One of the ironies of the COVID-19 pandemic in San Antonio is that it arrived on the heels of former Mayor Julián Castro’s “Decade of Downtown.” A highly transmissible virus loves a densely packed downtown, so as soon as the lockdowns started, the largely white-collar workforce packed up its laptop bags and retreated to home offices.
That put the years-long creation of a downtown tech district on life support. Now, as one local tech sector leader put it, “We should hold a funeral for the downtown tech district. It’s dead.”
The Castro-launched multimillion-dollar effort from 2010 to 2019 to revitalize blighted sections of San Antonio’s urban core with tax incentives offered to private developers transformed the city’s downtown from a neglected cluster of beige buildings, vacant apparitions of a once-thriving cosmopolis, to a burgeoning center of bustle and buoyancy.
Local trade organization Tech Bloc spearheaded efforts to cheer on the creation of an urban tech scene — one that might mirror that of its I-35 neighbor Austin, now home to Google, TikTok and Meta, among others — as part of that outgrowth. The attraction of tech talent to downtown San Antonio would, so the conventional wisdom went at the time, give rise to quality-of-life enhancements that techies seek out, such as walkable and bikeable thoroughfares, buzzworthy dining and nightlife, luxury downtown residences, and the elusive mass transit system (more light rail and on-demand transportation than buses).
Some of that did come to downtown. Real estate mogul and investor Graham Weston’s cofounding of Geekdom helped to sprout tech startups, and new restaurants and bars suddenly had monied clients with an appetite for fun. Tech Bloc’s advocacy also brought rideshare companies Uber and Lyft back to town after a brief, self-imposed exile over what it believed were draconian local policies. Rideshare availability in San Antonio was seen at the time as essential to maintaining the progressive edge tech leaders were trying to cultivate.
Tech Bloc’s local lobbying and Weston’s real estate dealing helped lay the foundation for the so-called tech district, which generally spans East Houston Street from Main Street to Jefferson Street. In 2019, when global coworking company WeWork announced it would stand up a new facility in the Kress Building across from downtown’s Majestic Theatre, it was a bit of validation for the tech sector’s long-term project. A household name in the heart of the rising tech district? Even WeWork’s competition Geekdom welcomed the move.
WeWork’s bungled attempt to take the company public revealed its soft underbelly, and the project to open a San Antonio location stalled. After years of quiet, it was revealed the company’s lease at the Kress Building was inactive.
Earlier this year, financial giant USAA abandoned plans to grow its presence downtown. In 2019, it began moving as many as 2,000 of its tech workers from its sprawling campus in Northwest San Antonio to a new downtown office. But the pandemic took most of that workforce remote, and the company later pulled out of an incentive deal with the City of San Antonio and Bexar County.
Geekdom’s membership numbers plunged, and the in-person community events that drew others into the downtown tech scene are making their gradual return.
Tech Bloc and Port San Antonio released last month a new economic report on the state of the local tech industry. Among the broad conclusions from the report was the idea that San Antonio’s information technology workers were dispersed throughout the area and could be broken out into 10 different hubs. The downtown hub, though it is the fastest growing cluster, is among the smallest at No. 8 on the list of largest tech employment centers with Port San Antonio ranking first.
Port San Antonio, the former Air Force base with a growing list of commercial tenants, has the largest concentration of IT workers in the area and is twice as large as the next-biggest center, the U.S. Hwy. 281 corridor. Its focus engineering, cybersecurity and robotics, the Port houses employers ranging from private startups to national defense contractors.
Although the downtown tech district has never been the largest employer of workers, it represented a sort of spiritual source of ambition for what the tech industry could look like in San Antonio. That meant that social events, community engagement, startup weekends and pitch events were often staged there.
After Port San Antonio opened the Tech Port Center and Arena, a multipurpose facility built in part to host video game tournaments, and Austin-based startup incubator Capital Factory expanded there with the aim of fostering defense sector innovation, the San Antonio tech epicenter seems to be shifting to Southwest San Antonio.
Focusing almost exclusively for years on the downtown area, Tech Bloc and its board are slated to brainstorm ways to promote growth in other parts of the city.
But don’t sleep on downtown. The first cohort of undergraduates will descend on the University of Texas at San Antonio’s new School of Data Science in downtown when classes begin this fall.
UTSA’s newly minted status as a tier-one research institution and an influx of bright young minds buzzing through the west of downtown may be just enough to resuscitate the tech district.
Graham Weston is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report through his 80/20 Foundation. For a full list of business members and supporting foundations, click here.