Two years ago, a team of next-generation business leaders in San Antonio, frustrated by the city’s lack of momentum compared to other cities attracting talented workers and high paying jobs, quietly joined forces with the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation’s then-chairman, USAA senior executive and now CEO Wayne Peacock, and SAEDF President and CEO Jenna Saucedo-Herrera.

The small group was organized informally at first, led by Michael J. Lynd Jr., founder and CEO of Kairoi Residential, a multifamily developer and manager with properties and investments in San Antonio as well as Austin and Denver, two cities often cited among those surpassing San Antonio in the competition for talented workers and tech-driven enterprises.

Lynd brought an almost evangelical zeal to his belief that San Antonio could compete at a higher level, and he found an early ally in Randy Smith, CEO of Weston Urban, then focused on the completion of the new Frost Tower, the centerpiece of Rackspace co-founder Graham Weston’s expansive vision for redeveloping and activating downtown San Antonio. The two former college athletes bonded.

Lynd and Smith, representing a general belief in the real estate development community that San Antonio was missing opportunities, were recruited by Peacock; Rad Weaver, then CEO of McCombs Partners and now CEO and chairman of CW Interests, a San Antonio investment firm; and Craig Boyan, president and COO of H-E-B Grocery Co., to channel their aspirations into an exploration of what it would take to make San Antonio more economically competitive.

The individuals do not have the kind of public profiles established by their predecessors in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s – individuals like former Mayor and HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, former USAA Chairman and CEO Gen. Robert F. McDermott, former Frost Bank Chairman Tom Frost Jr., auto magnate Red McCombs, and developer Cliff Morton, to name a few.

While preferring a more low-key approach to leadership, what the current executives share with their predecessors is the same focused drive on building a better city. The new generation of leaders is less insular, more collaborative, younger and more diverse, and unburdened by San Antonio’s lingering self-image as poor, uneducated, and unable to compete.

Saucedo-Herrera, who grew up on an Elmendorf cattle farm and attended St. Mary’s University on a softball scholarship, is backed by SAEDF’s 23-person executive committee. Her recruitment from CPS Energy in 2016 to replace Mario Hernandez, who headed SAEDF for 25 years, was seen as the first important step in reorienting the city’s approach to economic development.

If there was a single belief uniting the principals, it was that San Antonio has a great story to tell about its unique culture, history, and trajectory — a story that was not being told convincingly or in a single voice in the competitive marketplace.

The group has closely studied Opportunity Austin, founded by businessman Gary Farmer in 2004, which has driven significant economic growth in the Texas capital with a sequence of well-funded five-year plans. The organization touts the creation of 465,900 jobs and a payroll of $29.9 billion since its founding.

“Most people believe Austin’s success is due entirely to the University of Texas, its music scene, and the city’s cool factor, all of which are important,” Lynd said in a recent interview. “But the truth is that city has had a plan for a long time, and they’ve stuck to the plan, and it has been very successful.”

SAEDF leaders have met at length with Farmer and consider him a mentor. They’ve come away with a shared belief that San Antonio needs to execute a more robustly funded strategic plan while redoubling efforts to improve education outcomes and workforce training.

Behind every idea and initiative considered by the San Antonio group was the goal of creating more skilled jobs locally and attracting growing companies in other states looking for a new home. The group also realized it would require a concerted effort to align local government, PK-12 and higher education, and the business community in a singular effort with everyone supporting a new approach. The Alamo Colleges’ Alamo Promise is key to those efforts, SAEDF leaders say, as is the City’s SA Ready to Work initiative approved by voters in November.

“We are the only city with both major universities here, UTSA and Texas A&M-San Antonio,” Lynd said. “A&M is right where it needs to be to someday grow to 40,000 students, and UTSA’s Downtown Campus plan is for real. It’s happening.”

The former Bexar County jail is mostly demolished as it makes way for UTSA’s College of Business in downtown San Antonio. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Added Saucedo-Herrera: “Mike Flores, chancellor of Alamo Colleges, is the right person executing the right vision.”

