By Robert Rivard
For San Antonio, reality and perception represent a growing contradiction. That’s the inescapable conclusion that surfaced twice this week from very different sources inside and outside the city.
San Antonio is getting smarter, thanks to surging growth over the last decade in college-educated migrants attracted here by a growing and diversified economy led by the technology and biosciences sectors.
But our national image remains one of a city with an undereducated, predominantly Hispanic population and a low wage economy. That perception has to change if the city is going to build on its impressive gains.
A preliminary report by James Russell, a Virginia-based geographer who studies talent migration and economic development, shows San Antonio’s college-educated population grew by 48% from 2000 to 2010, according to census data, making it sixth best of the nation’s top 51 metro areas in a Brain Gain ranking.
Russell was hired by the 80/20 Foundation, the recently launched philanthropic fund established by Rackspace chairman and founder Graham Weston, to undertake a fresh look at population and economic development trends in San Antonio for the SA2020 organization.
“When I saw the gain from 2000 to 2010, that shocked me, I had no idea,” Russell said in a telephone interview on Wednesday. “It made the project very exciting for me because it made me feel I was on the cusp of something really important about metros and specifically, San Antonio, which is transforming itself very quickly.”
Russell said the number of college-educated residents in the city grew “hugely,” by 48% from 232,508 to 344,247, positioning it as the sixth best metro area in the country for such growth. Las Vegas placed first with 78% growth, while Austin placed fourth with 52% growth. Houston ranks 12th and Dallas-Fort Worth ranks 15th.
Russell said he, like many others, held a different, less positive view of San Antonio until he studied the numbers.
That same reality-versus-perception surfaced Tuesday morning at a breakfast hosted by Texas CEO magazine at the Omni Hotel that featured a range of speakers, led by Henry Cisneros, executive chairman of City View, and included several major figures in the city’s growing biosciences sector.
“San Antonio has to do a better job of marketing itself and everything good that is happening here,” said Dr. Kenneth P. Trevett, president of the Texas Biomedical Research Institute (formerly known as the Southwest Foundation for Biomedical Research). “Too many of the city’s leading companies and institutions simply are not as well-known outside San Antonio as they should be.”
Jeff Ruiz, the general manager for Medtronic Texas in San Antonio, said his company struggled to convince 100 key employees to move here from Los Angeles after San Antonio beat out Kansas City and Austin as the selection for a new 1,000-worker campus.
“People had a negative view of San Antonio, but once they got here, they fell in love with the city,” Ruiz said. Medtronic didn’t choose San Antonio because of available low wage workers, Ruiz said. His company required skilled, educated workers, and came here in part because San Antonio was the only city out of 930 metro areas explored by Medtronic that sent a delegation to Los Angeles to make its case.
“San Antonio was the one city, led by Henry, that put together a coalition of city and business leaders that came to LA to see us personally,” Ruiz said. “That was impressive.” That team included City Manager Sheryl Sculley, BioMed SA CEO Ann Stevens, and Mario Hernandez, president of the San Antonio Economic Foundation.
Mir Imran, chairman and CEO of Incube Labs, and a self-described “health care inventor and entrepreneur,” established Incube Labs Texas here in 2010 to develop new life science patents and products, and in the process develop new spin-offs, generate greater venture capital activity and attract more skilled medical researchers.
“What really sold me beside the city’s financial support was the cohesive environment where the city’s leadership and the business leadership worked hand in hand, everyone pulling together in the same direction,” Imran said. “San Antonio is the best kept secret around, but I don’t see it staying that way for much longer.”
Cisneros, a four-term mayor of San Antonio in the 1980s who returned here after serving as HUD Secretary under President Clinton and then working in Los Angeles as a senior executive with the Spanish language cable network Univisión, sees the San Antonio reality and the San Antonio perception starting to come into a singular focus.
“I think our city’s image is reshaping right before our eyes, and it’s happening very quickly,” Cisneros said. “Old image: poor, Hispanic, low wage, third tier city. We’ve got a lot of work to do to market our new profile, but it’s not just marketing. It’s also substance. Our biggest challenge ahead is development of education infrastructure: early childhood development, which is Mayor Julián Castro’s Brainpower Initiative, better higher ed, and workforce training.”
Russell’s preliminary data seems to support such optimism, but he wants to move beyond census data and conduct a more comprehensive study of college-educated migrants here, the jobs they hold, the neighborhoods they choose to live in, and what they like or dislike about the city. Such data, Russell said, can guide San Antonio in devising strategies for attracting even greater numbers of creative class migrants.
“The college-educated newcomers are a rich resource who can tell us what the city needs to do to attract more people like them,” Russell said. The 80/20 Foundation is weighing a proposal from Russell to undertake a two month survey of college-educated migrants and economic development opportunities.
For all the progress made in attracting new companies, more venture capital and more highly educated workers, San Antonio still lags in overall education attainment levels. Here’s the sobering news in Russell’s report:
“Among metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) with over 1 million people, San Antonio-New Braunfels is ranked 13th best among the top 51 cities for general population growth, but 48th among those 51 cities for percentage of college-educated adults, with only 25.4% of those 25 and older holding a bachelor’s degree or higher.”
Austin, in contrast, is sixth with 39% of that same population who hold a college degree or higher. Dallas is 24th with 31% and Houston is 35th with 28%.
Still, his report left those who commissioned it excited about the findings.
“It makes me hungrier to learn more about that in-migration of talent, and it makes me feel very positive about San Antonio being the kind of city attractive to these people,” said Darryl Byrd, CEO of SA2020. “That is not a story that we have had the data to tell. It’s always been a negative story about San Antonio exporting its talent, and this suggests that is not true. I want to learn more. This is something very positive to build on.”
Lorenzo Gomez, executive director of the 80/20 Foundation, agreed.
“San Antonio as a city for a long time has had self-esteem issues, and I’m very excited to put that argument to rest and stop comparing ourselves to Austin, which is easy to do. I find it very refreshing that we can stand shoulder to shoulder with Austin…and the overall point of having Brain Gain. This paints a very optimistic picture. We still have a long ways to go, but we’re trucking along. This is the shot in the arm this city needs, now let’s take a targeted approach to growing it.”