New Austin Chamber of Commerce chair eyes international and tech opportunities

Phil Wilson is the 2018 Chair of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. (KXAN Photo/ Todd Bynum).
Phil Wilson is the 2018 Chair of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. (KXAN Photo/ Todd Bynum).

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The year 2018 will be full of plenty of big decisions which will impact Austin businesses, and Phil Wilson plans to advocate for those businesses’ best interests on a local, state and even international level.

Wilson is the 2018 chair of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce and believes the next step in supporting Austin businesses will need to come from expanding international and educational opportunities.

Wilson is the general manager of the Lower Colorado River Authority. He’s also served as the director of the Texas Department of Transportation and as Texas secretary of state under Rick Perry.

The growing tech sector

One of the major decisions which may play out during Wilson’s leadership of the chamber will be Amazon’s selection of a secondary headquarters. Austin was one of many cities who submitted a bid last fall. Wilson believes Austin could really benefit from this investment of an expected $5 billion in construction and 50,000 high paying jobs. 

“You know they are the innovation machine when it comes to how consumers work in the economy today,” Wilson said of Amazon. “So if you look at whether it is distribution, trucking, warehouses, real estate, there is a ripple effect. It takes place when you have a large employer coming into an area with the kinds of jobs that Amazon would bring.”

Wilson couldn’t say yet whether there are any “deal breakers” or parameters under which Austin wouldn’t want Amazon to bring in a second headquarters.

“We’d like to get to the second round, we’d like to be part of the conversation,” he said. “We have a great product to show off, if you look at Central Texas and the Greater Austin region, our workforce, our people, our institutions of higher education, our technology, the kind of innovation we’ve been through, we have a great story to tell.”

“Hopefully get a chance to compete for the win,” Wilson said.

He added that he is also excited to support the creation of jobs and opportunities in the growing Austin tech sector.

“I think with the footprint we have here with the intellectual property, the skill sets of technology and media that have merged and transformed today, if I was a young person with no limits, I would look [to create] that next thing,” Wilson said. “If you combine artificial intelligence and virtual reality and how those kind of merge into where the economy is gonna go, I think Austin as a region is poised to continue to exploit that for great economic gain into the future.”

Education beyond high school

Wilson emphasized over and over: for Austin to grow, the education students receive beyond high school needs to as well.

“A high school degree is not enough,” he said. “So we need to make sure we have the right kind of training, both college and non college.”

“I think we need to be creating jobs that focus on highly skilled long term sustainability and that also look at more than just college degrees,” Wilson continued. “About 70 to 75 percent of our workforce never goes to college, so how do you create the right level of technical training — post secondary community college, intellectually focused — [for people] that can do the jobs we have in the economy today.”

Growth in Austin

In 2018, Austin City Council will continue to discuss CodeNEXT, the city’s plan to improve affordability, housing density and land development code. Wilson and others in the business community will be following the debate.

“I do think the city does need CodeNEXT. We are poised for great growth, and we need a system in which we can create more affordable housing,” Wilson said.

“If you don’t have that level of appropriate planning, and housing stock being created, you continue to push people out, even further into the communities,” he added. “I think you wanna do it in a strategic way that has some certainty of time to it, so that when someone wants to come in and develop and start a business, or do anything with the community that they’re not having to spend a year year and a half of getting their permits.”

Wilson sees improving affordability and transportation in Austin as paramount.

“We don’t want to be the [San Francisco] Bay Area, we don’t want to be that part of the world where its been very difficult to come in with housing its extraordinarily expensive, where mobility is very tough to do,” he said.

In the long term Wilson would like to see better traffic solutions for Austin as well.

Looking international

Wilson plans to focus his efforts with the Chamber this year in doing more international outreach.

“I think we’ve done an awesome job in the Chamber of domestic recruitment,” he said. “I think we need to start focusing more on the international side, as we look at Asia and Europe in particular, we have a great story to tell.”

“Maybe not this year or next year but in the future, they’ll realize that Austin and the greater Austin area — San Marcos, Leander, Georgetown, Cedar Park, Kyle, Buda — all have the chance to say, ‘we are a great place to come and create jobs,'” Wilson said.

Part of that intentional outreach means helping Austin-Bergstrom International Airport grow as well. Wilson believes ABIA needs to have the right number of gates, flights and destinations to meet the demands of growing international traffic.

“How can we show you that this is a place where you want to spend your capital, where you want to have your people be here, and you wanna build a life here?” he asked aloud.

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