San Antonio’s U.S. census ranking as the U.S. city with the highest percentage of people living in poverty, and its comparatively lower education outcomes, make it a challenge for it to compete against other cities it aspires to equal. In 2019, SAEDF hired Atlanta-based Market Street Services to rank the San Antonio-New Braunfels metro area against 10 other metro areas that SAEDF regards as competitors, though some are much larger population centers and are years ahead in economic development: Austin-Round Rock; Charlotte-Concord-Gastonia in the Carolinas; Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington; Denver-Aurora-Lakewood; Jacksonville, Florida; Kansas City in Missouri and Kansas; Nashville-Davidson-Murfreesboro-Franklin, Tennessee; Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale; Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue; and Washington-Arlington-Alexandria.

San Antonio finishes last in almost every category measured by Market Street. Click here to review the study.

One factor that has made Opportunity Austin a success is its connection to the city’s single chamber of commerce.

Emulating the Austin model will be easier said than done, as I wrote in a column published last week. San Antonio has 15 chambers of commerce, each pursuing its own mission, and all competing for membership, scarce corporate donations, and executive talent to serve on chamber boards. Past efforts to merge the big three – the San Antonio Chamber, the Hispanic Chamber, and the North San Antonio Chamber – have never succeeded.

Many of the city’s younger business leaders regard the chambers as legacy organizations that are risk-averse and not inclined toward innovation. Tech Bloc, “a movement” founded in 2015 by the city’s tech leaders, has attracted enthusiastic support from young professionals. Tech Bloc CEO David Heard, whose day job is chief marketing officer for SecureLogix, holds the unpaid position on a volunteer basis.

“I can’t get out of it now that I’m in it,” Heard joked last week.

Tech Bloc has a single paid employee. Supporters contrast that to a payroll said to exceed $1 million at the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. Yet Tech Bloc, in the view of many, has played a far more influential role at City Hall in recent years, one example being its successful push to allow ride-hailing services in San Antonio.

Perhaps consolidation is SAEDF’s biggest challenge and biggest opportunity as the organization prepares to launch its new strategic plan, tentatively titled all in SATX, which includes an ambitious fundraising campaign to raise $38 million from the private sector for SAEDF’s first five-year plan, a sum effectively twice that of its current annual budget of $3 million to $4 million.

“It’s an investment,” Lynd said, “because it’s going to lead to job growth and business growth for everyone.”

Since 2017, when Peacock and Saucedo-Herrera moved the SAEDF offices out of the Market Street building controlled by the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce for more visible offices in the Weston Centre, the goal has been to establish the SAEDF’s independence and its lead role among competing economic development organizations.

One of those, the Free Trade Alliance of San Antonio, was absorbed into SAEDF in early 2018, though both sides described the event as a “merger.” Another, SA Works, also once housed in chamber of commerce offices, also was absorbed by SAEDF, and continues to be led by CEO Romanita Matta-Barrera. Other organizations continue to operate independently of SAEDF and are seen as potential targets for further consolidation, including the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce’s Cybersecurity Council and the woefully underfunded BioMedSA.

Perhaps the single biggest consolidation worth consideration is bringing Visit San Antonio under SAEDF, which would allow San Antonio to project a single story and marketing strategy, whether the target is a growing company or a major convention.

Visit San Antonio CEO Cassandra Matej recently resigned to accept the same position in Orlando. Her departure came after a year in which the pandemic decimated the convention and tourism business and, perhaps, changed the industry forever. The future of the convention business is a topic of intense debate here and elsewhere, with some believing it will rebound robustly in the coming 2-3 years and others who believe the advent of virtual meeting platforms and the trend toward working remotely have changed things permanently.

There is no question combining the staffs and budgets of SAEDF and Visit San Antonio would reduce overhead and lead to a more streamlined, unified marketing approach. Such dramatic changes, however, are inevitably met with resistance and a defense of the status quo.

SAEDF might find its biggest challenges to achieving greater success lie not only in how it projects and sells San Antonio to the outside world, but how effective its education partners are in preparing a more skilled workforce.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.