By Thomas Tunstall

I recently moved to San Antonio from Plano, but I am not a stranger to the area. My grandmother lived in San Antonio for many years after moving from Kerrville in the 1960s. Our family would come often to visit her and my aunt, who still lives in her old house on the Southeast side.

We were in town when the HemisFair Tower and the Hilton Palacio del Rio were being built in 1968. I still remember the welder’s arc up in the tower, and the cranes slotting in the prefabricated guest rooms into the hotel structure. On one visit my brother and I took the bus from my grandmother’s house on Kate Schenck Avenue to downtown and back. I remember hearing Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” blaring from a record store, where I bought a copy of the single. It was my first experience without adult supervision in a large downtown area, and it was marvelous.

That was a long time ago. I relocated to the Dallas-Fort Worth area in 1987, and hadn’t been back to San Antonio in any meaningful way until last November when I moved here. I live in Alta Vista because of its old neighborhood feel and proximity to downtown. On weekends I go running up through Trinity University and Brackenridge Park, and by the Landa Library – all of which offer some scenic sights.

Needless to say the city has changed since I was last here. UTSA has grown into the second largest school in the UT system. The main campus is growing rapidly and is building out some great facilities. In my case, I work at the downtown campus – truly a gem in the central city area that boasts a fabulous view of the San Antonio skyline.

San Antonio as seen from UTSA's Downtown campus. (Photo by Thomas Tunstall)
San Antonio as seen from UTSA’s Downtown campus. (Photo by Thomas Tunstall)

I have more than a passing acquaintance with the South-Central Texas area. I went to school in Austin in the 1970s and lived there for about 10 years before moving to the DFW Metroplex. I did my undergraduate work at the University of Texas at Austin, and then graduate studies at the University of Texas at Dallas several years later.

While living in Plano, I periodically worked on long-term economic development assignments overseas in Africa and Central Asia. It was a great experience. Some places, like Nairobi, Kenya in East Africa, were delightful. In other instances, such as Afghanistan, not so much. But I always intended to return to South Texas, where both the weather and the culture are warm. There’s nothing like an extended exile from Texas to understand how truly special the state is.

Before joining UTSA’s Institute for Economic Development research arm, I consulted to small businesses around the United States. It’s interesting to compare and contrast other parts of the country, as well as the Dallas-Fort Worth and Austin areas to San Antonio. Plano, for example, is very structured and orderly as a result of master planning and relatively recent growth. However, sometimes it also seems to me to be over-polished, even pretentious. By comparison, I find that San Antonio’s attitude and culture fit better with my disposition. It’s more relaxed, friendly. And it has so much potential.

I was interested to read the criticism about keeping San Antonio lame (in contrast with keeping Austin weird – no worries there). I suppose there’s more than one way to interpret the bumper sticker, but if by lame you mean authentic, or unassuming, then I’m right there with you. There are things about Austin that I miss, but the once sleepy old college town I knew years ago has changed so much that it is almost unrecognizable to me now. In fact, San Antonio reminds me in some ways what Austin used to be like, when it was still somewhat undiscovered.

About my day job: Our group at the Center for Community and Business Research at UTSA develops, conducts and reports on research projects that shed light on how organizations, communities and the economy works. Some examples of our analysis include the San Antonio Missions economic impact on the area, the repurposing of Brooks City-Base and Port San Antonio for commercial use, a University of Texas System economic impact study, as well as several studies on the rapidly changing developments in the Eagle Ford Shale area.

Eagle Ford Shale has sort of jump-started growth on the Southside of San Antonio and Bexar county, although even before that, the Brooks City-Base development had made important progress in that direction. I would expect to see the Southside really take off in a positive way, hopefully along similar lines as the Verano project, which emphasizes mixed-use development and preservation of the existing natural landscapes and waterways.

I really enjoy the work that I do at UTSA, and being close to the city center is a lot of fun. I often go running near the downtown UTSA campus along Arsenal Street to the River Walk through the King William area.

So what are some of the challenges I see facing San Antonio? Having witnessed how light rail is transforming the DFW Metroplex (and other cities), I have been surprised to hear about the failed bond proposals for previous light rail projects here. Such infrastructure can literally breathe life into a downtown environment by providing easy alternative access in and out. The light rail system in the Dallas-Fort Worth area has been so successful that it is being expanded to eventually reach the DFW International Airport and the new Cowboys’ stadium in Arlington.

While most of us will need to own cars for the foreseeable future, livability and sustainability for a community at least suggests the ability to opt out of using or owning a motor vehicle if you want to. This in turn is dependent on efficient public transportation. In addition, if you live downtown right now, you can’t really walk anywhere to buy groceries. Hopefully these types of limitations will start to change in San Antonio before too much longer.

One more thing – San Antonio cannot be Austin any more than Austin can be San Antonio. It’s true that both cities share the ambiance of being situated at the east entrance to the Hill Country – and all that implies. Speaking for myself, I have always been a big fan of the ubiquitous oak and mesquite trees, and the rivers and lakes dotting the rocky landscapes throughout the region. As well, both San Antonio and Austin have rich histories (though San Antonio’s is longer and richer). But as you dig deeper, the similarities start to end. Ultimately, San Antonio will find itself by identifying its unique strengths and competitive advantages that in turn entice people to visit or move here, or serve to attract new businesses. I think the recently passed bond package aimed at improving streets, sidewalks, parks and cultural facilities is a step in the right direction.

It’s important to remember that Austin’s social and intellectual capital was built up over a long period of time. For decades, many more graduates of UT Austin wanted to continue to live there after graduation than the local economy could support. As a result, many of them – like me – ventured back to Houston or Dallas or beyond to find jobs. San Antonio can develop its own form of social capital and build on its strong, centuries-long multicultural heritage. Other cities can be a guide, but San Antonio must find its own path.

I was reading an interesting recent article from Economic Development Quarterly which noted that there are no quick fixes for sustainable growth and livability. The development strategy du jour in many cities has often constituted a quick fix approach – simply putting in bike paths and building coffee shops, for example. If you want to change a locality’s future, you must build a broader vision that seeks to increase skill levels, and improve local tolerance and diversity levels. In this sense, I think that Mayor Castro’s SA 2020 Vision is right on track. Such a change cannot occur overnight, as the vision clearly implies. However, if enough of us see the potential to make San Antonio even more remarkable than it already is, then that change will happen – at long last.

Thomas Tunstall, PhD | Director, Center for Community and Business Research
The University of Texas at San Antonio | Institute for Economic Development

501 César E. Chávez Blvd.| San Antonio, Texas 78207 Office 210.458.2472

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501 César E. Chávez Blvd.| San Antonio, Texas 78207 | Office 210.458.2472

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Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.