By now, it’s common knowledge that Austin is a potential site for Amazon’s planned second headquarters.
The Austin area is one of 20 finalists in the U.S. and Canada where the online retailer could build the project known as HQ2, a development expected to create 50,000 high-paying jobs and upend the winning city’s economy during coming years. Amazon said it will pick its destination this year, and so far, there’s been no sure indication as to where the project could land.
But the mere possibility of such a project has already reverberated across the Austin metro area, where residents and influences throughout various industries and populations − from entertainment to education to real estate − have been discussing the possible impact of HQ2 here.
Some of those thoughts, collected through more than a dozen interviews with the American-Statesman, show both the eagerness and nervousness of a city waiting for one of the biggest economic development project announcements in recent memory.
Here’s a look at the impact landing Amazon’s $5 billion HQ2 project could have on a variety of Austin sectors:
Cost of living
Austin voice: Robin Wilkins, stay-at-home mother
Wilkins has been through this before. And if HQ2 happens in Austin, she hopes she can keep her home this time.
Wilkins, who lives in a three-bedroom Southeast Austin apartment with her 11-year-old son, adult daughter and grandchild, fell in love with Austin when she moved here from California in 1984.
Two and a half years ago, she had to move out of an apartment in the same area code, 78741, when high-tech company Oracle bought up property in the Lakeshore area of East Austin.
“It was our home for five years. My son grew up in that place, had friends, had places to play. We were taken from that spot and forced out of that spot so a large company could come in,” Wilkins said.
Her new place is home. Her mother lives nearby. So do her other grown kids. “I don’t want to leave this area,” she says, and she certainly doesn’t want to leave Austin.
But as a member of the board of the Austin Tenants Council, she’s learned how these things work and she knows that as far as HQ2 goes, her apartment’s location could be a prime target, so to speak.
“You’ve got downtown on one side, the airport on this side. You’re connected to everything around here,” Wilkins said, including major highways. She lives near major operations for tech companies including Tokyo Electron and Samsung, as well as Oracle.
Her housing situation caused her to become a more active volunteer and activist for fair housing, public transportation and accessibility. She said she counts herself lucky to live in such a great spot, but fears others won’t be so lucky if they have to move further out.
“Wherever you live, you should have access to transportation so you can go to your doctor, to the grocery store,” she said. “There needs to be accessibility.”
Wilkins pays $1,220 a month for her apartment under a tax credit-property program. Her rent was $1,151 when she moved in.
She said she bears no ill will toward Amazon if it chooses Austin for HQ2. “It’s high tech, it’s evolving, it’s taking us into the next generation. It’s an awesome business,” she said. “But if you’re going to come to Austin, where are you going to be? Are you going to displace anyone, are you going to make people’s property taxes go up, and if you are, what are you going to do to make people right and whole and balance it out so no one is suffering from the repercussions?
“I’ve been here a long time, I love this location,” Wilkins said. “To me this is my home, this area. I don’t think I would be happy anyplace else.”
Austin voice: Lyndon Henry, former data analyst at Capital Metro
Mobility is one of the key challenges facing Austin if HQ2 is built in Central Texas. Austin residents who already see gridlock during rush hours say they wonder how the city could handle the influx of residents HQ2 would bring.
During the 2000’s, Henry saw first-hand from his position at Cap Metro the transportation challenges Austin faced. Those challenges would be further exposed with HQ2, Henry said, giving the city no option but to move aggressively.
That would have to start with major improvements to the area’s public transportation system, including an extended rail system, something Henry has been pushing for years.
“We’ve now lost decades of development because of the city’s inability to come to a decision. If you look at Atlanta, or other (HQ2 finalists), they’ve been able to have multiple-line rail systems. Some are way ahead of Austin in terms of development of public transportation,” Henry said. “If you had a light rail system that all of these new (Amazon) employees could access the new headquarters, that would be an enormous step ahead, along with a street bus system connecting light rail. Traffic needs to be alleviated.”
Beyond rail, Austin transportation leaders would need to examine the bus system depending on where HQ2 might be built and help make changes to traffic patterns.
