The District government is spending $350,000 to hold court at a downtown restaurant and sushi bar in Austin this weekend at the famed technology and music festival known as South by Southwest.
D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) is flying to Austin on Friday afternoon, and many of the District’s biggest names in technology, including America Online co-founder Steve Case, are scheduled to appear at events pitching the nation’s capital as a tech-friendly destination.
“This is something the District decided to put some emphasis on,” said Bowser Chief of Staff John Falcicchio, who noted planning for the District’s splash at SXSW was underway before Bowser took office. Bowser cut District funding for the event by $125,000 but still decided to move forward and to attend the weekend herself.
“This is something she has worked on before, but as mayor wants to see if there is an opportunity to generate some real excitement,” Falcicchio said.
Bowser’s decision to still spend more than double the city’s budget last year for the event has raised eyebrows among members of the D.C. Council. Some said the optics of the trip clash with the mayor’s decision to leave frozen funding in other areas, including $600,000 for new case workers at the city’s dilapidated family homeless shelter.
The mayor, however, focused on the trip repeatedly this week, saying bringing new businesses and jobs into the city must be a prime goal. On Tuesday, she announced a partnership with Howard University for the District to help pay to house tech start-ups on the campus. She also said the District and the university would work with venture capital firms to encourage continued funding for fledgling companies as they progress beyond the start-up phase.
Bowser also said the District would help underwrite funding for a year-long fellowship program aimed at moving students from disadvantaged neighborhoods in the city into computer coding jobs.
The District, Bowser said, lacks a “cohesive tech ecosystem” to attract and retain high-tech companies. She cast the new partnerships as “tools in the District’s toolbox” that she could highlight this weekend in Austin.
Asked Tuesday about the city’s spending and her trip to SXSW, Bowser said the District’s “goal has been to increase our presence at South by Southwest. To really understand what it will take to get tech businesses not just to locate but to grow here in the District of Columbia.”
The bulk of the District’s spending on that front, about $250,000, has been entrusted to the nonprofit Washington, D.C. Economic Partnership and has gone to rent out Crave, a restaurant and sushi bar adjacent to the Austin convention center. The restaurant space has been rebranded the “We DC House.” It’s been marketed in SXSW literature as a drop-in lounge for convention attendees. It’s also the spot of Friday night events with Bowser and Case, who now heads D.C.-based Revolution LLC.
The economic partnership says the rented out restaurant and all of its events will “brand D.C. as a national technology hub.”