San Antonio City Council unanimously approved an Inter-Local Agreement (ILA) with the City of Converse on Thursday that will triple the suburban small town’s size and population over the next 17 years, bringing more than 40,000 people living in unincorporated pockets of Bexar County along I-10 East near Loop 1604 East into its city limits.

For Converse, the ILA presents the city of 22,000 the unprecedented opportunity to break out of its landlocked confines and, over course of the 17-year agreement, become the second largest municipality in Bexar County with ample undeveloped land to attract new residential subdivisions and newly annexed highway corridors ripe for commercial development.

A full appreciation of the land and corridors can be seen in this drone video, which was produced by the City of Converse and presented to San Antonio’s City Council Thursday. Also see the map further below.

For San Antonio, the agreement provides Mayor Ivy Taylor and City Council an innovative solution to the challenge of addressing an unincorporated swath along I-10 East near Loop 1604 without undertaking an expensive annexation of the area that was bypassed by past city councils in the 1980s and since has suffered from a lack of economic development, city services, and public infrastructure investment.

City Council agreed with a staff recommendation last year not to annex the I-10 East area after a study concluded it would cost $440 million over 20 years and yield only $300 million in new tax revenues, leaving a $140 million shortfall.

Mayor Ivy Taylor.
Mayor Ivy Taylor. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“I am very pleased that we are … today considering the ILA,” Taylor said before the unanimous vote. “I want to extend my gratitude to [Deputy City Manager] Peter Zanoni and the staff both from the City of San Antonio and the City of Converse and Mayor Suarez. I see it as a win-win all the way around.”

There was no less enthusiasm among Converse officials. Mayor Al Suarez, City Manager Lanny Lambert, and the City of Converse’s fire and police chiefs and economic development director all were in attendance Thursday morning. The Converse City Council will hold four more public hearings on the ILA before voting on at its March 21 meeting.

At a Tuesday public hearing held by the Converse City Council, Suarez, who has been in office since 2007, called the ILA “a historic opportunity for Converse that we will not waste.”

“This city has made great strides already if you look at the last 10 years,” Suarez said in a Tuesday interview. “The first thing we had to do back then was clean up our city, work on infrastructure, and inspire our employees. We have the same tax rate we had in 1989. San Antonio is at 56 cents and we are at 50 cents per $100 of valuation. We have a AA- bond rating, which is great for a small city. We are on solid financial ground.”

Converse Mayor Al Suarez holds up a sign indicating the upcoming town hall meetings on the proposed annexation plan.
Converse Mayor Al Suarez holds up a sign indicating the upcoming town hall meetings on the proposed annexation plan. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Suarez ticked off a number of new initiatives.

“We break ground March 15 to double the size of our public library, and three days later we break ground on March 18 on our new City Hall, and in April we break ground for our first animal control facility.”

Few elected leaders get advance notice their communities will triple in size and population within two decades, and in the process, realize a windfall in tax collections to fuel new growth and development. Even without any additional growth, Converse’s tax rolls will go from $1 billion to $5 billion in assessed real estate property over the next 17 years.

Suarez said his administration is poised to make the most of the opportunity to build a more livable, walkable community that will attract families looking for a small town lifestyle close to big city amenities.

“I’d say it’s accurate to describe the ILA as both historic and unprecedented,” Zanoni said after attending the first of several public hearings with the Converse City Council Tuesday. “We have worked with these small suburban cities to do boundary adjustments, but the amount of real estate is limited – certainly nothing of this nature. This is just the beginning. Over the next 17 years the two City Councils will have to work together closely to make this happen.”

Click here to download Zanoni’s presentation to the San Antonio City Council that outlines the annexation process and how it will unfold, step-by-step, over the 17-year period.

The ILA began to take shape in the summer of 2016 after Council rejected annexation of the I-10 East area and Taylor directed City staff to explore creative ways to address the needs of the 40,000 people living in the unincorporated areas. Agreements in place already addressed the area’s lack of solid waste pickup, and a long-term agreement provided fire and EMS service.

Zanoni and Deputy City Manager Erik Walsh made an initial foray out to Converse to attend a City Council meeting and raise the possibility of an agreement. Eight months of talks ensued.

“We could have given up several times,” Zanoni said, describing the difficulty of cities of such disparate sizes negotiating a highly complex agreement with so many moving parts.

“Initially, we had proposed giving them two corridors: Gibbs-Sprawl and Loop 1604 north of I-10 East up to the city of Converse. We said, ‘We will give you those corridors and you guys take The Glen and the Camelot II subdivisions,’” Zanoni said. “But Mayor Suarez said Converse wanted more commercial corridors. They came back with their own map and said, ‘We need all of I-10 from 1604 East to Foster Road, we need FM 1516 and FM 78 and Kitty Hawk.’ They wanted three north-south commercial corridors and four east-west ones.”

Zanoni said Converse wanted the commercial corridors, but not necessarily the undeveloped land along the corridors.

“We told them that was not going to work, [and that] it would only perpetuate the problem San Antonio created in the ’80s when it annexed commercial corridors and not the land and residential properties,” he added.

That led to the ILA approved by City Council Thursday. When Converse officials held their first public hearing Tuesday night, they braced for a long night of citizens railing against anything that would change the small town.

Deputy City Manager Peter Zanoni at the Converse City Council meeting.
Deputy City Manager Peter Zanoni speaks at the Converse City Council meeting. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“The cost of running a city goes up every year,” Converse City Manager Lambert said before the hearing. “Salaries go up, health care goes up, the cost of equipment goes up. Cities can grow their budgets by raising taxes or they can grow their tax base. They can’t stand still, but not everyone understands that and we expect a lot of opposition.”

A long line of citizens stood in line to speak, but something unexpected happened as one speaker after another took their turn addressing the mayor and council members and praised the opportunity. Only a few citizens rose to question or oppose the deal. No organized opposition to the unprecedented annexation and boundary movement agreement emerged.

Bishop Brent Bryant, senior pastor of Grace Redeemer Church, put it best in eloquent remarks that drew applause from the audience at City Hall.

Redeeming Grace Church Senior Pastor Brent Bryant.
Redeeming Grace Church Senior Pastor Bishop Brent Bryant. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Bryant recalled the era of Warren Larck, a highly decorated veteran of three wars and an ordained minister who served as mayor of Kirby in the late 1980s. Larck and San Antonio’s then-mayor Henry Cisneros negotiated a similar annexation agreement that was approved by both city councils but rejected by the people of Kirby, a rejection that left the city permanently land-locked and unable to grow.

“You, Mayor Suarez, and those of you on the Converse City Council face a historic opportunity and moment here in Converse,” Bishop Bryant said. “Now is the time to take the right steps, make the right decision and bring new opportunity and life to the city of Converse.”

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.