November 17, 2023 6:00am

Is Austin's economy heading for downturn?

Power Poll shows varying degrees of economic optimism

Photo of Ken Herman
Austin, TX Correspondent
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Lots of Austin-area Power Poll participants remain optimistic - in varying degrees - about the region’s economic outlook. But the largest single group of respondents say they’re not as optimistic as they were a year ago.

In other results from the November poll of area political, business and community leaders, majorities of participants indicated they support the Austin City Council’s decision to eliminate parking requirements for future projects but oppose proposed land use regulation changes that would allow three residential structures on a lot.

And a majority voiced support for an effort, still in preliminary stages, to rename the local airport in honor of former President Lyndon B. Johnson. One respondent offered a more off-beat suggestion.

Stick around for some fun facts about Austin’s airport.

The economy-related question noted Austin’s solid economic growth in recent years but waved at more recent developments, including declining home prices, downtown office vacancies, tech firm layoffs and American Airlines’ announcement that it is cancelling nonstop service from Austin to 21 cities.

The Austin Board of Realtors recently reported the October 2023 median home price in the metro area was $435,000. That’s a 7.5% drop from October 2022.

Asked to characterize their feelings about Austin’s economic future, 19% of Power Poll participants said they’re very optimistic and 29% said they’re somewhat optimistic.

But the largest group - 34% - said they are not as optimisic as they were a year ago.

Only 17% said they are somewhat pessimistic about the city’s upcoming economic future. And a very pessimistic 2% said they are very pessimistic about it.

Eugene Sepulveda, CEO of Culturati, remains optomistic despite recent trends.

“Discontinued experimental flights to vacation destinations, office occupancy at the time of realignment of how and where we work, and a correction of momentarily overinflated property values (an exaggeration during the pandemic) are no threat to Austin's economy,” he said. “Though the MAGA extremism during this Texas legislative session certainly risks our desirability in attracting knowledge workers.

Scott Francis, founder and CEO of BP3 Global, said “American Airlines pulling back on direct flights has more to do with their own overall financial performance than it does with Austin.”

A question about the proposed land-use change that would allow three residences on lots now limited to one drew mixed response. Support was voiced by 48% and opposition was registered by 52%.

A 56% majority backed the Austin City Council’s decision to scrap minimum parking capacity requirements for future building projects. The recent move by the council was seen as a way to lower development costs and encourage the use of public and other alternative transit methods.

The possible name change at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport is currently in the very early talking stage. Austin Mayor Kirk Watson has confirmed that he has discussed the potential change with the LBJ Foundation, which is pushing it.

Watson told KUT radio that there will be “a lot more conversations with a lot more people throughout the community as we explore this idea.”

The possible change is sure to draw strong feelings in both directions, as does any effort to rename anything for anybody.

And this topic drew one of the more creative suggestions that Power Poll has seen in recent months. It came from participant Jeremiah Williams, board secretary of the Round Rock Chamber of Commerce: “There’s only one person the airport should be named after…Leslie Cochran!”

Cochran, better known around town simply as Leslie, was a cross-dressing, homeless local resident who caught the public’s attention. He ran unsuccessfully for mayor three times and died in 2012 at age 60. A posthumous city proclamation declared him "an icon in the Keep Austin Weird scene.”

No U.S. city has an airport named for a cross-dressing, homeless former mayoral candidate.

But several have airports named for former presidents: Bill and Hillary Clinton Airport in Little Rock, George H.W. Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, John F. Kennedy Airport in New York, Ronald Reagan National Airport just outside of Washington D.C., Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport in Springfield, Ill., Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, Mich., Harry S. Truman Regional Airport in Kirksville, Mo., Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport in Wichita, Kans., Dickinson-Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport in Dickinson, N.D. and Jimmy Carter Regional Airport in Americus, Ga.

Power Poll airport fun fact No. 1: Austin-Bergstrom International Airport took its name from the former Air Force base on which it is located. The former Del Valle Army Air Base was renamed in 1943 for John August Bergstrom, who became the first active-duty Austin native killed in World War II when he died after a Japanese attack on a U.S. base in the Phillipines in December 1941.

A governmental history website notes that Bergstrom was buried at the U.S. base in the Phillipines, but his remains were not identified among remains of other service members recovered after the war.

The renaming of the Austin military base in Bergstrom’s honor was championed at the time by the local member of the U.S. House - Lyndon B. Johnson.

“Regarding the airport renaming, I support it being renamed for President Lyndon B Johnson,” said Ken Lambrecht, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, “and believe a terminal could be named with historical information honoring John August Bergstrom’s memory while giving his life in service of our community and country.”

Power Poll airport fun fact No. 2: The Austin City Council in 1999 dedicated the airport’s west runway to LBJ. The east runway is dedicated to the late Jake Pickle, a former longtime local U.S. House member.

Power Poll airport fun fact No. 3: Austin’s airport currently is named for an Aggie. John August Bergstrom, Texas A&M University, class of 1929.

Power Poll Members: Do you have a friend or colleague who should be on Power Poll? Please invite them to join!

About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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