Maintaining a strong environment for job creation and economic development remains atop Bexar County’s agenda, County Judge Nelson Wolff said Monday.

In his annual State of the County address, Wolff discussed diversifying the local workforce and improving air passenger service, public transit, and roads.

Wolff also talked to reporters about the County and City’s recent decision not to bid for Amazon’s second headquarters and the blow to San Antonio’s effort to land a Major League Soccer franchise.

Speaking to several hundred attendees at a luncheon hosted by the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, Wolff said the San Antonio area is on pace to add 30,000 jobs by the end of this year. He added that the local unemployment rate is lower than the state and the national average. Bexar County’s rate is 3.7%, compared with 4% statewide and 4.5% nationally, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

However, Wolff said this is not a time for local government or the business community to be complacent about economic development.

“Through the [San Antonio] Economic Development Foundation, we need to continue to be aggressive in seeking companies to come to San Antonio and local companies to grow,” he said. “This year, we have used incentives to successfully recruit 13 companies and expansions of local companies.”

Wolff highlighted the arrival of companies such as Hulu, Indo-MIM, Bakkavor, Takumi, GM Financial, and the TJX Companies. Together, these companies have brought or are expected to bring more than 3,000 jobs to the San Antonio area recently, representing a combined $250 million investment in the area.

Wolff said local government must be smart and efficient in offering economic development and tax incentives to lure new businesses to the area. The decision by San Antonio and Bexar County not to proceed with a bid for Amazon’s second corporate campus was a prime example of this philosophy, Wolff said. The online retail giant received 238 bids from across North America ahead of last week’s deadline for requests for proposals.

Wolff said he and Mayor Ron Nirenberg would be honored to see Amazon establish a corporate presence in San Antonio. But the local governments would not want to enter “a frenzied and expensive incentive bidding war that risks our taxpayer dollars,” he said.

However, Amazon’s criteria for choosing a site for its second headquarters have helped San Antonio’s leaders identify areas for improvement to make Bexar County more attractive to businesses: workforce, air service, public transit, top-tier research universities and facilities, street infrastructure, public safety, and cultural amenities.

“We cannot make those investments and at the same time throw taxpayer dollars after Amazon,” Wolff said.

Wolff asked the business community to lobby elected officials on behalf of the North American Free Trade Agreement as the pact is being renegotiated. Wolff said San Antonio has been the nation’s most pro-NAFTA city, a trait he said helped to lure the North American Development Bank headquarters to town.

“Why are we discussing a 24-year-old trade agreement that is, by all measures, an unmitigated success?” Wolff said.

He urged business leaders to share their feelings with President Donald Trump and local Congressional representatives, and stand up for NAFTA’s preservation.

“[Changes or withdrawal] would be a detriment to our country, as well as to Texas and to San Antonio,” Wolff said.

While Wolff did not address San Antonio’s quest to land a Major League Soccer expansion franchise in his speech, he said later that he was surprised that the league is allowing the Columbus Crew to consider relocating to Austin.

Wolff said MLS made no guarantees that San Antonio would become an expansion city anytime soon, but given that MLS does not want teams in both San Antonio and Austin, the development is not a positive one for San Antonio’s bid.

“I’m disappointed and angry about the way MLS has approached it,” he said of the possibility that Austin could get a team. “I don’t know what they’re thinking. It’s very upsetting. It’s a little disingenuous, in my opinion.”

Wolff recalled that he believed MLS officials had seen the County’s purchase of Toyota Field and the launch of San Antonio FC in the second-tier United Soccer League as signs that the City was interested in doing what it could to land an MLS franchise.

Workforce development

In his speech, Wolff asked businesses to help better educate and train the local workforce by supporting programs by which high school students can earn dual credits while finishing their education and earning industry certificates. He also said he would like to see businesses create paid high school internships and develop job shadowing initiatives and apprenticeships for young people.

The County has stepped up to fund apprenticeship programs with Code Up and Open Cloud training. The County also created paid internships and a job shadow day. Additionally, the County has contributed $250,000 to CAST Tech High School.

Freshmen gather in front of the entrance to CAST Tech on their first day of school. Freshmen gather in front of the entrance to CAST Tech on their first day of school.
Freshmen gather in front of the entrance to CAST Tech on their first day of school. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Air service

Nirenberg recently announced the formation of a task force to make recommendations on improving air service. Wolff noted that 17% of local air passengers drive to Austin and Houston because those cities’ airports have cheaper, more frequent flights and more direct flights to key business destinations.

Wolff said one consideration is the creation of an independent regional airport authority capitalizing on the assets at the San Antonio International Airport, Stinson Airport, and Port San Antonio.

Port San Antonio is particularly important here, Wolff said, with its 11,500-ft.-long  runway and capacity to add another runway. Port San Antonio’s runways are longer than those at SAIA, and are able to handle general aviation and larger international aircraft, he said.

“The idea is to create an entity that develops, manages and operates our three airport assets in a fully coordinated manner,” Wolff said.

Wolff explained that state statutes empower Texas counties – and not just cities – with broad authority regarding the development of an airport, should new construction become an viable option.

Public transit and roads

Wolff said with a growing population, the San Antonio area will need “a consumer- and choice-driven public transit system focused on mobility, innovation, efficiency and decongestion.”

Wolff said he endorses the development of a multimodal public transportation system that includes light rail, bicycles, car sharing, partnerships with transportation networking companies and traditional taxis, driverless cars, and demand-driven bus, van, and car routes.

“It will take additional funding to develop a first-class transit system and a forward-thinking board of directors and management team to accomplish [this],” he said.

Despite current and planned road expansion projects, Wolff invited the business community to help lobby state officials to increase funding for highways.

“Based on the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization estimates, we will need to invest $17 billion in road infrastructure,” Wolff said. “But based on revenue streams, we will have $7 billion.”

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.