Nelson Wolff has delivered many a State of the County speech in his 13 years as Bexar County Judge. Add in his two terms as Mayor from 1991-95 and four State of the City addresses and you have someone who has reflected on good times and bad.
Some speeches in some years, I’m sure, required a far greater dose of optimism than Friday’s State of the County address to 600 people in a Marriott Rivercenter ballroom. My copy of Wolff’s speech doesn’t have a title, but if it did, “San Antonio: Life is Good” would fit the bill.
For me, Wolff’s speech told a story that all the national rankings of cities, all the census data mining, all the trend stories cannot and do not tell. San Antonio is a city on the rise, and there is a broad consensus that we are just getting started. Much good has been accomplished here in the last decade, and far greater things lie ahead on the city and county’s horizon.
Wolff drew an opponent this time around, so the Nov. 4 election will be a referendum of sorts: Do citizens want to stay the path we are now on, or do we want to retreat from big ideas, broad ambitions, and even greater achievements?
Friday’s crowd is not necessarily a snapshot of the electorate, but it was a who’s who of San Antonio’s civic leadership: Mayor Ivy Taylor, City Manager Sheryl Sculley, and several City Council members attended, and I’ll stop there. It took the host, Richard Perez, CEO of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, a couple of trips to the microphone to introduce all the luminaries. Many in the audience deserve their own share of the credit for the city’s and county’s forward progress and trajectory.
Wolff began by sharing his own personal story as part of a Southside family construction supply business, Alamo Enterprises, which was built up, sold and leveraged into the creation of the Sun Harvest natural foods supermarket chain before eating healthy was big business, or as Wolff noted, even before Whole Foods was born in Austin. Those stores were sold to Wild Oats.
Wolff’s point was that he brought an entrepreneurial sensibility to local government, and he ticked off the projects he is most proud of: the BiblioTech digital library, the restoration of the San Antonio River, the network of regional sports parks, the recent opening of the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts, and the first children’s court in Texas, all while holding down or reducing county tax rates.
Job growth is good, unemployment is low, more cybersecurity jobs are being created, and San Antonio has entered an era where it seems every local government entity is taking ownership of improved education outcomes. That’s significant evolution that goes unrecognized.
Wolff citied the importance of the City’s Pre-K 4 SA program, the brainchild of former Mayor Julián Castro, but implemented by Sculley and her staff. He also praised the workforce development initiatives of the Alamo Colleges under Chancellor Bruce Leslie and the city’s eight early college high schools, a collaboration between Alamo Colleges and the San Antonio Independent School District.
Preparing the city’s workforce for a technology-driven economy was one of “seven pathways” Wolff cited in moving San Antonio and Bexar County forward. A better financed support of the arts was second, and Wolff cited the county’s $100 million investment in the Tobin Center and the $175,000 handed out last week to the three major performing arts organizations that now call the Tobin home — the San Antonio Symphony, Opera San Antonio and Ballet San Antonio.
The two pathways came together Friday afternoon when the San Antonio Symphony announced a new program to reserve 10% of the Tobin Center’s seats for Bexar County public school students who will be invited to attend performances for free. Many young people, of course, will not connect culturally with such a generous offer, but many young people will. In the process, lives will be changed by music and music education.
Interested educators, group leaders, and others can click here for further details.
Wolff’s third pathway was a message about sustainability, a community pursuit that has moved from the fringe to mainstream. San Antonio’s declining air quality, lack of urban density, worsening traffic congestion and limited public transportation options are growing challenges local officials, businesses, and residents will have to face together.
Expanding health care was the fourth pathway, an opportunity for Wolff to point out that other Red states have made health care more widely available by ending the self-defeating practice of rejecting federal funds just to score political points. Such a move by legislators in Austin, Wolff said, would save the Bexar County Hospital District $50 million a year and allow for another reduction in county taxes.
This past April the University Health System opened the 10-story, 1 million square foot Sky Tower with expanded emergency care facilities, new surgical suites and more than 400 new patient rooms. That expansion follows last year’s opening of the six-story Clinical Pavilion on the Robert B. Green Campus bringing comprehensive outpatient services and access to specialists in a downtown setting.
“Jail the bad guys and heal the ill” was Wolff’s fifth pathway, shorthand for a “tough on crime” message and recognition that far too many of the people caught in the criminal justice system need mental health care rather than jail time.
The sixth pathway was improved transportation choices, a campaign pubic officials will have to find a way of reviving after the demise of VIA Transit’s modern streetcar project. That will not be easy, but San Antonio remains the largest city in the nation without some form of rail, a deficit in what also is one the nation’s most sprawling cities.
“We can’t pave our way out of the problem,” Wolff said.
His seventh and last pathway was a timely message that San Antonio will thrive if urban-suburban living does not become an “either-or” proposition, but if taxpayers accept that both lifestyles are valid and can be mutually supportive. Greater urban density, Wolff said, would serve everyone’s interests.
Friday’s speech broke no new ground. Wolff didn’t launch any new initiatives or make any promises. He didn’t ask for anyone’s vote. He didn’t have to. Friday’s State of the County was more like the delivery of a report card, one filled with good grades with plenty of promise of continuing improvement.
“Let’s work together and apply an entrepreneurial spirit as we reinvent ourselves and our city,” Wolff said in closing. “Let’s not fear the future nor be timid as we chart our paths to greatness.”
He finished to a standing ovation, a recognition of his service and, perhaps, how people feel in this moment of time, regardless of what the latest list or survey says about San Antonio.
*Featured/top image: In April 2012, bluebonnets brightened the trail along the Mission Reach. The Mission Reach Ecosystem Restoration and Recreation Project is gaining recognition from around the world for being an example of how urban ecosystem restoration can be accomplished. Photo by Al Rendon, courtesy of SARA.