Robert Rivard

Something must be done to protect and enhance Port San Antonio.

That’s one lesson, among many, I took away from “A Rising Southside,” our recent series on the economic and cultural rebirth of this long-neglected urban sector. I’ll share other lessons in future articles in the coming weeks.

The same unified city that fought to keep Kelly Air Force Base open in the mid-1990s and then worked together to soften the blow of base closure must be brought to bear on base conversion and redevelopment, a process that might last a generation.

An aerial view of Port San Antonio. Courtesy of Port SA.
An aerial view of Port San Antonio. Courtesy photo.

Port San Antonio has quietly become the urban core’s new industrial backbone, with more than 80 companies employing 13,000 people at the 1,900-acre complex. Still, much remains to be done to protect what has been built and to keep it growing. For starters, a higher profile is going to be necessary to build citywide support for its continuing redevelopment.

Mayor Julián Castro is best known for declaring this the Decade of Downtown, but he’s acting now to redouble efforts to support both job growth and diversification at Port SA.

Alex Nava, vice chairman of the Port San Antonio Board of Directors
Alex Nava, vice chairman of the Port San Antonio Board of Directors

Castro has formed The Aerospace Working Group, a blue ribbon task force that is spending 90 days from September through November looking at the challenges and opportunities at the Port. The task force is chaired by Alex Nava, an attorney and the vice chair of the Port SA board. It includes the mayor, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, former Mayor Henry Cisneros, other elected officials, City Manager Sheryl Sculley and a who’s who of economic development officials. See below for a complete listing.

“Port San Antonio is a phenomenal asset for boosting San Antonio’s job base and the aerospace and logistics industries,” Castro said. “We are working hard to ensure that the strategic vision is there to make the Port as successful as possible.”

Last week’s passage of the City Council budget included $3.7 million for infrastructure improvements at Port San Antonio. The money will be used to redevelop many of Port SA’s base-era streets, which then will be transferred from the Port to the City. That’s one step in the right direction, but more than a decade after Kelly’s closure, Port SA still looks like a military base awaiting conversion. Much remains to be done.

“More than 80 companies and a workforce of 13,000 is a great start, but there are still hundreds of acres to be developed or redeveloped on the 1,900-acre property,” said Port SA President and CEO Bruce Miller. “This provides additional opportunities to grow quality jobs for our region, but to fulfill this vision, it takes the entire community, including businesses, educators and public entities.

Bruce Miller, president and CEO of Port San Antonio.
Bruce Miller, president and CEO of Port San Antonio

“Strategic support from the city and other public sources is important to address infrastructure needs that accelerate redevelopment,” Miller added. “We see this in the extension of 36th Street, where phases just being completed by the city open 400 acres at Kelly Field that, when fully developed, can support an additional 8,000 aerospace jobs.”

Until now, Port SA’s aerospace economy has been fueled by the federal government and U.S. military “MRO” work, short for “maintenance, repairs and overhaul.” Sequestration and reduced military spending are pushing Port officials to push for more work in the commercial aerospace sector.

Major aerospace companies here, such as Boeing and Lockheed-Martin, whose operations here are dependent on military MRO contracts, face reduced workloads and are looking for rent concessions.

Gore Design Completions is, arguably, the only major employer at Port SA that is not dependent on U.S. government work. Founded by Jerry Gore and his former wife, Kathy Gore Walters, both of San Antonio, the company was sold in May to MAZ Aviation, a Middle Eastern aviation firm based in Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia. Port officials said the new owners intend to maintain operations here.

In a perfect world, Port SA would attract commercial MRO work to supplant the military contracts and recruit new companies attracted by the city’s rising profile, its affordable cost of living, and the Port’s land, transportation infrastructure, associated companies, city and state incentives, and a growing workforce pipeline created by the national model Alamo College’s Academies Program.

“The Mayor has asked the Working Group: What does the community need to do to go out and win this work? So we are at an interesting point here,” Nava said. “The North Airfield that has opened up is what we describe as 400 acres of ‘prime beachfront’. But it’s undeveloped, and it will take money to build out the infrastructure. We’ll need help from the city, county and state for that.”

