Mayor Julián Castro delivered an unsurprisingly commendatory annual State of the City address to hundreds of local citizens and business, community and elected leaders Tuesday afternoon. Castro lauded developments in education, workforce, urban revitalization, utility management, fiscal responsibility, basic physical health and wellness and more– most in line with goals laid out by SA2020, the nonprofit sparked by Castro’s initiative in 2011.
“Cities are where things still get done in this nation. Cities are the places where people of different backgrounds, different perspectives roll up their sleeves, put ideology aside and actually accomplish things … San Antonio is a ‘City on the Rise,’” Castro said – the latter phrase the title of his speech and a soundbite uttered at almost every public announcement, speech, commemoration, luncheon within the last several months.
“Our graduation rate is up, our unemployment rate is down, our real estate market is is up, and our teen pregnancy rate is down, our income levels are up and our obesity rate is down,” Castro said, crediting the successes to hard working San Antonians in their everyday lives and the strong community vision of SA2020.
Education Takes Center Stage
“The number one goal that we have in this city is to ensure that we create brainpower and that we match that brainpower to 21st century opportunities,” Castro said.
Since its passage in November 2013, Pre-K 4 SA education centers now serve about 675 children on the north and south sides of town. Two more centers (east and west) are set to open in August 2014. At capacity, the four centers will educate 1,500 children per year.
With these centers, he said, San Antonio “continues our march to ensure that we have the best prepared, most well-educated young people in all of the state of Texas.”
Developing the Eastside has been a challenge of the city, Castro said, but it has not gone unnoticed.
The goal is to “create a cradle, to college to career pipeline,” not just for the Eastside, but for our entire community, Castro said. And progress has been made.
At each of the six schools, student attendance is up, he said, pointing to higher graduation rates at Sam Houston High School.
“By the end of 2015 school year, I will visit every single high school in our city to encourage our young people to reach for their dreams, to stay in school and go to college and become great entrepreneurs and success stories of the future,” Castro pledged.
With new tech industries and the “new energy economy” comes a higher demand for specialized skills.
“In 2014 the CPS Energy and OCI Solar partnership will produce the largest solar manufacturing facility in the entire united states of america with 805 jobs – good paying jobs for San Antonians,” Castro said.
A talent pipeline task force has been established through SA2020 to make sure that the skills of our local workforce meet the needs of local employers like Toyota, Rackspace, Boeing and more because we want them to “grow here instead of somewhere else,” he said.
Keep large companies well-employed is important, but Castro also pointed out that “three quarters of the jobs that are created in San Antonio come from small business. In fact, especially businesses younger than five years.”
Café Commerce is set to open in June 2014 and will be a “one-stop resource center” at the Central Library for any small business or entrepreneur looking for help or to connect with others. The center plays a large role in Castro’s goal to “make sure San Antonio is a place for startups.”
“In 2014, you will see the physical turn-around of our downtown,” Castro said, with eight housing developments, 486 units, opening this year and 11 more developments (1,200 units) breaking ground in the city’s urban core.
In addition to housing, The Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, Travis Park, and Hemisfair Park redevelopment.
Castro also cited USAA’s move of 150 employees to downtown. “We hope that’s just the first of many.”
To a thunderous round of applause, Castro also touted a development that “seemed like it would never happen,” the downtown grocery store. H-E-B will break ground on the project this year, which includes the controversial South Main Street closure for the grocery chain’s headquarters. [Read more here.]
Also, “Mark my words, San Antonio will become a google fiber city.” [Read more: San Antonio Has Google Fiber Potential.]
Most notably absent from his speech was public transportation – not one mention of VIA’s Modern Streetcar project. [Read more: 10 Steps to Hit the Reset Button on VIA’s Modern Streetcars]
Castro also commended CPS Energy and San Antonio Water System leadership.
CPS Energy and SAWS have recently announced plans for the first co-location for their respective power plant and desalination plant. [Read more: SAWS and CPS Energy Explore New Energy/Water Collaborative]
SAWS’ aquifer storage and recovery (ASR) facility projects to double storage capacity this year from almost 100,000 square acre feet to 200,000 square acre feet.
“The ASR has been a godsend,” Castro said. It allowed San Antonio to avoid Stage 3 water restrictions and “not just keep up (with water use), but to get ahead.”
“As of december the fact is that we are the only major city with a AAA bond rating by any major rating agency,” Castro said, who credited the success to City Manager Sheryl Sculley.
But fiscal responsibility, by definition, comes with a cost and “tough decisions about legacy costs,” are on the horizon as The Williams Committee, headed by former Councilman Reed Williams– tasked with studying how the city’s retirement benefits can be reined in – is due for release this spring.
“Our firefighters and police officers are the best in the nation. they deserve excellent benefits,” Castro said. “We are not Detroit, our pension system is in good health … at the same time it’s also clear that the costs of health care are going up faster than other costs.”
Early reports of the committee’s findings show the police and fire departments absorbing about 67 percent of the general fund city budget.
“Today we are spending two and a half times per uniform on health care what we spend on our civilians,” Sculley said in an interview with WOAI. “Two and a half times more. It’s almost double anything else within the state of Texas. It’s out of line and we need to make some changes, and we will be recommending those.”
Million Pound Challenge
“Here in San Antonio (health and fitness) is a passion that has been learned the hard way,” Castro said of the enthusiastic commitment he has seen San Antonians make to living healthier, more active lives. Castro’s grandmother had diabetes through much of her life, eventually requiring her leg to be amputated.
“(We need to) ensure that people have the opportunity to get proactive and watch what they eat,” Castro said. Progress has been made in this sector, too, with the obesity rate dropping from 35 to 28 percent – under the statewide average.
“The goal is for San Antonio residents to collectively lose one million pounds. So put the cheesecake aside – put the chocolate cake aside,” he said, noting the desserts provided during the luncheon. Castro dedicated himself to losing a few pounds as well.
To conclude his remarks, Castro called on the audience to participate on an individual level towards SA2020’s goals. “Put aside what part of town we come from … to get involved,” he said. “Volunteer your time … (I hope) you will help us reach our 2020 goal to create a more prosperous and livable San Antonio.”