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The Defacing of America

By Brigid Shea

Photo: Strip mall parking lotThe recent fight over the Wal-Mart that was planned for the Barton Springs watershed was about much more than saving the aquifer and reducing traffic -- and those are very critical things….But I believe the fight was also about the future "face" of Austin.

By "face" I mean, what Austin will look like, and whether or not we will retain our unique and offbeat character. The fact that our most popular new slogan is "Keep Austin Weird", speaks volumes about the value we place on our "funkiness."

If you haven't done so recently, take a drive, or walk down South Congress --there are more whimsical, funny or just plain whacky signs and store displays in a three block stretch than you'd probably find in all of Houston and Dallas combined.

The same is true of South First Street or East 6th St. or Burnet Road, or Duval. Unusual and offbeat places have flourished in Austin because we appreciate them, and we'll support those kinds of businesses. And I'm certain there's another factor in their success: out-of-town shoppers.

As more and more communities start to blur together and resemble each other, with the same rows of look-alike stores, Austin's unique character will grow even more appealing. I don't know if anyone's studied the percentage of money outsiders spend in Austin's funky stores, but I know where my visitors want to shop…

They love the experience. It's part of the reason they want to come back again. But we have real economic reasons for protecting our unique local businesses -- they return more money to our economy.

A new non-profit that I'm part of, Liveable City, commissioned an economic study that found that local businesses contribute more than three times as much to the local economy than do chain stores.

So as we ponder different scenarios for how and where we grow in the next 40 years, we must also resist the invasion of the supercenters of "sameness." I'm Brigid Shea.

Brigid Shea is a former Austin City Councilwoman. She co-founded Save Our Springs Alliance and is the former head of that organization.

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