Economic group adds power

By Mary Alice Kaspar
Austin Business Journal Staff
June 2, 2003

A high-powered and diverse board has been assembled to lead a new economic development foundation in Austin.

From heads of banks to technology companies, 18 new board members have agreed to help bolster the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce's new foundation as well as a related initiative dubbed Opportunity Austin.

Members include chamber figures such as Charles Barnett, president and CEO of the Seton Healthcare Network and chamber chairman, and Rick Burciaga, regional president of Wells Fargo Bank and chamber chairman-elect.

Other heavyweights on the board include Lowell Lebermann, chairman and CEO of Centex Beverage Inc., and Gary Valdez, president of Focus Strategies LLC.

Reaching beyond the traditional business sectors, other members include Larry Faulkner, president of the University of Texas; Joe Beal, general manager of the Lower Colorado River Authority; and attorney Kirk Watson, former mayor of Austin.

The Opportunity Austin board will oversee development of a five-year economic development strategy for Central Texas based on the findings of a study being conducted by Atlanta-based Market Street Services Inc. That study was commissioned in late March, backed by a $120,000 donation from the Real Estate Council of Austin.

The board also will oversee the economic development foundation, created by the Austin chamber to raise funds and finance the economic development plan.

The initiative's chairman is Gary Farmer, president of Heritage Title Co. of Austin Inc.

"Every person who has agreed to serve has achieved distinction in their field," Farmer says. "Each one of them has a powerful commitment to making Austin more competitive in the global marketplace."

Beal says he agreed to join the board largely because of his respect for Farmer.

"If Gary said this is something I should be involved in, that's enough for me to say I should at least attend the first meeting," Beal says.

Beal says he's impressed with the board's diversity.

"You've got old players and younger players," Beal says. "Anytime you can get diverse ideas -- which you will from this diverse group -- it's helpful. If you can get people to think about problem solving in different ways, than your problem solving is going to be better."

Pete Winstead, founding shareholder of law firm Winstead Sechrest & Minick PC and another new board member, says he was motivated by the tough economic times.

"Every business organization is as desperate, frankly, as I've seen them since 1987-88," Winstead says.

"Maybe because we've had it so good for the last 10 years in Austin; maybe it seems worse than every before. The pendulum swung so far our way, the current situation is a critical situation. I think it's appropriate we get focused on what we do about it."

Winstead says that in past decade, Austin's economy focused on chips and software.

Now, he says, "I think the big story is what's our alternative mission?"

UT's Faulkner says he hopes his involvement helps strengthen ties between higher education and economic development.

"We are responsible for providing a sizable part of the educated workforce here, and we are in a position to support the knowledge, information and expertise needs of quite a few businesses," Faulkner says.

"I think it's very important that we are integrated, and we take considerable pains to do that. This seems to be an important new initiative, and I think that it's critical we're connected to it."