Electric vehicle pioneer, aspiring Mars colonist, and part-time Twitter troll Elon Musk announced this month that he’s moving to Texas, and many in the tech world were shocked. Not us. Tesla CEO Musk is his generation’s eccentric billionaire par excellence. Texas has long been a spiritual homeland for vainglorious oddballs of great wealth, from “King of the Wildcatters” Glenn McCarthy, the inspiration for Giant and Dallas, to self-funding presidential candidate H. Ross Perot. Musk, 49, may have been born in South Africa and made most of his roughly $140 billion personal fortune in California, but he belongs in Texas. Welcome home, Elon.
So far, he hasn’t publicly revealed which Texas metropolitan region he’s chosen for his next chapter. As part of his house-hunting process, he’d be well-advised to review the relative merits of our Lone Star tech hubs. Texas has become a powerful magnet for U.S. tech industry jobs, talent, and capital at the expense of California’s Bay Area, particularly in the past three astonishing weeks. This month, as Musk revealed that he was packing his electric buggy for Texas, the more than $180 billion Oracle Corporation announced that it’s relocating its headquarters to Austin, and $15 billion-plus Hewlett Packard Enterprise unveiled a move to Houston. After much slow cooking, like a good chopped brisket, Texas’s statewide tech community is on a roll.
Should Musk follow in the footsteps of one of those two new arrivals or beat his own path to a different Texas city? Here are a few of his best options:
The Odds-on Favorite: Austin
Musk has been closely linked to Austin in recent months, enough that some headline writers have already leapt to the conclusion that his move to Texas could only mean relocation to the state’s capital. To be fair, the signs are convincing. Last summer, Tesla revealed that its newest automobile factory will be built just east of Austin, in Del Valle. In November, Musk’s transit-oriented underground tunneling project, the Boring Company, announced that it is expanding to Austin. And just before telling the press about his own move to Texas, Musk relocated his charitable concern, the Musk Foundation, to Austin. Even if he’s not personally headed for the City of the Violet Crown, Musk will have a major footprint there for the foreseeable future.
Austin, ranked number one in the Computing Technology Industry Association’s “Tech Town Index” of opportunity and quality of life for IT workers, gets the most hype of all the tech communities in Texas. Musk, whose companies tend to depend on venture capital and government subsidies to survive, thrives on hype. In that sense, he and Austin make a perfect match. He also has a potential friend and near financial peer in personal computing mogul Michael Dell, who put Austin on the tech map in the eighties and whose Dell Computers was the biggest tech firm headquartered in the state until Oracle rolled in a week or so ago. Austin also boasts several other major local firms, like Silicon Labs and Resideo Technologies, and plenty of start-ups and secondary campuses for giant tech companies headquartered elsewhere. Apple has a billion-dollar campus, its second in the city, under construction now that will make it the largest private employer in the area once it’s open.
That said, in Austin, Musk would be a very big fish in what is still a mid-sized pond. One wonders if the city’s traditional slacker ethos would wear on him. Musk’s persona on Twitter and in the press is that of a relentlessly driven man of action, not one to noodle away his fifties in his little pocket of the Velvet Rut. In Austin, he’d also be choosing a city with a potent tech backlash brewing, as real estate prices soar thanks to constant new arrivals. Does Musk really want to become the go-to embodiment of Austin’s favorite bogeyman, the Californian who shows up and ruins everything cool and authentic?
Musk should also consider the feelings of his girlfriend, Canadian singer Grimes, in that he has been romantically linked in the past to prominent Austinite Ty Haney, founder of Outdoor Voices. If Grimes can get over that, however, Austin could be a welcome landing spot for the baby boy she and Musk welcomed into the world in April. Many scoffed when the couple revealed their baby’s inscrutable name: X Æ A-XII. In most parts of Texas, a kid with a name like that would be in for serious bullying, if not just downright confusion among his peers. In Austin, it might not even be the strangest name in his Montessori class.
The Reigning Tech Heavyweight: Dallas
With all the recent focus on Austin’s tech scene as a result of the Oracle relocation news, it’s easy to forget that Dallas and its suburbs still constitute the biggest and most storied technology sector in the state. According to the Computing Technology Industry Association, Dallas leads the state in net tech jobs over the last year, ranking eighth nationally. (Houston, for comparison, ranks number twelve in net tech jobs, and Austin comes in at eighteen.) The granddaddy of Lone Star tech firms, Texas Instruments, is still going strong in North Texas, and, though not strictly a tech company in the modern parlance, Dallas-based telecom behemoth AT&T is a crucial part of American information technology history.
