Austin is known for iconic events. South by Southwest, Austin City Limits, Austin Marathon, and countless smaller festivals and gatherings have made the city a vibrant and active community.
Many of those, however, are in jeopardy because of costly government regulations.
At a recent city council meeting, Austin event planners testified on how the city’s regulations are stifling and even shutting down local gatherings.
“I was an organizer of the Travis Country 5k Race held from 2015-2017,” said David Sundstrom, an Austinite of 17 years. “Our race averaged around 423 runners. Today in Austin it will cost $26,000 to hold this type of community race. That puts it out of reach.”
He said the race no longer exists due to current city ordinance rules.
“A third of our expenses were direct fixed-costs levied by the special event ordinance. Our permit fee alone for a 5k race was the same as the permit fee for the Austin marathon … our barricade expenses increased 35 percent from year one to year three, due to increasingly stringent [city enforced] rule interpretations, though there was no change to our course or traffic.”
Stacy Suits, a Travis County Precinct 3 Constable, also testified to the city council.
“Non-profits are getting choked out in this city,” he said. “Travis county used to have a Cinco de Mayo and Juneteenth celebration at Woolridge Park, then it got renovated. You know why it never came back? Because of fees, regulations and the trouble of doing it. That’s why we [now] have Cinco de Mayo on Travis County property.”
At the Thursday meeting, the city council approved an amended version of the special events ordinance in an effort to streamline the permitting process. The new policy has been met with concern by numerous event planners for its confusing procedural system and one-size-fits-all approach to categorizing events. The ordinance comes after six years of deliberation.
Brad Spies, director of special projects for South by Southwest, expressed his frustration to the council over the long delay.
“I was a member of the music commission that passed the initial resolution that started this process,” he said. “I was twelve at the time,” he jokingly added.
Spies continued, “The problem with this whole long process has really been an inability of the staff and city legal to listen to the stakeholders … the process could’ve been a lot faster and with a better end product if the stakeholders had been listened to from the beginning. Many of the points that have been recently included were initially brought up to staff five years ago.”
Spies said there is much work still to be done to make hosting special events more affordable.
“There is a huge need for improvement in the permitting process and this ordinance is really just the first step,” he stated. “As we’ve seen in Austin, a number of events have gone out of business in recent years and a number of small community organizations have decided to not have new events since the process is so cumbersome.”
Unfortunately, if the council delays even longer and does not implement effective, affordable solutions, this trend will continue.