San Antonio 2017 is not an Amazon city, and it didn’t take the city’s elected officials and economic development leadership to say so on Wednesday. Anyone with a beer and a barstool was saying so months ago when Amazon first issued its public invitation to bid for the company’s new $5 billion, 50,000-worker second headquarters.
Whether officials should have pulled San Antonio’s bid at mile 20 of the marathon is another matter. It appears the local bid team hit the proverbial wall and decided that finishing the race was no longer worth it. Time will only tell if that was a smart decision, or if we will look like quitters. With nothing to lose last week, tiny Trinidad and Tobago eliminated the U.S. men’s soccer team from the 2018 World Cup. It was a reminder: anything is possible if you don’t give up.
The decision to pull the Amazon bid, however, will be quickly forgotten if Mayor Ron Nirenberg, the new City Council, and a new generation of economic development leaders can deliver in other ways.
“We have 10 active economic development deals in play, and one of them is imminent,” Nirenberg said in a Friday interview. “I can say that with absolute confidence. We want to make smart investments. We want our economic development strategies to be targeted and to be effective.”
San Antonio, Nirenberg said, needs to attack its deficiencies and make a convincing case for its strengths. Asked to say more about a potentially “imminent” deal, Nirenberg demurred. Still, speaking publicly with such confidence suggests he and others believe the city is in a strong enough position to attract other good jobs here without breaking the bank.
Only with the NAFTA’s future threatened by President Donald Trump has San Antonio taken stock of how important a player it has become in the free trade economy.
“The reason we are called a 21st century city is because we look now like what other cities in Texas and the nation will look like 25-50 years from now,” Nirenberg said. “We already are making smart investments in our city. Our international focus is a huge priority for me because we [are] increasingly competitive and that’s where we see growth for the economy.”
Still, San Antonio leaders’ pivot on Wednesday was an admission that this 300-year-old city is not competitive enough today to qualify for Amazon’s HQ2, any more than we were when Elon Musk and Tesla rejected San Antonio for its $5 billion battery factory that went to Reno, Nevada, in 2014.
We never will be that good unless leaders can design a real long-term plan that voters get behind, one designed to outlast term-limited officeholders. The Amazon pullout in some ways was an acknowledgement that the plan needs to come before we compete.
Past plans are a mixed bag. SA2020 has proven to be a great start, but it won’t get us there, even though we are light years better today than in 2010.
SA Tomorrow also falls short. It is not a transformative action plan that addresses the city’s continuing sprawl, its lack of urban density and infill development, and its underfunded, mid-20th century transportation system. Yes, the plan identifies the city’s key growth centers and the need for more contemporary master planning, but the city’s underlying development patterns are not likely to be materially altered.
San Antonio will not join the first rank of leading U.S. cities until its political and business leadership embrace an all-in plan to revitalize the urban core and build where we have been building for 300 years instead of countenancing sprawl. Size is not the key and never has been. Saying we are the seventh-largest city hasn’t accomplished anything. Livability, a vibrant economy and culture, and shared prosperity are better measures.
Incentivize a new level of urban core investment. Discourage sprawl by shifting costs to developers. Balance inner city investment incentives with protections for longtime residents and limited-income families. Only then will San Antonio attract significant new levels of investment and interest in inner city neighborhoods, public schools, and places of work. That, in turn, is the only path to improving education outcomes, and reversing decades of deepening economic segregation.
The lack of such a plan already put into action is why San Antonio 2017 was not an option for Amazon. That’s a fact, whether you agree or disagree with the decision to fold our hand and guard our chips.
Some critics of the pullout who do not want to be named see the hidden hand of H-E-B lobbying to keep the new owner of Whole Foods out of Texas, but no one seems to have a shred of evidence to support that rumor. Others lament the failure of San Antonio and Austin to collaborate on a joint bid. Austin didn’t want a shared international airport 20 years ago when San Antonio floated the concept, so why would that city join forces now?
Some simply hate to see the city not reach the finish line. Yet the very public bidding process has taken on the air of a reality television show with cities and states tripping over one another, each proffer more insane than the next.
Officeholders can’t win. Offer ridiculous levels of taxpayer-supported inducements, and critics rightly question giving one of the planet’s five richest guys a welfare package. Pull out and some of those yearning for a true 21st century economy here call you quitters.
Strong, visionary leadership will render the debate nothing more than a bar argument. Put a transformational plan before voters that puts San Antonio on a 21st century path, and the real value of the Amazon experience will be what we learned about ourselves and how we then decided to do something about it.