Crowded Austin Reaching its Limits

The multifaceted festival hasn't been a bonanza for everyone in the city, and not every local is convinced the rewards are worth it.

Heading into its 26th year, SXSW risks becoming a victim of its success. Its intense growth has brought problems pitting local merchants and cab drivers against the massive influx of festivalgoers. "The whole vibe has changed," carped one cabbie last year. "It's become a love/hate situation."

According to the Austin Chamber of Commerce, the 2011 festival drew 126,000 official registrants and another 160,000 people lured to associated events open to the public. The economic payoff was estimated at $167 million -- much of it driven by new-technology types drawn to the fest's interactive component, which has brought tons of business deals to a city that boasts a payroll that is 39 percent tech-related. Still, there's grumbling. 

Traffic is the obvious problem in the eight-block downtown area, where, at peak times, it comes to a virtual standstill. Taking pity on taxi drivers, the city council has approved a fee to help cope with inebriated festgoers: Anyone who gets sick in a cab can be charged an extra $100.

Restaurateurs face a different challenge. They pay fees to affiliate with the festival and must give badge-holders priority over local patrons. But many have found that badge-holders (after shelling out $595 to $1,395 for festival registration) aren't big spenders, even if they guarantee business.

As a result, Austin-bred restaurateur Kevin Williamson, who runs Ranch 616, Star Bar and The Rattle Inn, opts out of a festival affiliation, though he does seek corporate-sponsored events to host. "It's changed mostly from the feeling of a homegrown event -- Austin has such a laid-back community feel -- to a more sophisticated city crowd," he says.

But there's no turning back now. "We've spent the last several months meeting with city officials and other members of the community to try to make sure that SXSW is a safe event that people can enjoy," said music fest creative director Brent Grulke in November. "It isn't as if we could simply lock the doors to the city and tell people not to come anyway."