Austin City Council is poised to take the next steps toward a long-discussed, $1.2 billion expansion of the Neal K. Kocurek Austin Convention Center this week, despite the economic uncertainty brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
At a meeting on Thursday, members will consider whether to approve a contract with "all necessary parties for acquisition" of two adjacent downtown blocks as well as whether to commit additional funding to the project in the form of consultants and legal counsel.
Austin City Council will take the first step toward purchasing two adjacent downtown blocks on Thursday as part of a planned expansion of the convention center. (City of Austin Real Estate Services)
The convention center opened in 1992 and underwent an expansion between 1999 and 2002. Council members voted unanimously in May 2019 to approve a second, $1.2 billion expansion that will extend the convention center to the west. The proposal also ties in the preservation of the historic Palm School, development of Palm Park and improvements to Rainey Street.
Given the city's rapid growth, the current venue "has not been able to accommodate all event demand," according to a market study conducted by the consulting firm HVS published last month. An expanded convention center, however, is projected to drive economic activity by drawing more people to Austin—and the hotels, restaurants and other businesses that call it home.
The consultants estimate that the proposed expansion will increase the economic impact of the convention center by more than $300 million a year, leading to higher tax revenues for the city as well as the creation of more than 1,700 new jobs.
HVS Managing Director Thomas Hazinski told council members on Tuesday that he expects the convention center demand across the U.S. to return to normal in the next few years, in time for the 2024 opening of the first phase of the expansion in 2024.
"I think it is very fair to assume that this (pandemic), while it is much more prolonged than we ever expected it to be, is a temporary phenomenon and some resolution is going to happen before 2024," he said.
That said, Hazinski did raise concerns about the longer-term impacts of the economic recession occasioned by the pandemic.
"My bigger concern, and the concern that we built into this analysis, is what the pandemic's long-term impacts are on the economy," he said. "What we have seen in past recessions is it takes a long time to recover from a recession."
If council votes to approve these agenda items on Thursday, the next steps will include the design phase of the expansion project and the purchase of the two downtown blocks, which is anticipated to occur next summer.
"I think we obviously have a lot of open questions," Austin Mayor Steve Adler said on Tuesday. "(I) look forward to the action this week and answering some additional questions as we go forward."
The expansion project will be funded by hotel occupancy tax revenue. City Council voted to increase the hotel occupancy tax, or HOT tax, rate from 15% to the maximum 17% allowed under state law last summer. The city of Austin will use the revenue from the 2% increase for the expansion.
A group called Unconventional Austin gathered signatures for a citizen-initiated petition that would have required voter approval of any convention center expansion, but 54% of Austin voters rejected the measure last November.
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Austin's Delta 8 industry has been turned on its head after Texas health officials clarified that the cannabinoid is on the state list of illegal substances, though it was previously believed to be legal by most retailers, consumers and manufacturers.
House Bill 1325, which was signed in June 2019 by Gov. Greg Abbott, and the Farm Bill, signed into law by former President Donald Trump in 2018, legalized any hemp product containing less than .3% THC. The same bills were thought to have made Delta 8 legal, though the Texas Department of State Health Services added a notice on its website saying it was still a controlled substance as of Friday, Oct. 15.
Both the federal and state governments keep separate lists on what is considered a controlled substance. Marijuana is considered Schedule I, a category reserved for substances with "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse," both statewide and federally.
Austin-based CBD retailer Grassroots Harvest CEO Kemal Whyte, like many CBD shop retailers, was blindsided by the announcement. Many small businesses rely on Delta 8 for their sales—Green Herbal Care CBD said about 90% of its sales come from Delta 8—and Whyte said he is frustrated by the inconsistencies in the drug scheduling system.
Since 87% of Texans support the legalization of marijuana, at least for medical use, per a recent poll, Whyte said he wonders who this legislation is for.
"It's gonna have a massive impact on small businesses—there's just no way around it," Whyte said. "The reality is, we don't want to push out anything bad for our customers, we want this to benefit our customers and to help them. If we can make money while doing it, that's the American dream. What are we doing, whose benefit is this for?"
Delta 8 surged in popularity after the perceived legalization—consumers enjoyed its lower psychotropic potency, decreased anxiety while using it and the peace of mind as a legal way to get high. So in order to protect their products and livelihoods, both Grassroots Harvest and Austin-based manufacturer Hometown Heroes are taking legal action.
Whyte said Grassroots Harvest is suing DSHS, saying their action is creating negative effects in the market. Meanwhile, a Hometown Heroes spokesperson said the company is in the process of filing a temporary restraining order that would pause the ban on Delta-8 in the state of Texas.
Threats against Delta 8 are not new—DSHS lost a lawsuit trying to make "smokable hemp products" illegal last year and Texas lawmakers had been considering a bill that would make Delta 8 illegal, though it was dropped after the clarification was made.
Hometown Heroes released a formal statement in response to the DSHS rule.
"I need to be clear—we love Texas, we're just choosing to fight for the will of the people in regards to cannabis in Texas," Hometown Hero CEO Lukas Gilkey said in a statement. "(Texas DSHS) are using backhanded ways to create legislation and go against the will of the people."
Whyte laments the fact that it would be easier legally to "open up a strip club that also sells guns," and said he can't post customer testimonials that mention the benefits of Delta 8 without getting hit with a cease and desist from the Food and Drug Administration. Whyte said he isn't opposed to regulation—far from it—he just wants to see it go through the correct channels.
"The fact that they're stunting our ability to communicate with our clients that want to learn about this, you're preventing us from communicating with them and teaching them, or spreading information that we know," Whyte said. "I think that that in and of itself opens up a lot of questions."
Grassroots Harvest still has Delta 8 products on its shelves for the time being but for how long, Whyte doesn't know.
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Austin Public Health and other clinics around Austin are now providing booster shots for all three vaccines, including Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, to fully vaccinated individuals after both Pfizer and J & J were approved by the CDC on Wednesday.
APH and Austin clinics, which were already administering the approved Pfizer booster, will begin distributing shots as soon as Friday.
Those who received the second dose of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine more than six months ago are elligble to receive a booster if they are over 65 or if they are over 18 and:
- Live in a long-term care environment
- Have underlying medical conditions
- Work or live in high-risk settings, such as schools, hospitals or correctional facilities
Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said in a media Q&A Friday that APH is encouraging boosters just as much as they have urged residents to get their first and second doses.
"Boosters are incredibly important to keeping our community protected and hospitalizations low," Walkes said. "If we can stay on top of our vaccinations, we provide protections for our most vulnerable and make it that much harder for COVID to spread in our community."
Eligible residents are free to choose the same booster as their first doses or "mix and match," per the CDC announcement.
Those looking for another dose can simply bring their vaccination card to APH centers or the dozens of Walgreens and CVS locations in the metro, which began administering doses Friday.
Additional updated guidance from the CDC allows for all eligible individuals to choose which vaccine they receive as a "mix-and-match" booster dose. It is advised to remember to bring your CDC COVID-19 Vaccination Card showing the original doses with you when going for booster shots.
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