Gainesville's role model

Published: Thursday, January 4, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 3, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

AUSTIN, Texas — For some Gainesville residents, Austin is what they want their city to be when it grows up.

The cities have similarities: The universities of Florida and Texas make their homes in the respective cities, part of the reason they're known for being youth-oriented and left-leaning.

"In that sense, both of those towns hold that holy but it's not really comparable," said Stan Lynch, who was the original drummer for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and has played in both towns.

"It's apples and oranges."

For one, Austin has about 675,000 people — about six times bigger than the Gainesville's population. But perhaps more significantly, some Gainesville residents say Austin has a greater commitment to supporting local music and businesses and protecting the environment.

"Gainesville is very good for interesting things — but Austin has everything," said Matt Pollock, an Austin resident who graduated from University of Florida in 2005.

Pollock was part of the improvisational comedy group Theatre Strike Force at UF. He said he's found a bigger commitment to the arts in Austin, including more than 100 live music venues and the annual South by Southwest music and movie festival.

"I do see similarities but Austin is a lot more committed to supporting local businesses," said Laura Zappi, marketing director for Whole Foods Market's flagship Austin store.

Zappi graduated from UF in 1986. She said some of her favorite places in Gainesville, such as Skeeter's restaurant, closed since she left. But she said Austin has greater support for local businesses, as shown by Whole Foods.

The market started in Austin and has since expanded across the nation. But Zappi said the store still buys as much local produce as possible and holds a weekly farmer's market in its parking lot.

The store also supports environmentally friendly policies, such as offsetting its energy use by buying credit in wind power and buying seafood caught in a sustainable way. In that way, the store reflects the environmental policies of Austin as a whole.

"They're certainly doing far more than we are," said Dian Deevey, who authored an Alachua County citizen committee's report suggesting Gainesville Regional Utilities adopt some of Austin's policies.

Like GRU, Austin Energy is a city-owned utility.

But Deevey said the city of Austin has shown a greater commitment to energy conservation, renewable energy such as wind power and promoting environmentally friendly building techniques.

Richard Morgan, head of Austin Energy's green building program, said the utilities have some significant differences, including the fact that wind power is being generated on a large scale in Texas and not Florida. But the cities have both seen controversies over building power plants.

After Austin had a tumultuous battle over building a nuclear power plant in the 1970s, the city increased its commitment to conservation and energy efficiency. Since those programs started in 1982, Morgan said the city has decreased demand for electricity by about 700 megawatts — basically preventing the need to build two medium-sized power plants.

"I think the entire community is supportive, is proud of and really gets behind this kind of program," he said.

Bill Sheppard, interim energy and business services manager for GRU, said the utility is just starting to test a new slate of energy-efficiency programs such as buying back old refrigerators. Austin has the advantage of having done similar programs for decades, so it was part of GRU's nationwide tour of utilities last year.

"The great thing about being out there is seeing the stumbling blocks along the way as well," he said.

He said energy-conservation advocates in Gainesville have made a mantra out of touting Austin's programs.

"We always hear Austin does this, Austin does that," he said.

One of those advocates is Rob Brinkman, chairman of the local chapter of the Sierra Club. He said he had a relative who lived in Austin, so he has experience in both towns.

While there are many differences between the cities, he said they share the major similarity of being progressive outposts in conservative states.

"They're cities that don't belong in the states they're in," he said.

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