For longtime residents, Austin's massive population boom is not new. Seeing small businesses close and big corporations move to Austin in droves was frightening for Leslie Martin, even 20 years ago.
Using a small amount of money she earned by selling antiques, Martin opened a café in the Summer of 2000, feeling that someone had to keep Austin local.
Her idea was to create a "third place," or somewhere that isn't your home and isn't your work "but it feels like home." Not many cafés in the area served food at the time, so to differentiate her business and because she was vegetarian, Martin added a small vegetarian menu.
"I (wanted) to create a space that has a certain feeling and is a networking space for people and has a creative vibe going on," Martin said. "I was like, 'it just seems weird that I would open a restaurant and make money off of serving meat when I've been vegetarian for so long.'"
She called it Bouldin Creek Café and it operates on a few core values: paying employees a living wage, supporting the community by fundraising and sourcing local, helping those in need and creating a safe space.
Even though it isn't in the same spot as when she opened it and the menu has expanded, Bouldin Creek Café is an Austin staple to this day. Not a soul has dined inside the restaurant since March 2020 but Martin has had good luck with curbside.
"I hear all these horror stories of what people were having to deal with, with the masks and people putting tables together when you're not supposed to have large groups and I just kind of don't want to put my staff through that," Martin said. "I want them when we reopen and we're trying to use this to work on some things we want to do to improve our internal culture for the better and then work on some financial stuff that we've got on the backburner."
Martin said watching other businesses close during COVID has taken a toll on her—it's hard to hear about small businesses that have already closed even though some funding, like the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, is available now.
COVID-19 has left a dent on local businesses in the city, which Martin thinks will have a permanent impact due to rising costs of living, real estate and a lack of tax breaks and protection for long-standing local establishments.
"I feel frustrated with the city for not doing more for small businesses because what do we have here if we don't have our eclectic businesses? I just feel like so many of the things that we claim Austin to be are just vanishing," Martin said. "I think we're gonna see less and less people that aren't corporate aren't like hospitality groups opening restaurants because it's just too much. I've heard people say, 'I'm not in the coffee shop business, I'm in a real estate business.'"
However, Martin sees a light at the end of the tunnel and said they are close to having all the staff vaccinated. The restaurant will reopen when she feels it is safer to open at 100% capacity. In the meantime, she is very thankful for her curbside customers.
"I do really feel lucky and I see people eat in their car, I see people come in every week, every day and I just think this is amazing," Martin said. "I can't believe how many people continue to come just for curbside takeout food, I just can't believe it. I feel pretty lucky."
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Last year, we examined how Austin has an unlikely lookalike in Boise, Idaho, a fast-growing metro that, like Austin, has earned both praise and ire as thousands flock to the city.
But while Boise and its suburb, Nampa, were named the two best-run cities in America by WalletHub, Austin ranked 85th—below fellow hubs Phoenix and Miami and six fellow Texas cities.
The study, which measures 150 US cities across 38 metrics, compared each metro's quality of city services to its city budget per capita. While Boise ranked third in both categories, Austin's 12th-best quality of services was offset by a city budget that ranked 112th per resident.
Here's a look at how the Sun Belt's former pride and joy fell so far below its tinier "twin":
Booming economies—both cities
Both Boise and Austin ranked in the top 5 for their economies, with Austin taking the cake.
Bolstered by a mass pandemic migration and tech influx, both metros are caught "mid-metamorphosis" as they quickly transform into major cities. While Austin suburbs Georgetown and Leander both saw the fastest growth of any metros from July 2020-2021 with double-digit growth, three Boise suburbs—Meridian (5.2%), Caldwell (5.2%) and Nampa (5.0%) rounded out the top 10.
Tech giants like Tesla and Oracle, alongside other developments in tech and business, helped Austin produce one of the fastest-growing economies in 2021. And with employers like Albertson's, Hewlett-Packard and Micron Technology, Boise's unemployment rate sat at 2.4% in April—well below the national average of 3.6%.
City budget, safety—Boise
Austin's city budget for 2022 was around $1.2 billion. (Hensel Phelps)
Boise's City Hall offers 42% of its budget to general funds. (Boise City Council/Facebook)
With a $661.8 million budget and a projected population of just over 235,000, Boise has the third-best city budget per capita.
As the city experiences rapid change, city leaders said their budget priority was community-oriented, including "housing, transportation, environment, and more," and that 42% of the budget went to general funds.
And while Austin had a $4.5 billion budget this year, the city had to stretch that among its nearly 1 million residents. 1.2 billion—or 26%—of the budget was placed in general allocation, with two-thirds of that slotted toward public safety.
Austin remains one of Texas' safest cities, according to Police Chief Joseph Chacon, but pales in comparison to Boise. While Austin ranked 71st in safety, Boise clocked in at eighth. Boise's crime rate per 1,000 citizens was 35.5 in 2020, a 2.4% decrease from the year prior, while Austin's was 40.98 in the same time period.
Austin has become known as a "brain drain" in part thanks to the University of Texas. (University of Texas at Austin/Facebook)
Boise's biggest university is Boise State University. (Boise State University/Facebook)
Aside from its top economy ranking, Austin also shone in its high school graduation rate, which clocked in at 1st in the US. Known as a "brain drain" city, Austin's college-town status and wealth of job opportunities have created one of the most educated populations in the U.S.
Three of the top 25 public high schools in Texas are located in Austin, and the city's education system ranked 16th. And while four of the top 10 high schools in Idaho are located in Boise, the city's overall education earned just 41st place.
Both cities are known as fitness and health havens thanks to robust outdoor amenities and health-conscious residents. But Austin still edged out its Idahoan lookalike, ranking 7th overall to Boise's 10th.
Affordability and infrastructure issues—both cities
Housing has become a scarce commodity in Austin.
Both Boise and Austin are experiencing affordability issues thanks to an overpriced housing market. (Boise New Construction/Facebook)
Still, the effects of high-speed growth have done some major damage to both formerly sleepy cities.
Both cities pose higher than average incomes relative to their state. But thanks to a rapidly diminishing number of available homes for both new and old residents, both Boise and Austin ranked as the top two most overvalued housing markets in the country, according to a Florida Atlantic study.
With more and more residents priced out of homeownership and burdened with a higher cost of living, both Boise and Austin ranked below the top 30 in the financial stability index.
Both cities have seen even more development in neighboring suburbs—like Boise's Nampa, which was named the US's best-run city for the sixth year in a row—while its inner-city infrastructure often struggles to keep up with the times. While Boise's infrastructure and pollution ranked 32nd overall (Nampa ranked 77th), Austin's car-centric infrastructure ranked 45th.
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