Mark Cuban, another potential billionaire friend for Musk in Texas, boosted his city’s tech prospects this month as news came in about Musk, Oracle, and HPE:
— Mark Cuban (@mcuban) December 13, 2020
Cuban’s advice may entice Musk insofar as the latter is presumably interested in moving to a better city, though not necessarily a cheaper one, as $141 billion goes a long way anywhere. A hard-working proletariat may attract Musk too. After all, he’s the mega-billionaire who recently asked employees at Tesla to work as “volunteers” for the company while on unpaid furlough. Really, though, it’s the “more entertaining” aspect of Dallas that is most likely to persuade Musk. It’s lonely at the top, and a city like Austin would offer precious few billionaire friends and activities for a man with his bankroll. The Dallas–Fort Worth metro, on the other hand, leads Texas in billionaires, with 27. (Houston comes in second with 15, while Austin’s 8 could barely fill a high-stakes poker table.) From restaurants to art, professional sports, and beyond, North Texas knows how to keep a billionaire busy and satisfied. Cuban should know.
Another point for Dallas: 2020 has revealed that Musk fancies himself adept at seeing through deep-state lies and façades. In early March, he tweeted that “the coronavirus panic is dumb.” In April, he came out against social distancing and tweeted “FREE AMERICA NOW!” More recently, he has insinuated that rapid antigen tests for COVID-19 are a hoax of sorts. By moving to Dallas, Musk could indulge his passion for conspiracy theory full-time. As a professional engineer and amateur dot-connector, Musk could bring his considerable talents and trust-no-one sensibility to finally solving the ballistics question of whether John F. Kennedy was indeed killed by Lee Harvey Oswald or by a second shooter from the Grassy Knoll.
Mars Mission Control: Houston
With HPE moving to town, things are looking up for Houston’s tech community, but the Bayou City is less defined by tech than either Austin or Dallas. That’s not a bad thing—on the contrary, it’s because Houston is already busy leading the world in other fields, like energy and medicine. Still, Musk would find in Houston a city well positioned to help him reach his biggest and most ambitious goals.
Among U.S. cities, Houston trails only Silicon Valley in engineers per capita, but, whereas Silicon Valley engineers tend to work in software, Houston engineers are often engaged in challenges like mining and deep-water construction. This may appeal to Musk, who is more focused on the physical process of actually making things than most tech barons—building cars, tunnels, batteries, and rocket ships.
This brings us to Houston’s biggest asset, so far as Musk is concerned: the Johnson Space Center. Followers of Musk’s Twitter account know that much of his attention lately is focused on his spacecraft company, SpaceX, and its long-term goal of sending humans to Mars and establishing a self-governing colony there. The company has already achieved extraordinary things, including the first-ever spaceflight on a commercially developed craft, a trip to the International Space Station piloted by NASA astronauts this May. Still, it’s a long way from the ISS to Mars. To develop such a mission, Musk will have to work closely with NASA and specifically with its human spaceflight hub, the Johnson Space Center. Why not move in next to the astronauts and get it done?
In terms of tech hype, Houston isn’t Austin, but it does check an awful lot of boxes for Musk. Also, if he spends much time on Twitter—and we know he does—Musk might be aware that there is a robust argument among Texans on the platform about whether Austin has “jumped the shark” and been supplanted by Houston for the title of coolest city in Texas.
The Wild Card: Rio Grande Valley
Okay, okay. We know it sounds crazy. The off-the-beaten-track Rio Grande Valley doesn’t even have a direct flight to the San Francisco Bay Area, let alone a tech industry to rival any of the three bigger Texas metros mentioned above. So what does it have going for it? Just the fact that Musk has been spending much of his time there in recent months.
Boca Chica, just outside Brownsville at the mouth of the Rio Grande, is the site of Space X’s South Texas launch site—land acquired by Musk with the vision of building toward a Mars launch. During the recent pandemic months, both reporting and his own tweets attest to the fact that Musk has been largely based in or near Boca Chica, working on SpaceX’s next-generation launch system and sharing gorgeous photos of rockets against the backdrop of the coastal wetlands.
Musk is 49 and has spoken of building a Mars colony by 2040, when he’ll be pushing 70. Perhaps the pandemic has helped him refocus on his priorities to such an extent that he’s decided to leave the distracting hubbub of the Bay Area for the utter non-hub of Brownsville, where he can directly oversee mankind’s next giant leap in rocketry. Stranger things have happened.
And hey, perhaps by 2040, Musk will have also perfected his Hyperloop, a proposed high-speed vacuum train technology that Musk claims could carry passengers 350 miles in about 35 minutes. That’s about the distance from Brownsville to either Houston or Austin, an easy commute. If so, Musk won’t even really have to pick which city in Texas he wants to base himself in. He could have breakfast tacos in Austin, a power lunch in Dallas, and dinner at JSC in Houston and be home in Brownsville to check his Martian colony by telescope before bedtime—provided he can make just a few more of his techno-utopian dreams come true.