When Fortune magazine named Austin the best city in the nation for business last November, it was something of a shocker. Isn’t the Texas capital the very antithesis of a business-friendly city? Don’t environmentalists have the upper hand over developers, stymieing growth at every turn? Haven’t corporate executives clashed repeatedly with city officials, leading one frequent combatant, Freeport-McMoRan CEO Jim Bob Moffett, to predict that no company on the Fortune 500 would ever want to do business there? Yet here was the creator of that venerable list giving Austin a thumbs-up. And it wasn’t just Fortune: Around the same time, Newsweek and P.O.V. magazines both put Austin near the top of their lists of the year’s boomtowns.
What happened? Two words: Kirk Watson. Since his election as mayor of Austin two years ago,
the 41-year-old—who had never before held office—has radically changed the relationship between the business and political communities. He’s done this not with the firebrand approach of a revolutionary but with the deftness of a skilled negotiator (which, as a civil litigator for seventeen years, he is). “He’s turned environmentalists into developers and developers into environmentalists,” says Bill Bunch, the attorney for Austin’s pro-environment Save Our Springs Alliance.
In recognition of that not-inconsiderable achievement, Watson is Texas Monthly Biz’s first annual Best Mayor for Business. It’s an honor we don’t bestow lightly—or unrealistically. In all likelihood, mayors Ron Kirk and Lee Brown are responsible for generating more business in Dallas and Houston, respectively, but that’s not unexpected—whereas no one expects the mayor of Austin to be an effective champion of business. Watson’s victory is one over perception, and in both politics and business, that’s a victory that counts.
As a former member of the Austin City Council, a past mayoral candidate, and a real estate developer now doing business in the city, I know the extent of what Watson has accomplished. For the first time in recent memory, Austin’s top official has a coordinated vision of where the city should go and is shaping public policy to get there. “We’ve gone from being a college town to a key player in the global economy,” he told me with a grin as we sat in his office late last summer. “If we were reluctant to talk before about how to grow as a city, we aren’t now.” And yet he knows what’s driving the boom: People want to live in Austin, which is really the lifestyle capital of Texas. Fittingly, Watson’s mantra is “Protect Austin’s quality of life.”
Until two years ago it was hard to