In 2022, the Central Texas region saw a continuance of explosive growth in the business community. According to the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce’s Job Growth & Unemployment report, Austin has made up all of the pandemic-related job losses and now ranks 2nd for job growth since February 2020 in the top 50 metro areas. Although we may see a slowdown in 2023, Texas is still poised to fare relatively well. As we transition into 2023, I sat down with Kerry Hall, interim CEO of the Austin Chamber, to discuss what she anticipates for Central Texas businesses as well as local economic trends.
I met Kerry roughly 25 years ago. I was just getting started with my career and got involved with Rodeo Austin as an “Ambassador” with some other young professionals. As a Rodeo Austin board member, Kerry oversaw our committee, and I knew from that moment that she was a true leader with excellent skills in selecting and managing people. Those were great times with great memories!
Kyle: Thank you for sitting down with me today — and for serving as the interim CEO of the Chamber. With such an extensive background serving the business community in Central Texas, how do you envision your experience aiding the Chamber as you help guide it in 2023?
Kerry: As a commercial banker for more than 35 years in Austin, I had the pleasure of getting to know and work with some of Austin’s premier businesses, associations, and non-profits. I took great pride in helping an organization access the capital it needed to grow and prosper in this region. The Chamber’s mission is to create regional prosperity and success for its members. This lines up nicely with what I did in banking. The key difference is that the bank used access to capital and financial services to deliver prosperity. In contrast, the Chamber uses its leadership, connections, partnerships, and experience to help its members prosper. I am extremely fortunate to have made a lot of great relationships in the Austin region, and I intend to call on them to help the Chamber and our members. The answers to so many questions about how to get something done in Austin are out there. Why reinvent the wheel? Let’s tap into each other’s resources and connect the dots more quickly. I hope I can help with that.
Kyle: Having been an integral part of the business community before taking on this role, can you highlight some of the Chamber’s biggest opportunities and challenges for 2023?
Kerry: The Austin region has incredible opportunities to look forward to in 2023 and beyond. The immediate opportunities are working with our elected officials. The Texas legislative branch has started its biannual session that will run until June. Our main priority will be reestablishing some sort of economic development incentive to remain competitive with other cities across the country.
We look forward to advocating for that priority as well as others that will continue to make Texas the premier state in which to do business. We have also elected new council members in Austin and a new Mayor. This presents us an opportunity for the Chamber to influence policy that continues to make Austin an attractive place for companies to call home, as well as help businesses that are already established continue to grow.
We are at a high watermark for investment in infrastructure. None of these projects will be completed in 2023, but there is still work to do in the next few months. We have a massive transit system expansion, an overhaul of the main highway that runs through the heart of the city, and an airport expansion, all going on simultaneously. These projects will shape the region’s future, and the Chamber is excited to continue working with governments at all levels to ensure these projects deliver a more robust mobility system for Central Texas.
Our main challenge now is affordability. We must work collaboratively to grow in the region without continuing to increase the cost of calling Austin home. This requires us to work across the region to ensure that we are continuing to build housing so there is a steady supply.
Kyle: Are there any industry or economic trends that you see having an impact on the Central Texas economy in the short term? In the long term?
Kerry: In the long term, Austin is well-positioned to withstand an economic downturn, whether that comes this year or in the future. Time and again, Austin has done better than its peers in weathering economic storms because of our diversified economy. That is a trend that will continue. Our region’s economy only continues to get more diverse. My generational peers know that wasn’t always the case, like in the late 80s, when Austin did much worse than other similar-sized cities in the country during a downturn. However, that has changed and is mainly due to the work of Opportunity Austin, our regional prosperity initiative helping recruit businesses to the area.
One of the biggest short-term trends we are seeing right now is in the types of projects we are working on when companies have approached us to relocate or expand. Right now, the vast majority of those projects are manufacturing or warehouse projects. Only a small percentage are office projects. Just a few years ago, this was completely the opposite. We worked a small number of manufacturing projects, and most of the companies looking to have a presence here were office projects. This is a trend that started during COVID-19 and has accelerated. It’s hard to say where the future of office work is going, but with all the variations on “office work” being experimented with today, we believe that office projects will remain a question mark in Austin’s near-term future. But again, we believe Austin’s occupancy rates will fare better than any other major metro in the country.
Kyle: As a long-term supporter, Board Member and now interim CEO of the Chamber, what are some of the goals you hope to achieve during your tenure?
Kerry: I don’t think I’ll have a great deal of time to accomplish a lot, as I believe that the CEO of the Austin Chamber must be the MOST coveted chamber leadership role in the country. Because of that, I believe we will find the ideal leader reasonably soon! But I do have a few short-term goals I’d like to accomplish.
First, when an organization goes through a transition, especially right on the heels of the pandemic, there is going to be a lot of uncertainty among the staff, and uncertainty leads to anxiety. I want to provide some stability and a sense of calm to redirect our focus onto our purpose and the importance of the mission of the Chamber. I have known the staff for years because I served on both the Board of the Chamber and Opportunity Austin. I always knew that the team was strong but working with them up close and shoulder to shoulder, I am blown away by their capabilities and skills. I want them to know how gifted and appreciated they are for what they do for the community.
Secondly, I’d like to find ways to improve our members’ experience with the Chamber and make them feel more engaged. We offer so much great content and so many opportunities for connection and networking, but I don’t think they are being taken advantage of by many members. We must ensure our members know about all the opportunities they have with their membership. Lastly, I hope to ensure that our Board of Directors feels appreciated. I will work to ensure they know that without them, we would not be able to achieve any of our goals to help the business community prosper.
Thanks again Kerry! We greatly appreciate you serving and may you and the Chamber have a wonderful 2023!