Class of 2020
The Year 2020. Yes, THAT year.
I should have known something was up when the opening weekend Friday night reception, known as “Back to School,” was cancelled because of a 90-percent chance of severe thunderstorms, high winds and a tornado warning. (Of course, in typical Austin fashion, it didn’t materialize).
The reception is an annual event where the class, their friends and family, alumni, speakers, advisory board members and other members of the ATXelerator community get together on Friday night to meet the new class and socialize. Also nixed was the always-fun Esther’s Follies performance immediately afterwards.
The retreat started promptly at 8 am Saturday and it ended up being another educational weekend of sessions and activities. This year, rather than take electric bikes, Bird donated scooters and the class scooted over to Seaholm to get a briefing on that amazing repurposed project from City of Austin economic redevelopment program manager Margaret Shaw. Next the class motored up to West Campus where “Austin on My Feet” blogger Dan Keshet, ATXelerator Class of 2019 alumnus, led a guided tour of West Campus and its University Neighborhood Overlay. The mixed-use, walkable and bikeable area west of UT has been transformed into an extremely livable and exciting area. It is a model for how much of Austin can be improved as mixed use continues to gain acceptance.
For the class projects, the three issues the teams studied were mobility, affordability and homelessness. Feedback from the 2019 class was that some wanted to study issues that were currently hot rather than analyzing the impact of past ordinances. And after city council repealed its no-camping ban in June 2019, homelessness became a very hotly debated issue in Austin.
While the COVID-19 coronavirus was a minor story when the program began on Jan. 10, the news of its increasing severity started to grow. The first weekly session was Jan. 15 and the last scheduled one, on the Nonprofit Community, was March 11. On March 6, a week before SXSW 2020 was to start, Austin Mayor Steve Adler cancelled the annual event. It was criticized by some at the time but it turned out to be the right call.
The ninth weekly session took place as scheduled on March 11 and then soon after that, the city started to shut down. Within a week, the pandemic was in full force and class members had a host of issues to handle such as employment, home-schooling and a variety of other complications brought on by the immediate shut-down.
As a result, the Pitch competition was postponed and then the Center4ATX Games III, scheduled for April 15, was cancelled. While five of the six project teams opted not to move forward because of the chaos, one team still persevered and completed it virtually. Team members Erin Dempsey, Natasha Masterson and Chris Barnard completed their policy recommendations on the homelessness issue and presented it to judges Jenifer Sarver, Lem Williams and Dave Floyd over a Google Meet video meeting.
While it was clearly an unusual year, nothing in the world went as normal in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately most of the education sessions were completed, as well as the annual It’s My Park Day volunteer project and class members rated their experience very favorable, according to the annual survey. 2020: we’ll never forget you!