When the pandemic began changing our daily lives, cities and counties handled various situations differently. Georgetown attorney Josh Schroeder was part of an ad hoc committee of business leaders that developed a plan to re-open businesses. “When things began heating up, there was a lot of talk about what everyone from the President on down was telling us to do, so we just needed to be consistent.”
Prior to working out timing and safety measures, the committee spent time assessing differences in the manner in which Williamson and Travis County responded. “Austin was very secretive and did not communicate their intentions well. They issued conflicting directives, which led residents and businesses to wonder if or when orders from the County Judge or City Mayor superceded each other.”
Schroeder said, “The Austin city rules were very restrictive and created problems in the construction industry—they halted construction of everything from homes to sports stadiums, but continued to build a homeless shelter. Shelters are important, but all construction is important to someone, and the Federal government had already said commercial construction was essential.”
In contrast, Schroeder says, Georgetown City Council and staff were on conference calls every day, and were consistent in their communications with the County Judge and Commissioners, which translated into better management for our business community. “Under Federal law, our city and county kept going. We knew, in Georgetown, shuttering construction would cause economic chaos; it didn’t make sense to stop construction mid-build. Many homes or businesses with a roof but no windows could be destroyed or suffer a lot of damage. It was also a question of financing; banks expected payments and charged interest whether construction continued or not. That can be devastating to any size company.”
City Manager David Morgan provided assurances that, despite staff working remotely, builders would continue to get permits and inspections. “We found the Zoom calls were almost more efficient,” Schroeder says. “No driving, no formalities of in-person meetings. What used to be a 90-minute meeting was completed in just the time it took to get the work done.”
Schroeder says another benefit of being a city our size is that leadership recognized there was no time to convene a task force to do a study. “Getting people their resources and money two months from now did no one any good.”
When the County issued the shut-down orders, County Treasurer Scott Heselmeyer and Hal Hawes provided nearly immediate determinations on essential businesses and kept people’s doors open. “Small town people know each other, so when I sent a request to Scott and Hal, they knew the details already; they were consistent and fast. In Austin it was the opposite; people were not given specifics regarding ‘essential business’; they were told to self-identify and then were penalized if they got it wrong.”
One specific example was Brookwood in Georgetown (BiG). CEO Erin Kiltz called the city right away due to the nature of the care she provides to special needs adults. That care is as much of BiG’s business as running the café and gift shop, and is essential to the families of its citizens. Again, city staff and committee members were already familiar with the needs of the organization and they were able to continue services without interruption.
Georgetown also managed to create a grant program in record time with support from the Chamber of Commerce. Schroeder says daily collaboration via conference calls with leadership, schools, and the health district kept the county running. “When our fleet services needed repairs, Dr. Fred Brent got the high school auto-tech classes right to work; no task forces or contracts; they just did it, because it needed to get done.”
The Ad Hoc committee met several times a week for six weeks. “No one tried to be in charge. We met, made decisions, and got the work done because people needed it, and came back together to regroup and move on to the next thing,” explains Schroeder. “With help from Gordon Logan, and his expertise with businesses across the nation, we assessed the best timing and safety protocols our businesses could live with. Our plan was so good that the Governor’s office even put some of our ideas in the state-wide plan.
“Georgetown is blooming because these decisions were made—quickly. That is the benefit of living in Georgetown, and why you’ll see more and more people bringing their Travis County businesses here.”