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Washington, D.C. Is Spending $375,000 on SXSW This Year

Anna Webber/Getty Images for SOUND

On Saturday night, in a secured, secret restaurant at the epicenter of South By Southwest’s bustling tech festival, some celebrities threw a party. Billionaire investor, Shark Tank host, and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban made the rounds, shaking hands and posing for photos while Oklahoma City Thunder forward Serge Ibaka nursed a sore knee and tried not to hit his head on the doorways. Hip hop luminaries were in attendance too—everyone from Questlove to T.I.

The celebration was for the launch of a venture capital fund—Sound Ventures—founded by Ashton Kutcher and his business partner, longtime friend Guy Oseary. The pair has been investing heavily since 2011, backing everything from boutique t-shirts to flower delivery services. Sound Ventures is their attempt to be serious VCs. Near the end of the night, Kutcher jumped on stage in designer streetwear and said “disrupt” enough times to make any writer on HBO’s Silicon Valley beam with pride. Then he introduced Lil’ Wayne.

Three blocks away, a very different party was going on at a leased wine bar filled with politicians. There they chatted with software types, architects, and real estate agents; startups were pitching while lesser known filmmakers and musicians milled about, alternately drinking, chilling, and performing. There were suits and dudes wearing snapbacks. But unlike the other parties that weekend, this one wasn’t thrown by VCs, tech startups, or #brands—it was hosted by our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.

Despite having the real estate and enthusiasm for tech—not to mention bragging rights to the best city for women in tech in the country—the District was at SXSW to court the same tech talent that Ashton Kutcher wants to invest in. And despite the superficial similarity, D.C.’s agenda couldn’t have felt more different than the celebrity-studded opulence that’s come to define SXSW.

When it was first announced that D.C. was going to SXSW last year, the budget item became a somewhat controversial point: The previous mayor’s administration had allocated almost half a million dollars for the five days they’ll be there. When recently elected mayor Muriel Bowser took office in January, she cut the SXSW budget by $75,000. To many, though, $375,000 still seemed like a frivolous chunk of cash to spend sending 10 people to party in Austin.

And yet, once at the festival—where extravagance, celebrity sightings and tactful name-dropping are the ubiquitous currency—the WeDC house began to look more like a levelheaded hub of efficiency, foresight, and focus, a haven for D.C. enthusiasts just across the street from the hubbub of the Austin Convention Center. The city is serious about growth, and, if anything, is ahead of the game by sending a team of smart, young representatives to jumpstart the process.

Ashley Spillane, president of Rock the Vote—a non-profit that aims to increase youth voter engagement—reaped the benefits of the WeDC house this year, using it as a staging ground for the 25-year-old nonprofit’s continued efforts to link politics with culture. Formerly L.A.-based, Rock the Vote moved to Washington, D.C. for its political climate. But there were cultural tradeoffs, and Spillane admitted as much to me. Now, she says, it doesn’t have to be that way anymore. “I can see how some people don't see the value in having a presence at parties or festivals,” she said this week, “but some of our most fruitful partnerships have come from relationships established at places like SXSW.” 

In Austin, Rock the Vote was able to tap into politicians and influential tech figures alike, bringing politics to cultural icons. Using the WeDC house as a landing pad, she was able to meet with company reps from Pandora, Grindr, and Funny Or Die over the course of barely 24 hours—and, each time, managed to plan out how her organization might work with these influential companies to register voters. When I spoke to her on Tuesday, she told me that she’d received an email from the team at Pandora, moving forward on a new effort to give Pandora listeners an easy way to register to vote.

“WeDC having this space to actually invite people in and have these conversations has been really great,” Spillane said on Tuesday. She was sitting across the table from Julie Weber, who directs communications for the Washington, D.C. Economic Partnership, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting business in the capital. They were throwing the weekend’s events. “D.C. is so heavily branded as a political capital that you probably have the same challenge,” Spillane continued. “Trying to make it cool and culturally resonant.”

For her part, Spillane relies heavily on celebrities for Rock the Vote’s mileage, and supports the SXSW efforts of the District wholeheartedly because she knows there’s not always a perfect metric for value. Though it may be hard to convince donors that huge parties and first-class plane tickets are important expenditures, sometimes it’s exactly what is needed to spur change. When renowned southern rappers Young Thug and Rich Homie Quan approached Rock the Vote in November, offering to pack a 5,000-person venue in Atlanta on the eve of midterm elections—or when Lil’ Jon made them a YouTube video—it cost money. But Spillane believes it’s worth it to have Quan and Thugger tell 5,000 young rap fans that they just signed up to vote backstage. And that’s exactly what D.C. is trying to do.

D.C.'s low-key party was about bringing business to the District, which could sorely use it. Architects, real estate agents, developers, and others with a stake in convincing businesses to make the move to D.C. milled around the D.C. outpost all weekend. This year, Weber took on the role of D.C. evangelist, co-hosting all of the city’s events for the weekend. But how do you know if their presence at SXSW will actually bring business to the district? Weber smiled when I asked. “I like to think of it like a pebble you drop into water, and it creates a ripple,” she said.

As a gesture of solidarity, Mayor Muriel Bowser flew in for a speech on WeDC’s opening night. Afterward, techies lingered at the bar and took advantage of the free drinks, mingling with the friendly city staff—who, in conversation, were enthusiastic but vague.

“To be honest I didn’t really know what expectations to have,” D.C.’s Deputy Mayor Brian Kenner told me on Wednesday, after spending the weekend not only shaking hands but also speaking on an official SXSW panel with Austin, Los Angeles, and New York City representatives. “But I can tell you I had more tech companies—located in D.C. as well as not located in D.C.—tell me they were so appreciative of our presence at the festival,” Kenner said. “They were excited. They were encouraged.”

Kenner speaks the gospel of D.C. development, touting the city’s startup accelerators, economic incentives, diversity initiatives, and its new “digital corridor” on Seventh Street. “We want to make sure that we’re encouraging those types of industries that are going to be around, not just for a few years, but long term.” D.C., he says, needs to be rebranded. “We’re not just a federal town.” 

Weber agrees that the SXSW events are investments in future growth. “We won’t see response to this maybe for another five to seven years, but that ripple will start, and every year you’ll start seeing something that’s a little more. That’s what we’ve done with retail. We go to ICSC [the International Council of Shopping Services] in Vegas to represent D.C. to the retail community, and what you’ve started seeing is 28 grocery stores opening up in the District since 2001.”

Around midnight at the District’s opening party, I ran into a 26-year-old D.C. real estate agent on WeDC’s front patio smoking a cigarette. He told me he’d flown to Austin this week for the same reasons Kenner mentioned—to benefit, in the future, from connections to D.C.’s investment in innovation. Pretty soon, he told me, the old school, business-as-usual atmosphere will give way to a new economy defined by not only tech startups and cultural currents. And when that happened, he wanted to be in D.C. “I’m here for the long term,” he said.

It was a rosy vision for a young man on vacation, the exact kind of optimism that keeps business moving forward. Because while others crowded around private clubs and star-studded red carpets, these young people from D.C. chose to come to Austin and rally around their city.