Agra, India. Image from Google Maps.

Dear Mr. Mayor:

Have a great trip to India. Your strategy of visiting foreign countries with dynamic, emerging economies is a good one. The payoff won’t be immediate, but you’re laying the groundwork for future investment and trade.

Don’t get caught up in 18-hour days of meetings, banquets and other formalities, and don’t spend your down time in international hotels that could be anywhere in the world. Be a tourist. Lose the tie. Hit the streets, try a rickshaw. Sample the street food (well, maybe).

Agra, India. Image from Google Maps.

Think you’ve seen poverty in Mexico or elsewhere in Latin America? You haven’t seen anything yet. The streets and slums of India teem with almost indescribable inequality. The same nation that became the back office to the United States and has made outsourcing a component of GDP is burdened with some of the most unforgettable poverty you’ll ever experience.

India is way too vast to see in even a couple of visits, so you won’t see Kashmir or the Himalayas even from the window of your airplane. You are scheduled to visit the city of Agra, a two-hour drive from New Delhi. The Taj Mahal, a royal mausoleum, is there. It’s a must-see in the same way you can’t come to San Antonio without visiting the Alamo.

Agra will make you jealous. It boasts three World Heritage sites: The Taj Mahal, nearby Agra Fort and the Mughal-era red sandstone architecture of Fatehpur Sikri. I mention Agra because it’s a city of 1.6 million people, or about the same size as the greater San Antonio area.

That makes it India’s 19th largest city, which brings me to the one real piece of advice I include in my sendoff: Stop pitching San Antonio as “the nation’s seventh largest city.” Technically speaking, it’s true. The U.S. Census says so. And everybody else pitching San Antonio makes the same claim these days.

But it’s misleading and it misses the point.

I recently spent several days in Boston, visiting relatives and our two boys who live there. For history buffs, there’s a lot to admire about a city that counts Ben Franklin and Sam Adams as native sons and includes Cambridge, home to Harvard, the oldest and most distinguished of the metro area’s 52 small and large universities.

You went to Harvard Law, Mr. Mayor, so I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. Boston has 626,000 people, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, making it half the size of San Antonio and the 21st largest city in the country. I suppose the mayor of Boston could tout his town as the “largest city in New England,” but you don’t hear that kind of thing.

The U.S. census also measures “Combined Statistical Areas” in some instances, and “Metropolitan Statistical Areas.” These measures of urban areas are a more realistic measure of city’s true size. The Top Four, as you would expect, are New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington D.C. Boston is fifth on the CSA list and 10th on the MSA list, with a CSA population of 7.5 million people and an MSA population of 4.6 million. San Antonio, with no surrounding cities of any size, does not fit the definition of a CSA, but the San Antonio-New Braunfels MSA is 24th with 2.2 million people. In other words, Boston, a city half the size of San Antonio on the Pretend City List, far exceeds it on the Real City List.

Let’s act our size, Mr. Mayor. By that, I certainly don’t mean you or any of us should curb our ambitions. On the contrary, I think our size is one of our competitive advantages. We have room to grow; Boston doesn’t. We have what developers call “cheap land.” Boston, to the best of my knowledge, doesn’t have cheap anything. Boston is a great city, but the cost of living will kill you. San Antonio has one of the most affordable urban lifestyles in America.

You are in India to talk business. San Antonio is eager to do business with anyone who wants to come here and invest. We are one of America’s Hungriest Cities, Mr. Mayor. Hungry for growth, hungry for investment, hungry for partnerships, hungry for entrepreneurs looking for new places to set stakes. So talk Rackspace, Geekdom and TechStars. Talk BioMed SA. Talk cybersecurity. Talk Toyota.

Wild water buffalo in Cooum River, India. Photo courtesy of SARA.
Wild water buffalo wade through the Cooum River near a shanty in Chennai, India. This section of the Cooum River is essentially devoid of any fish or aquatic life because the water is so polluted with untreated sewage. Steven Schauer, Manager of External Communications for SARA, took this picture in April 2010 while visiting Chennai to offer assistance to a newly created river authority. Photo courtesy of SARA.

I’d rank San Antonio at the top of a new list of my own making: Top 10 Opportunity Cities in the U.S. Leaving out the larger cities. This list includes Austin, Omaha, Oklahoma City, Kansas City, Raleigh, Charlotte, Portland, Indianapolis, and Pittsburgh. Others might disagree with my choices and I’d like to hear from them. These are regional capitals where the economic development doors are wide open, where civic and business leaders are working together to make things happen. They are the competition. But none, in my opinion, offer as much as San Antonio right now. This is our time, and that’s something you can’t quite quantify.

Mr. Mayor, here’s another reason to tone down the “seventh largest city” stuff. India doesn’t necessarily think more is better. The country can’t even count its people with any certainty. Greater Mumbai, the city that people my age grew up calling Bombay and now the country’s financial capital, supposedly has more than 20 million people. Perhaps 12 million live in Mumbai city; it’s estimated half  live in slums. Mumbai even has its own unique kind of slum, the railroad slums.

Bigger isn’t better, Mr. Mayor. We ought to be big enough now to recognize that. Let’s stick to our strengths, not to slogans.

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.