Rumors aren’t normally news, but when a downtown businessman called midweek to share a thirdhand report that Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk was buying downtown properties, I started to call people who likely would know.
We regret to inform you that there is no immediate evidence to support the rumor. That doesn’t mean it isn’t happening or will not happen someday. It doesn’t mean we don’t want the rumor to be true. It simply means I am not going to turn your Thursday upside down with some welcome economic development news. Alas, we run a lot of promising rumors to the ground that readers never hear about.
Musk has certainly taken to a Texas city, but that city is Austin, not San Antonio. This city finished out of the money in 2014 when Tesla selected Reno as the site of a new $6.5 billion battery manufacturing plant. Musk has said he has moved to Texas, without disclosing where he is living.
His secretive charitable Musk Foundation, which supports renewable energy initiatives, has moved here with him. Click on that foundation link to view the barest-bones webpage ever posted by a charitable foundation. The information could fit into two Musk tweets.
Musk has become estranged from California’s political leaders and, along with numerous other tech leaders, has looked to Texas for a less taxing, business-friendly environment. It’s not unreasonable to believe he could be convinced to expand his presence along I-35 with office or research and development operations in San Antonio. There is plenty of room and labor to accommodate Tesla and SpaceX suppliers.
The Austin American-Statesman published a March 2 article that strongly suggested Musk might be greenlighting a SpaceX facility in that city as his aerospace and space transportation venture gains serious momentum. The article cited a Musk tweet that went out to his 49 million followers last week: “Creating the city of Starbase, Texas.”
The only problem there is that Musk apparently was referring to plans to transform the tiny settlement of Boca Chica, where the Rio Grande empties into the Gulf of Mexico some 22 miles from Brownsville on the border, into a whole new incorporated city he wants to call Starbase. Cameron County officials say they have been briefed on Musk’s plans, according to Entrepreneur.
Meanwhile, the rapid construction of a $1.1 billion Tesla and battery manufacturing facility in southeastern Travis County is expected to be completed sometime this summer. The plant will produce the company’s electric Cybertruck, a pickup truck that looks like something out of a Star Wars episode. The plant, which will employ at least 5,000 people, also will produce the more affordable Model 3 and the new Model Y sport utility vehicle.
SpaceX has a lesser-known investment in McGregor, outside Waco, where it employs 500 workers and leases nearly 5,000 acres, suggesting there is more to come there.
Musk may be the richest or second-richest human being on earth, but people here involved in the 2014 effort to sell San Antonio as the best site for his new battery factory say Musk and his team of advisors operate directly with landowners when scouting new sites and do not employ the usual consultants or hold the customary meetings with elected and local economic development officers.
The real question is not whether Elon Musk is coming to San Antonio but why dozens of California tech companies are pulling up stakes and relocating to Austin, Dallas, and Houston, and not here.
The answer is a complex one. San Antonio has always sold itself as a city with a low cost of living and a workforce with low expectations. City and business leaders need to drive a stake through the heart of that argument and kill it off for good.
San Antonio also strikes many outsiders as a balkanized community when speaking and negotiating with one clear voice is critical in the competition with other cities for smart jobs. The City of San Antonio website lists 15 area chambers of commerce. The Bexar County website lists 19 area public school districts that are partially or completely located within the county. A long-anticipated new strategic plan for the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation was set for release and implementation in early 2020 but was shelved as the pandemic hit.
I’ll devote my Sunday column to exploring what San Antonio must do and must change to become more competitive as a city. I can hear the boos even before I write a word.