Funding for these projects would remain a major obstacle, Henry said, but solutions beyond just adding roads would also need to be part of the equation.
“You can’t put your eggs all in one basket,” Henry said.
Austin voice: De Peart, CEO of the Downtown Austin Alliance
As part of finding the right solutions for Austin mobility, city leaders would need to ask the right questions of Amazon, Peart said. What will employment look like? What will each phase of the project consist of?
“The city would fully need to understand the company’s strategy,” Peart said.
But it would also be critical to remember how much technology could help, Peart said. At the DAA, he regularly has to examine the impact of development in Austin’s core, which is already becoming crammed but is also seeing testing of new mobility technology such as autonomous vehicles and delivery robots.
“No doubt projects like expanding I-35 would be critical, but we also would need to think creatively,” Peart said. “We need to think about 10, 15, 20 years from now, and how technology is changing the way we commute through autonomous vehicles, ride-sharing, etc. People will travel differently.”
Austin voice: John Ekerdt, assistant dean of research, University of Texas Cockrell School of Engineering
Since 1979, Ekerdt has helped guide UT’s engineering school, which is recognized as one of the nation’s top programs. Its brand, Ekerdt said, has already brought the school in close contact with major companies.
With more than 7,700 students, the school has an advisory group that regularly listens to corporate input as curriculum is being formed.
“We’re always asking our stakeholders on the outside, ‘how do we need to be educating our students so that they can compete over the next 40 years of their career?’ That’s the conversation we would have with Amazon,’” Ekerdt said. “HQ2 would create a number of opportunities for our researchers, for our students doing internships, attracting talent and growing our portfolio. We have amazing talent for Amazon to leverage.”
But even with its success, the school has also seen many of its graduates move to Houston and other cities to find jobs. HQ2 would help change that, Ekerdt said. Austin would be able to keep more of its local talent here, since some engineering students would be expected to find jobs at Amazon.
Competition at the school would increase, Ekerdt added. But he thinks that would only be for the good.
“Amazon would create a buzz,” he said.
Austin voice: Edmund Oropez, chief schools officer for teaching and learning, Austin Independent School District
At AISD, about 13 percent of high school students are following a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curriculum path. The school district is already a partner with other corporate giants. Google provides its Chromebooks to schools, and Round Rock-based Dell Technologies began a new health professional program at AISD through UT’s Dell Medical School.
Amazon’s HQ2, Oropez said, could have an even larger impact on AISD.
“We would welcome their input, and that could help us drive our curriculum,” Oropez said.
But the population influx from HQ2 would also put pressure on housing, Oropez added, potentially impacting AISD schools and zoning. AISD has experienced both overcrowding and under-enrollment at some of its campuses.
“We would have to study the potential impacts,” Oropez said. “We work with our city demographers, and we can plan accordingly. Depending on the location, we would have to look at our boundaries and new schools.”
Even if HQ2 was built outside of AISD, its employees and their families could still live inside the school boundaries, and AISD could see transfer students, Oropez said.
Austin voice: Drew Scheberle, senior vice president of advocacy, mobility and talent at the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce
Back in the 1980s, Austin didn’t plan for growth because it didn’t want it, Scheberle said.
But times have changed, he said, and Austin now takes planning seriously.
This can be seen with the city’s current pursuit to change its land use code, Scheberle said, and by the regular discourse around growth throughout Austin’s various industries.
The chamber, which tracks post-secondary statistics and local workforce numbers, has seen an uptick in students pursuing tech-related jobs. As Austin continues to create new jobs, Scheberle said Amazon would account for a significant percent of that if HQ2 was here.
“It’s all manageable if you plan for it,” Scheberle said. “Regardless of if Amazon comes here, we have massive changes happening in the workforce here.”
Austin voice: Juliana Gonzales, executive director of the Austin Tenants Council
New tech employment is great, Gonzales believes, but when new jobs come to town, that can be bad news for renters, particularly those with low incomes.
