The college commemorates its 20th birthday, celebrating the opportunities it offers to more than 23,000 enrolled students.

In 1973, many residents had not believed Austin needed another college and didn’t want to pay for one, but since then, enrollment had grown more than ten-fold to more than 23,000. Many students went on to four-year colleges; thousands more had learned highly skilled trades, entered and positioned themselves to advance in the digital world, or earned the equivalent of a high school diploma. Countless ACC students found new hobbies, learned how to take better care of themselves and their families through diet and exercise, discovered the beauty and utility of the arts and sciences, and equipped themselves to cope with a rapidly changing community and world.

In 1989, the Cold War ended, and as a result, the world changed. Three generations had lived under the threat of nuclear annihilation, but now new opportunities emerged. The digital age was born. Ready or not, ACC reinvented itself, using the financial resources provided by the successful tax and bond election in 1986 to meet the demands and opportunities of a post-Cold War world. Central Texas’ economy had benefited from oil revenues generated in West and East Texas.

By the end of the decade, however, global petroleum prices had fallen, due largely to spikes in petroleum production in the Middle East and Austin’s economy fell into recession. By the early 1990s, however, Austin was on the rebound. The beneficiaries were primarily those whose training and education were in high-end professions and technical fields: lawyers, real-estate brokers, bankers, engineers and government bureaucrats. Education and training were in high demand by established tech companies like IBM, Tracor, and IBM, and ACC jumped in to meet it. Agreements with four-year schools in the state made it easier for students who were successful at ACC to move on, enhancing their skills in the digital world.

ACC’s students, faculty and staff, and supporters throughout the region had exceeded expectations and confirmed that Austin actually did benefit from a community college. The bigger and more difficult question was how ACC could keep up the pace. Budgetary constraints and inadequate facilities curbed enthusiasm. Furthermore, economic recovery occurred unevenly through the city. Most economic growth occurred west of Interstate Highway 35 and south of the Colorado River, or what was then called Town Lake.

In the 1920s, municipal and civic leaders had began the formal segregation of Austin. City authorities collaborated with real-estate brokers west of Interstate 35 to keep African-Americans and Mexican-Americans confined in neighborhoods east of the interstate with their own, under-maintained streets, schools, parks, and public swimming pools. This was called “East Austin,” also sometimes referred to as the “other Austin.” The resident population was 75 percent Hispanic and African-American.

ACC’s leadership had abetted the process of declining commercial vitality by abandoning Ridgeview and declining to replace it with a modern, full-service campus, making it more difficult for East Austin residents to gain education and job-training that could lead to increased income. Commercial activity, a sign of economic prosperity, was most intense west of I-35 from Georgetown to San Marcos.

Evidence of what was happening could be found in commercial disparity. Commerce west of I-35 doubled after 1988 when the recession ended, whereas sales plummeted in East Austin and stifled commercial activity. Gross sales reported by East Austin retail businesses declined and per capita income in East Austin and stood at only $8,586. By contrast, in Central Austin, just across Interstate 35. per capita income was $27,308. Further signaling economic stagnation in that same period of time, 4,000 residents moved out of East Austin.

Part of the reason for economic trouble in building commercial enterprises in East Austin was a development known as the “suburbanization of retail,” exemplified by the 1971 opening of Highland Mall. People used to shop in their neighborhoods where stores were close at hand. Highland Mall changed the commercial dynamic and set the stage for the growth of other suburban malls. Highland Mall introduced another innovation in retail commerce: it was completely enclosed.

Source: Austin American-Statesman, May 28, August 28, and August 31, 1993