Nava said the working group has met once and will meet again in October and November before issuing its report.

District Four City Councilman Rey Salaña
District 4 City Councilman Rey Saldaña

“The time to compete for aerospace jobs is now. These funds solidify that we are committed to a future that includes high quality good paying jobs,” District Four Councilman Rey Saldaña stated in a press release announcing the street funding.  “San Antonio will not be left behind, and the former Kelly Air Force Base has much more life to give to this city and its hard-working residents. When the Port announces the relocation of thousands of jobs and the growth of existing companies, it will be because of the investment made by this Mayor and Council.”

That note of optimism was evident in an article Saldaña contributed to the The Rivard Report for publication in our  recent series. He and District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales share the Port in their districts and both are members of the working group.

Miller also contributed an article to the series, one that underscored the Port does not receive public dollars to fuel its operations. After the series was published, Saldaña authored an op-ed in the Express-News calling for greater investment in Port SA.

Until now, it seems most in the local leadership were content to allow Port SA management to survive on the rents it collects from major aerospace tenants and other companies that lease land and facilities there.

As Saldaña noted in his op-ed, Kelly helped build this city’s Hispanic middle class, providing generations of families with good federal jobs. An entire city united in an unsuccessful effort to protect Kelly when it was targeted by the 1995 Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRACC). That community-wide effort led by then-Mayor William Thornton failed to keep the base open but did succeed in negotiating the base’s phased closing over five years, giving the city time to prepare for final closure in 2001 and the formation of the Greater Kelly Redevelopment Corporation.

In 2007 that transitional effort gave way to Port San Antonio, an aerospace hub, industrial complex and foreign trade zone with international landing rights, framed by two railroad lines and multiple interstate highway systems. Port SA has received relatively little outside funding over its life span. In retrospect, some other funding mechanism would have allowed for faster redevelopment of the campus and and more aggressive marketing campaigns, and made Port SA more competitive in competing with other cities for companies like Boeing and Lockheed-Martin.

Students and workers at Lockheed Martin’s Kelly Aviation Center at Port San Antonio. Photo courtesy of Alamo Colleges.
Students and workers at Lockheed Martin’s Kelly Aviation Center at Port San Antonio. Photo courtesy Port San Antonio.

A new sense seems to have taken hold that a changing business model will be needed if Port San Antonio is going to secure its current job base and compete nationally to expand. That means San Antonio, not only the Port, will need to compete for commercial aerospace and aviation work.

On Thursday, The Greater Chamber will host a day-long “Aerospace and Aviation Vendor Fair” at the Main Exhibit Hall at the Bexar County Arenas on East Houston Street. The fair is intended to connect local businesses and contractors with Port SA companies.

Mayor Castro will open the luncheon, which will feature keynote speaker Tom Captain, vice chairman and U.S. aerospace and defense leader for Deloitte LLP, which recently completed a study for the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation looking at information technology, manufacturing, health care, and aerospace that has not been released.

“We have 300 days of sunshine for flying, a great workforce, and a facility with a two-mile runway with a lot of capacity still,” Nava said. “And we have a city and region that is on board with recruiting the commercial aviation business, so the possibilities are exciting.”

Aerospace Working Group members:

Alex Nava, workforce group chairman; attorney and vice chair of the Port SA Board

Mayor Julián Castro

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff

Former HUD Secretary and San Antonio Mayor Henry Cisneros; outgoing chairman, San Antonio Economic Development Foundation

Wayne Alexander, chairman, Port SA board

Councilman Rey Saldaña

Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales

City Manager Sheryl Sculley

Mario Hernandez, President, San Antonio Economic Development Foundation

Carlos Contreras, Assistant City Manager for City of San Antonio

Rene Dominguez,  City of San Antonio Director of Economic Development

David Marquez, Bexar County Director of Economic Development

Arthur Coulombe, 2013 Chairman, Greater Chamber of Commerce

Richard Perez, President and CEO, Greater Chamber of Commerce

Jim Perschbach, Alamo Area Academies board chair; attorney

Mike Mitchell, Washington DC aerospace consultant

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.