A map of Promise Zone and Choice Neighborhood programs on the Eastside. Map courtesy of EastPoint.
A map of Promise Zone and Choice Neighborhood programs on the Eastside. Map courtesy of EastPoint.

San Antonio for Growth on the Eastside (SAGE) hosted a “Promise Zone 101” conference Wednesday to explore the benefits of the Eastside’s Promise Zone designation. With all of the recent federal designations, many area businesses and nonprofits have been overwhelmed with legal or bureaucratic jargon, diminishing some of the benefits that will come with the new Promise Zone and Choice Neighborhood programs.

Wednesday’s conference brought organizations together to simplify the use of some of the new designations and the way they can be used to achieve regional goals. 

While the San Antonio Housing Authority (SAHA) and the City were still working on the application for the Choice Neighborhood grant to demolish and replace the Wheatley Courts development, they discovered President Barack Obama’s Promise Zone Initiative said Mayor Ivy Taylor during her opening speech. 

Taylor said she was nearly burnt out on working on the Eastside at the time, and even as a planning specialist she felt the Eastside “had been over-planned,” with only top-down, rigidly allocated money funds going to the Eastside. 

District 2 Councilwoman Ivy Taylor, right before the meeting that confirmed her as mayor of San Antonio. Photo by Scott Ball.
Mayor Ivy Taylor. Photo by Scott Ball.

Taylor said she “got her mojo back” when Mayor Julián Castro called to tell her that the Eastside had been designated one of five Promise Zones nationwide. The Promise Zone publicity and momentum may have played a role in her appointment as interim mayor of San Antonio, she said, although her life will only be one of many on the Eastside changed by the infusion of federal development dollars.

“Everyone has a role to play in stretching the benefits of this designation as far as we can,” Taylor said.

More good news: In a surprise special announcement, Pedro Garza of the U. S. Economic Development Administration presented SAGE with $500,000 for EastPoint Promise Zone redevelopment efforts. According to SAGE’s Executive Director Jackie Gorman, they will use the funds to hire new staff, including a real estate specialist, and to develop an Eastside master economic plan, identifying and conducting feasibility studies for nine sites ripe for development. 

“The market analysis funded by this grant will provide critical information for the types of businesses that SAGE can focus on for recruitment efforts as well as identify linkage opportunities for existing businesses, to create expansion and job opportunities,” Gorman said.

Darryl Byrd, president and CEO of SA2020 and a former executive with the Pearl Brewery redevelopment, moderated a panel of federal officials who discussed how their agencies will collaborate to implement the new Promise Zone.

“We’ve got a lot of people looking at us,” said Yolanda Garcia Olivarez, regional administrator of the Small Business Administration (SBA).

Among other services, the SBA provides access to capital lenders by guaranteeing their loans and providing support for securing federal contracts.

Tammy Treviño, regional administrator with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), announced that HUD will have a permanent staff member on site in San Antonio, and mentioned additional points for Eastside businesses in federal competitions that rank grant applications, enhanced availability for technical assistance, and potentially – if Congress votes its approval – increased tax incentives. 

Eddie Longoria, regional administrator of the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services, stressed the importance of a healthy workforce. He said the USDA will partner with local organizations to ensure that food is a prioritized component of the federal Promise Zone, singling out the San Antonio Food Bank and smaller, unrecognized organizations such as church groups that are on the “front lines” of fighting community hunger.

Graphic courtesy of EastPoint.
Graphic courtesy of EastPoint.

Nick Lalpuis, regional administrator of the Department of Labor, encouraged everyone to check www.grants.gov for applications that will receive preferential status in the Eastside Promise Zone. The Department of Labor also helps place applicants for job training programs, technical assistance, and registered apprenticeships.

Garza gave the long-term perspective. “Economic booms and busts happen,” he said.  “When a military base closes or an oil well runs dry, we need to have stable economic forces that can take the hit. We need to make investments to protect our community’s economy for a long time to come.”

Then, to make the session more relevant for attendees, they broke into groups. Construction companies learned about new opportunities to build on abandoned lots, and nonprofits learned the finer distinctions between promise zones and neighborhoods. 

My breakout group, as I am a small business owner on the Eastside, was led by SAGE’s Gorman. Her down-to-business manner made the session feel like she was hooking tools onto our utility belts.

If you’re interested in starting or expanding your business on the Eastside, here are some of the resources we learned about:

  • Small business loans through Acción Texas from $500 to $200,000.
  • Business plan development through Acción’s Women’s Business Center, which features classes and workshops (and is open to men as well, lads).
  • The Eastside Fund: $2 million in loans available for businesses in the Promise Zone, starting at $300,000 with a low-interest rate of 4.25 percent.

“Even if you don’t think you are entirely ready to get the loan, we want to talk to you to prepare you for when you are,” Gorman said.

  • Store-front grants: $20,000 matching grant in the Promise Zone where 50 percent of the funds go to exterior renovations to a building and 50 percent go to internal equipment purchases.

“The goal is to improve the look and feel of the entire community,” Gorman said.

  • Operation Facelift: $30,000 of aesthetic business renovations that don’t require matching funds.
  • EB 5 Visa: an immigration program where foreign investors can put in $500,000 in investment capital in exchange for a green card. Projects have to be quite substantial to participate, with a minimum of $10 million in investment.
  • ICRIP fee waiver program: a city program that covers city fees during development such as demolition permits or SAWS impact fees. The application for this must be completed before the fee is paid.
Lourdes Castro Ramirez. Photo Courtesy San Antonio Housing Authority.
Lourdes Castro Ramirez. Photo Courtesy San Antonio Housing Authority.

Later, Lourdes Ramirez-Castro, CEO of the San Antonio Housing Authority, discussed the progress that has already been made because of the Promise Zone. Home values in the area have increased dramatically, population growth is up 28% in the Choice Neighborhood footprint (compared to 17% citywide), and there has been a 24% increase in job growth in the EastPoint area.

The final speaker was Valerie Piper, HUD’s deputy assistant secretary for Economic Development, who thanked San Antonio for donating its former mayor to HUD as its new Secretary.

Piper said San Antonio has a history of putting grant money to work more effectively than many other cities. “(HUD officials) recognized excellence already underway with existing grant programs” and now that the Promise Zone designation is in action, they are counting on San Antonio to “lead the nation in effective allocation of public and private investment to reduce poverty.”

As a business owner, the tangible resources presented at the conference instilled confidence in our decision to locate LocalSprout on the near-Eastside. As a San Antonio resident, the event left me glowing with pride.

Jarvis Moore, the owner and operator of a demolition and debris removal company, told me afterwards, “Today was really informative and helped convey the meaning of the (Promise) Zone to the community. A promise doesn’t really mean anything until you see some action, and now it’s clear to me that they’re fulfilling it the in the way the most ambitious of us had hoped.”

*Featured/top image: A map of EastPointSA, outlining sections of the Promise Zone and Choice Neighborhood programs on the Eastside. Map courtesy of EastPoint.

Related Stories:

 The $2 Million Promise to ‘EastPoint’ Business Owners

Obama Taps San Antonio’s Top Public Housing Executive

Reflections of a Dignowity Hill Community Leader

Conversation: Mayor Ivy Taylor

Innovative Mixed Income Housing at Sutton Oaks

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Mitch Hagney

Mitch Hagney is a writer and hydroponic farmer in downtown San Antonio. Hagney is CEO of LocalSprout and president of the Food Policy Council of San Antonio.