Mayor Ron Nirenberg (left) and Richard Perez, San Antonio Chamber of Commerce CEO. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Mayor Ron Nirenberg joined Chamber of Commerce members virtually during a Friday discussion around economic recovery in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

The City has allocated $38 million from federal coronavirus relief funding to provide immediate financial assistance to small businesses, Nirenberg said. City Council also put $80 million toward workforce development.

That includes providing workforce training support, career navigation and placement, education and training, participant stipends, and even temporary child care. Having training and wraparound services will help participants be ready to fill jobs that will stimulate the San Antonio economy, Nirenberg said.

Richard Perez, CEO of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, told the mayor that the chamber had worked with Alamo Colleges, the University of Texas at San Antonio, Texas A&M University-San Antonio, and SA Works to develop a short survey they plan to distribute to the business community.

“So that, as these [workforce training] programs are being developed in the Alamo Colleges, we’re hitting the ground as pointedly as we can to get those dollars turned around and get folks trained up to the jobs that you’ve just talked about,” Perez said.

Perez said he plans to send the survey out later on Friday to other chambers, the business community at large, and partners like the Manufacturers Association.

Nirenberg thanked Perez and the chamber for working to gather knowledge from business owners and industry leaders about the future of the San Antonio job market.

“We really need to broaden our perspective of what the job mix will be in the future for San Antonio, what industries will be emerging, what industries will be the bedrock,” Nirenberg said. “Things are changing, and the business community, the economists of the world … will help us make sure that we’re investing properly.”

Nirenberg also fielded questions about when the Alamo might reopen (“very soon”), future budgeting for the City (“we have a $200 million budget shortfall this year, and that has already required us to tighten belts”), and balancing public and economic health.

“Every health expert in San Antonio was aware of the economic challenges present in our epidemic response plan,” he said. “That being said, you have to prioritize the health and safety of the community first. … It’s one thing to begin to open businesses. It’s another thing to have consumer confidence that ensures those businesses can thrive.”

Bexar County saw a “second wave” in new coronavirus cases after more businesses and activities opened Memorial Day weekend, Dawn Emerick said Thursday evening. Emerick serves as the director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, and Nirenberg dubbed her the “field general” of San Antonio’s handling of the pandemic. He also praised City Council members, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, and the county commissioners for their work in responding to the coronavirus pandemic as a team.

“Part of our job, I believe – and we view this in collaboration – is that we have to pull down resources that are available to the San Antonio community, to ensure that we’re matching those resources to our needs,” he said. “And one of our needs is to ensure a steady, sustainable, healthful recovery for all these industries that have been impacted, particularly our tourism and travel industry that we’ve relied so heavily on.”

Local officials remain focused on the pandemic, which put certain things on hold, including the comprehensive transportation plan known as ConnectSA, Nirenberg said. VIA also said that their VIA Reimagined plan would have to be paused due to budgetary shortfalls, he added, so allocating the ⅛ cent in sales tax currently going toward aquifer protection wouldn’t help expand the current transit system.

“I think we have to take a step back,” he said. “We have to allow for every government agency to reprogram their budgets, focus on the essentials, and determine the best path to a post-COVID recovery. And when we talk about that, it’s about building a sustainable foundation for the future, recognizing that what we had before is not sustainable and not equitable and certainly puts us in a position of not being a resilient economy as well.”

Perez did pose one question about the current protests happening in San Antonio surrounding police brutality and sparked by the death of George Floyd, a black man killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis. 

“Given the recent protests and riots in response to the death of George Floyd, how can we improve police and community relations and racial injustice in San Antonio?” he asked.

Nirenberg said that 2020 would be marked not only by the coronavirus pandemic and economic recession but also because of the “reckoning from a social and equity standpoint” stemming from protests. One key solution would be to address policing in San Antonio, he said.

“San Antonio, quite simply, has to get a fair agreement with our police union in the next [collective bargaining agreement],” he said. “We have to break down some of the provisions, or we have to reform the provisions that prevent our chief of police from exerting his executive authority to make sure that we’re holding everyone accountable.”

But San Antonio must also prioritize providing economic opportunity to everyone, he said.

“We have to break down invisible barriers around our neighborhoods and provide economic opportunity in every single community,” he said. “Socio-economic segregation – which is something we’ve talked about for years, and San Antonio unfortunately has a generational challenge with – only furthers racial and injustices. This issue of equity is the bottom line when it comes to why so much of our country is gripped in demonstrations about systemic injustice. It’s an issue of equity.”

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.