“I think our concern anytime that high-paying tech jobs come into the city is it doesn’t raise the income for all jobs,” she said. “It doesn’t raise the income of the renters already living in a barely affordable housing market.” She pointed out that residents on fixed incomes would also be impacted by rising costs of living.
While reports suggest rent prices have stabilized, at least for now due to increased supply and softening demand, Gonzales said that the trend for the last 10 years has been that, “Rent rates have risen insanely” in a city that is majority renters.
Other impacts that Amazon HQ2 might have if it comes to Austin, she said, could be that if the median family income goes up in Austin, it could affect eligibility for assisted-housing programs for some families.
“I may find myself in a much poorer (income) bracket and less eligible for these missing-middle housing options,” Gonzales said.
The city’s already-growing population coupled with 50,000 additional workers could also constrain city resources and drive people further out from the urban core, she said. “What we’ve seen in the past is that the poor move out. They end up in Del Valle, Manor, the edges of the county.”
She said she also worries that not all of Amazon’s moves are resulting in top-tier employment; she’s read about low-income cities that are instead the home to Amazon’s warehouse jobs.
Nevertheless, Gonzales said she is heartened that the city is not offering financial incentives to Amazon in its proposal. She said she hopes that if Amazon chooses Austin, it would invest in affordable housing and help the city find infrastructure solutions.
“We’d need to build out what needs to build out to accommodate 50,000 more people,” Gonzales said.
Austin voice: David Hartstein, Austin film producer
Hartstein has been in Austin since 2000, when he studied at the University of Texas at Austin Radio-Television-Film department.
18 years later, he’s had success as a film producer, working on commercials, documentaries and feature films.
He wonders if a 22-year-old starting out like he did could make it in Austin today, especially if costs of living continue to rise should Amazon choose Austin for HQ2.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” Hartstein said. He does work for a corporate client, Indeed, and has benefited from Austin’s tech boom. “I’ve been able to keep up and service them and keep the lights on to do creative work.”
But young filmmakers, he says, might struggle to make ends meet as they seek those same kinds of opportunities.
Hartstein says growth is inevitable and the theoretical Amazon deal will impact Austin based on the details; he hopes Amazon would be a good community partner.
“Austin is still the Austin that it was 18 years ago,” Hartstein said, “it’s just bigger and it’s harder to find parking.”
He says that from an office overlooking development at the Mueller community, which he says gets closer to his work at Austin Studios.
“They’ve got to go somewhere,” he says of Amazon HQ2, “I think we could handle it.
Austin voice: Bart Matheney, principal at Aquila Commercial real estate firm
The past decade has completely changed Austin’s retail industry. The metro area has added almost 12 million square feet of retail space during that time, with the total now at 48.8 million square feet (per commercial real estate firm Weitzman).
HQ2 could add a trove of new residents to Austin, further reshaping the retail sector.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that every part of the sector would be boosted, Matheney said.
Big box stores would still be under threat from the e-commerce world Amazon helped foster, and nothing is stopping the changing climate of traditional retail.
“Retail doesn’t grow like it used to,” Matheney said.
At the same time, HQ2 could spur a large mix-use project next to it that would boost that immediate area.
“It could drive another (The) Domain type of project,” Matheney said.
Austin voice: Hugh Forrest, chief programming officer for South by Southwest
Technology was one of the driving factors in growing South by Southwest from a music festival when it began in 1987 to one that now also encompasses film, tech, fashion, sports, health and politics as one of Austin’s largest annual events.
Last year, its conference attracted 70,696 attendees and the entire set of panels and festival events had 421,900 direct participants, according to SXSW.
Forrest, who for many years was in charge of the Interactive portion of SXSW, said having HQ2 in Austin would likely make South by Southwest a bigger draw.
“Amazon’s focus on innovation strongly aligns with so much of what we focus on at SXSW,” Forrest said. “Their presence in Austin would make SXSW an even more compelling destination for digital creatives across the U.S. and all over the world.”
