ChooseSA at SXSW. Photo by Scott Ball.

Bexar County Commissioners reviewed and discussed several County investments, including the recent SATXatSXSW campaign, on Tuesday. The initiative, led by the local nonprofit Choose San Antonio, featured a coalition of 40 organizations and businesses that represented San Antonio during the South by Southwest Interactive Festival (SXSW) in Austin last month.

The Choose SA presence at SXSW cost about $350,000 and included $25,000 from the City of San Antonio and $15,000 from Bexar County. The remaining $310,000 was raised by fundraising efforts by Choose SA board and volunteers. Other sponsors and community partners in this initiative include the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation, Whataburger, Trinity University, Tech BlocGeekdom, and others. Officials have already begun planning for SXSW 2017, and are scouting out potential locations and trade shows cities throughout the world.

Choose SA is effectively utilizing “event-based marketing,” Judge Nelson Wolff said. “It seems like you’re going to get the best bang for your buck, rather than running a $350,000 ad in The Wall Street Journal. It just seems like that’s a really good return on your (investment).”

Choose SA Executive Director Meghan Garza-Oswald reports on the impact of SATX@SXSW. Photo by Lea Thompson

Choose SA and its ambassadors introduced San Antonio as a place to work, live and play through the trade show booth inside the Austin Convention Center and at the “Casa San Antonio,” the city’s official cultural embassy during SXSW. According to organizers, more than 3,000 people entered Casa San Antonio over a three-day period, but one in 10 said they had never heard of San Antonio beyond the River Walk and the Alamo.

“Our idea was to go beyond the idea of growing our city but to proclaim how amazing our city is today,” said Choose SA Executive Director Meghan Garza-Oswald.

Cultural ambassadors discussed the city’s recent changes and developments – such as the emerging tech scene,  Mission Reach and UNESCO World Heritage designation – with an estimated 800 visitors. Some individuals who attended the Choose SA events and spoke with ambassadors gave feedback via an online survey.

The County and Choose SA are finding other ways to attract new businesses, families and Millennials outside of traditional incentive packages, said David Marquez, executive director of economic development for Bexar County. “We’re looking beyond startups.”

Families and young professionals are already moving to San Antonio for its low cost of living, but Choose SA is working with partners and board members like Rising Barn‘s Peter French to improve urban housing and financing options for those who want to live in downtown San Antonio. Partners such as LiftFund, Cafe Commerce and Tech Bloc have set their sights on improving business opportunities and amenities in the urban core.

South by Southwest trade show visitors hang out with the San Antonio "icehouse" volunteers on Tuesday, March 15, 2016. Photo by Edmond Ortiz
South by Southwest trade show visitors hang out with the San Antonio “icehouse” volunteers on Tuesday, March 15, 2016. Photo by Edmond Ortiz

“Between the City and the County we’ve probably invested over $100 million in inner city housing at this time,” Wolff said. “But (with initiatives like ChooseSA) we’re on the right track, we’re getting there.”

San Pedro Creek Project On Track

County Commissioners authorized the release of up to $4.2 million for Phases I and II from the County’s $125 million budget for the San Pedro Creek Project on Tuesday. Extensive redesigns caused the project to fall behind schedule by eight months, but hiring a construction manager at risk, officials say, have gotten the project back on track.

San Antonio River Authority General Manager Suzanne Scott updates Bexar County Commissioners on the San Pedro Creek Improvements Project. Photo by Lea Thompson.

The San Antonio River Authority is currently interviewing three firms for the construction manager position and will present their final recommendation to the County in May. Construction is expected to begin by fall 2016,  and project officials expect to complete Phase I by the City’s Tricentennial in 2018.

The River Authority has communicated with area property owners throughout the process, and are currently finalizing agreements with two stakeholders, said General Manager Suzanne Scott.

“When you’re talking with property owners about issues,” Scott said after the presentation, “the committee has been very accommodating”

Bexar County’s Precarious Five-Year Forecast

The Bexar County Budget Department presented the five-year, long-range financial forecast, with the assumption that operating costs will increase at historical rate – outpacing revenue gained from property taxes. A minimum 10% fund balance is required to maintain the city and county’s AAA bond rating, but the general fund’s ending balance is expected to fall below that level in FY 2017-18.

The biggest cost increase is attributed to health insurance, which is expected to increase by 10% for County retirees and 5% for active employees. New positions and new individuals covered by insurance plans – 492 added in 2015 –  cost the County an additional $1.6 million.

Increased staffing costs and minimum wage, video visitation services for the county jails, and services for the growing population in the County and in unincorporated areas were also big-ticket items Bexar County took on.

The forecast could change depending on actions taken by the Texas Legislature in June 2017, said Bexar County Manager David Smith, who reminded commissioners of recent attempts to pass bills that would reduce “local government’s ability to achieve revenue growth from property taxes.”

State Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R- Dist. 7) failed to pass a bill that would have reduced the property tax rate from 8% to 4%, but he could succeed in the coming session. Property taxes account for a majority of the County’s General Fund.

(Read More: Bexar County Budget Flat at $1.7 Billion, No Tax Increase)

County staff recommended that the Commissioners identify recurring savings of $7 million in the FY 2016-17 budget. The commissioners will revisit the County’s capital budget in June to adjust funding decisions.

In the meantime Wolff asked Smith to define which projects have already been funded, and which ones the County would have issues funding for in the future. He also requested that the increased compensation cost for County employees, after the living wage increase, be included in the final forecast.

Bexar County has always “operated in a very conservative manner,” Wolff said, adding that the County has never touched that 8% the last 15 years.

“The situation now is one that we’d better plan very conservatively,” said Commissioner Paul Elizondo (Pct. 2).

*Top Image: ChooseSA at SXSW.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

Related Stories:

#SATXatSXSW: A Successful Mission – with Room for Improvement

Property Owners Weigh In On San Pedro Creek Design Overlay

San Pedro Creek Design Changes Praised, Pose Challenges

Tacos, Technology, & Taking Initiative: Day One at #SATXatSXSW

Lea Thompson, a former reporter at the Rivard Report, is a Texas native who has lived in Houston, Austin and San Antonio. She enjoys exploring new food and culture events.