Alliance. As the challenges facing the issue of homelessness intensified after the City Council’s actions in June, the work of the coalition accelerated. What that work led to was a realization that there was a gap in our community related to resources available to people experiencing homelessness on an immediate basis. Let me be clear- there are organizations in town doing great work in this area- like Community First Village and the Salvation Army and Caritas, but the truth is that there is virtually nowhere for people on the streets today, who want shelter tonight to go. There is simply not enough shelter space available, and most of what does exist, even if it were available, typically require referrals and a somewhat lengthy process before someone can be accepted. The fact is that most of the people you see on the streets, those that need and want help, have nowhere to go.
So in November, we launched ATX Helps to cut through the noise, put politics aside, and focus on providing help for those in our community who want our help, and need it the most, the unsheltered homeless living in our streets. Based on successful efforts in other cities we have developed a plan to erect a Sprung Shelter capable of housing anywhere from 150 to 300 individuals. It will be a low barrier to entry facility where someone on the streets today can go even if they are suffering from drug or alcohol addiction or mental illness, as long as they are not a threat to others. The facility will have resources and counseling available so that it will serve as a navigation center to give people a place to stay for some period of time and get them the help they need so they can get into permanent supportive housing or be able to secure a job and live independently.
We have come a long way since November and are very close to announcing specific plans as to how the shelter will become a reality in the very near future. And I again want to make one thing very clear, as there seems to have been some confusion in the community. This in no way competes with what other organizations are doing- this is filling an immediate need that currently exists and is not being addressed. Permanent supportive housing is another part of the spectrum and does not overlap with what we are doing. Anybody who tells you otherwise either does not understand or is trying to advance an agenda that they feel is threatened by this. We are trying to help people who, today, have nowhere to go. For more information, as well as information about how you can help or contribute, please go to ATXHelps.org
ATX Helps is just one example of the many things I saw during the past year that make me proud of our business community. We- you- the people in this room who build businesses and provide resources to businesses are what supports our community and help to make Austin the incredible place that it is. I am grateful for the chance to have seen it from this vantage point.
I want to thank those individuals who volunteered their time and effort to serve with me on the Executive Committee and Board of Directors during 2019. And, of course, the Chamber staff. I mentioned some of the impacts that Mike Rollins has had on the region, and one more thing is that he built a staff that has given us the absolute best Chamber in the country, and the results prove it. So thanks to the Chamber staff!
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