Austin voice: Shawn Cirkiel, chef at Parkside Projects restaurants
Austin’s service industry could be one of the beneficiaries of HQ2. Personal gyms, salons, lawyers, travel agents and many others could experience a boost in business.
As a native Austinite, Cirkiel has witnessed the explosion of restaurant and other service businesses in the city throughout the years. Cirkiel opened Parkside in 2008 on Sixth Street, and has since opened multiple other restaurants in Austin.
He said HQ2’s effect would be straight forward: Any type of restaurant would benefit.
“Whether it’s very suburbanrestaurants or high-end corporate clients, it would be valuable across the board,” Cirkiel said. “Everyone has an expectation that it will only be millenial (type of restaurants), but they all marry eventually and have kids and will look to other types of restaurants.”
While Austin already has an over-supply of restaurants, Cirkiel said, HQ2 would likely still be a catalyst for more eateries and other service facilities because of the potential for customers. That could cause construction hassles, he said, but that would only be a short-term problem.
Austin voice: Rebecca Campbell, CEO of Austin Film Society
In addition to becoming a retail powerhouse, Amazon has also in recent years flexed its muscle in entertainment, launching popular consumer tech products such as the Amazon Echo, and racking up awards in television and film for series including “Transparent” and films such as “Manchester by the Sea.”
This wing, Amazon Studios, has also been a sponsor of nonprofit Austin Film Studios and even put out Austin filmmaker Richard Linklater’s most recent film, “Last Flag Flying.”
“Amazon Studios has been really generous with AFS,” Campbell said. “That sponsorship allows us to do our mission: show movies, help filmmakers, educate the community. I’m favorably disposed toward Amazon Studios, for sure,” she said.
If Amazon increased its Studios presence in Austin, or continue to beef up its video-game tools business, Lumberjack, it could create more opportunities for up-and-coming filmmakers and video-game industry workers.
“It could be incredible jobs for people,” Campbell said. “Because Amazon is in the content business, I see jobs for creatives… animators, artists, graphic designers, writers. A lot of emerging filmmakers have to have a day job. While they’re honing their craft, it could position them to pursue their art on the side.”
But she also recognizes the impact that 50,000 workers and a giant campus in the area could have on the local film scene.
Affordability, she says, is a key issue for those creatives and others AFS serves. “Housing costs are a huge concern for independent filmmakers, even for the staff we employ, and the people who attend the films that we show are very cost-conscious.”
She says the tech industry has greatly benefited AFS over the years, allowing the group to give more money to filmmakers and to educate kids on the skills they need to find their voices in the medium. Campbell thinks city leaders and Amazon could find a way to make HQ2 a win-win for Austin and its residents.
“It seems as if there’s gotta be a way it could be done right, and if it’s done right, it could be really great for prosperity in Austin.”
Austin voice: John Henderson, program coordinator of the Game Design & Development Lab
Henderson has been working to get more young people into the Austin video-game industry and has been keeping up with Lumberjack, an Amazon game-development project that has been hiring in the area.
Lumberjack is a tool to build video games inexpensively (which Amazon could then host on its cloud servers) and the team around it has been growing. If HQ2 were to come to town, Henderson says, it would be very positive for Lumberjack and possibly for those seeking jobs in game development.
“If HQ2 were here, it would give us more access, visibility, leverage, tons of money for development,” Henderson said. On the flip side, Henderson says the demand for technical talent in Austin could sharply increase.
For those who want to create the next great game studio, an Amazon HQ2 could squeeze those seeking office space in the same way rising costs in the area have affected other Austin forms of entertainment.
“The loss of places to rehearse and live music venues has been really painful for the city,” Henderson said, “it just becomes harder to put a game studio together. You have to run on a shoestring until you have that hit.”
Cover image: Robin Wilkins is a renter in East Austin and board member of the Austin Tenants Council who was previously displaced when a tech company built out and she was evicted from her apartment. She's lived at her current apartment for two and a half years and feels it's home for her and her 11-year-old son Zeferino Barron, her adult daughter and grandchild. Ricardo Brazziell / AMERICAN-STATESMAN