By Micheline Maynard originally for Forbes
When you think of Austin, Texas, the first things that come to mind are probably the University of Texas, food, music, and the South by Southwest festival. But now, Austin wants you to think of it as an automotive capital.
Isn’t Austin too deep in the heart of Texas? How can it compete with Detroit, let alone other established Southern auto cities like Lexington, Ky, Nashville, Tenn., Jackson and Tupelo, Miss.? And isn’t an auto industry focus at odds with Austin’s hip reputation?
Austin’s tactic is to home in on companies that are developing advanced technology, explains Adrianna Cruz, vice president of global corporate recruitment for the Austin Chamber of Commerce.
It’s using the Formula One race in November, which will be held in Austin, to draw attention to its bid to be included in the nation’s automotive centers. Although there have been some doubts about whether the race will happen, tickets are now on sale and it’s set to be the first F1 race in the U.S. since 2007, when the circuit last came to Indianapolis.
“The auto industry is going through a change and a shift. There’s a focus on battery technology and making things cleaner and safer,” Cruz says. “If there’s a location to look at as we discuss how to do things differently – how do we make cars smarter, safer, better for environment – Austin wants to be on the leading edge of those discussions.”
Cruz says a series of companies have already invested in automotive technology projects there, including US Farathane, a leading source of plastics for the auto industry. It announced in December that it is opening a 250,000 square foot facility in Austin, creating 228 jobs.
Austin has operations by Freescale Semiconductor, which has a long track record with General Motors and ActaCell, started as a spinoff from U-T, which is developing the next generation of lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles.
It also has SMSC, a multi-media network company that supplies European carmakers including Audi, BMW, Land Rover and Volvo; and TASUS, an injection-molding company. In addition to all that, SXSW will feature a series of speakers on electric vehicles and other automotive topics this year.
Cruz says these companies are turning out to be “the best ambassadors” for the city’s claim on automotive expertise. Her office often asks representatives from these companies to meet with firms that are considering investments in Austin. “What we hear over and over again is that companies come with an expectation, and what they find in Austin exceeds their expectation,” Cruz says.
To be sure, Austin has a lot of competition in staking its automotive ground. As our Changing Gears public media project reported, Louisville and Lexington recently teamed up to establish an advanced manufacturing cluster, and the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce has launched MICHAuto, an effort to stress the state’s automotive prowess.
But Toyota’s San Antonio assembly plant, 74 miles southwest of Austin, showed the state can be an active player on the automotive scene, said Cruz. She maintains the city is in a prime location between Detroit and car companies’ operations in Mexico, as well as Latin America.
It also doesn’t hurt that Austin is already seen as one of the country’s most attractive cities. “Austin has a lot of wonderful things going for it: a great place to live raise a family, the school system is very good, people are comfortable and happy in their work, and at night they may go play in a band,” Cruz says.