Despite intense political pressure from the business establishment and editorials in the Rivard Report and the San Antonio Express-News, Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Council last week said no to efforts to bring the 2020 Republican and Democratic National Conventions to Bexar County.
The backlash has been swift and media commentary one-sided with the business community seeking to use the outcome as an example of why San Antonio fails to attract more business opportunities, such as the Amazon H2Q project. Unfortunately, the issue is far more complicated.
San Antonio needs to be a city that learns. The only way to become more competitive, hone our strengths, and work on our weaknesses is to ensure our young people show up at the starting line and compete with every other U.S. city in the race.
Right now, collectively, local kids are not even close to competing, much less winning. When our local schools fail, the local economy loses. Until the status quo changes, San Antonio can bid all it wants, but will continue to lose out on solid, long-term, high-dollar economic investments.
AT&T already sent a message to the city highlighting what it takes to become (and retain) a world headquarters and international business destination when it relocated to Dallas. Did San Antonio’s political and business leaders learn anything from that experience?
Toyota also sent a loud and clear message. (Full disclosure: I worked for Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Texas, as a corporate affairs specialist during the 2006 startup.) The city landed a fantastic manufacturing plant requiring mostly non-degreed jobs, but Toyota chose recently to relocate its North American sales and manufacturing headquarters and mostly degreed jobs to Plano, one of the most highly educated, economically wealthy community with some of the best public schools in Texas.
In other words, Toyota, like AT&T, chose a city unlike San Antonio. Are there any local economic development leaders willing to tamp down past successes and explain that one to us?
As for the Tesla battery plant, San Antonio and Texas lost not to Reno, but to Nevada’s sunnier climate, unlimited cheap land, and close distance to the Tesla plant in Fremont, California. In fact, San Antonio’s bid exceeded what Nevada submitted.
So let’s get the story straight. San Antonio does bid – and loses – repeatedly.
Anyone still under the delusion that Amazon (i.e. Jeff Bezos, owner of the Washington Post) might have come to San Antonio if the mayor and City Council had just bid, need only drive up Interstate 35 past Austin and Dallas and up the Dallas North Tollway to the Headquarters Drive exit in Plano. What are we competing against? From my experience, it’s a variation of that old adage – billion-dollar birds of a feather flock together.
Our city can barely keep Kawhi Leonard, but people are blaming the mayor for the city missing out on Amazon. Not even close.
If the local business community really wants to understand why Fortune 100 companies and their employees won’t come to San Antonio and stay, they should stop taking their cues from outside disruptors and instead start speaking to local school superintendents and university presidents, especially now as we approach the May graduation season. The city will not win the international economic race with underfunded schools, low college graduation rates, and a myopic business community focused on politics, profit, and self-interest.
Local public school districts have been reporting budget shortfalls and staff reductions, including teachers. How does the local business community intend to respond? Will they call Gov. Abbott and express their dissatisfaction with the very real and current Texas public schools funding crisis? The Texas Rangers can’t help there.
When less than 50 percent of the students who started college four years ago in Bexar County graduate this month (not including Trinity University), how does the business community intend to respond? With the same feigned outrage over how the city or school leaders blew it? I doubt it. They don’t even know.
When the Rivard Report published an article this past week regarding local STAAR testing scores, did the chambers of commerce and business community respond with off-the-record commentary? School performance affects our economic competitiveness, but I would guess the media did not receive so much as a press release or an interview or an unidentified business owner to comment. Instead, leaders spent the week crying because San Antonio doesn’t get another party.
The city can no longer afford to rely entirely on misguided economic incentives and marketing opportunities as a strategy for attracting game-changing billion-dollar investments – especially if we keep losing to other major cities.
What San Antonio needs to bid on – and win – to achieve solid economic footing in the fiercely competitive 21st century is a robust, comprehensive, high-quality, and well-funded education system and workforce development strategy that negates the perception of a city focused entirely on its tourism and service-based economy.
For when companies like Amazon, Toyota, and Tesla undergo extensive site selection reviews for corporate headquarter locations and manufacturing hubs, don’t you think AT&T’s 2008 departure and Bexar County’s lagging school performance indicators stand out far more than San Antonio’s already well-known reputation for hosting a great event?