As San Antonio’s quixotic pursuit of the Oakland Raiders wanders to a predictable end, Wednesday also brought the seemingly unrelated news that Mercedes-Benz is leaving its base of 43 years in New Jersey for a new home in Atlanta.
The German luxury automaker chose Atlanta over Dallas/Plano; Tampa, Florida; and Charlotte, N.C. The story in the Charlotte Observer reminded me of so many others I’ve read in second-tier cities, including San Antonio. The newspaper noted that the city also came up short last April when Toyota announced it was relocating its U.S. headquarters from California to the Dallas suburb of Plano.
I don’t know if San Antonio ever entertained any hopes of vying for the Mercedes-Benz jobs, but it wasn’t that long ago that San Antonio mourned the decision by Tesla to choose Reno, Nevada over this city and other venues for its new $5 billion battery production facility.
(Read more: San Antonio Skipped Over For Tesla Battery Plant.)
In both instances, the automakers were leaving high tax, high wage states for new homes with inexpensive land, affordable workforces, and business-friendly tax codes.
There is a school of thought among some supporters of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation and its longtime CEO Mario Hernandez that San Antonio should get in the game for every opportunity that comes along, no matter how outclassed we might be by the competition. A long shot is still a shot.
After all, you never know. CEO Ed Whitacre brought Southwestern Bell here and transformed it into telecommunications behemoth AT&T before his successor Randall Stephenson yanked it up by the roots without warning and moved it to Dallas. Then there was Toyota, which found San Antonio and the Hispanic market to its liking and established its Tundra, and later, its Tacoma pickup truck manufacturing facilities here.
I hope there are more Toyotas in our city’s future, but I don’t count on it. Instead, I ask myself this: What’s the opportunity cost of chasing a second-rate NFL franchise we were never going to get, one that, had it decided to come, would have held out its hand for a taxpayer-funded $1 billion stadium as a welcome gift? What do we miss by pursuing a Tesla founder or a football team owner who seem more interested in using San Antonio for leverage or as a hedge against all else failing?
What’s the opportunity cost of spending so much time, energy and money tilting at windmills?
Competing against metropolitan areas with populations and economies several times the size of San Antonio requires the city to cobble together significant incentive packages without any real public scrutiny of return on investment, of who wins and who doesn’t win in such deals.
Let’s say the Raiders did select San Antonio. Two sources have told me that Mark Davis expressed an interest in a stadium built as close as possible to Austin on I-35. What would that do for San Antonio? Arguably, even less than the AT&T Arena has done in an Eastside industrial zone. How would such a move contribute to the city’s stated goal of developing its urban core into the kind of place that young professionals yearn to live, work, and recreate?
If we could somehow find it in taxpayer hearts to shell out $1 billion, wouldn’t it be better spent revitalizing a city’s urban core, incentivizing developers to turn every empty building, every empty lot into new homes, offices, and shops that produce jobs, tax revenues and lead to richer, denser communities and neighborhoods?
Each city should sell its best side while working to improve on its deficits. For San Antonio, it isn’t our size. It’s our livability. This is a great city to raise a family, to buy a first home, to grow a small business, to come and make a difference. It’s a city with its own cultural fusion, its own history, that you can see and touch and connect to in daily life. And, yes, we have the world champion Spurs.
Shouldn’t our economic development strategy be built around the fact that most new jobs in America are created by small business? This is a great city for a startup, for small business, for talented Millennials who want to live near where they work and, along the way, improve their standard of living. They can live in Brooklyn if they want a great place to work, a closet to sleep in, and no chance of ever owning their own home.
A Millennial can buy a century-old home with good bones in Dignowity Hill with a view of the Tower of America for less than $75,000. That’s less than one mile to the Alamo, even closer to the Pearl, 10 minutes by bike to Southtown. An office at Geekdom for a startup is available at $20-plus a square foot with all the mentoring you like. Try doing that in Boston, Denver, or Seattle. Heck, try doing that in Austin.
So why don’t we become the city where young talented people can turn their dreams into reality? Suddenly, all the questions such people might have are easily answered: Can they afford the city? Can they get the help and support they need? Can they feel welcome and make a difference in their adopted home? Will their families like living here? What’s there to do at night?
We score high on most of those questions, and we are improving rapidly where we do not. Big cities can’t muscle us out of the way in the pursuit of young talent. They can’t bigfoot us.
Pivoting in this very different direction would require a new approach to leadership and to economic development. It would mean letting go of the status quo and embracing change. What’s there to lose? We certainly aren’t winning the game we are in now.
The generation born before and during World War II controls a lot of wealth in this city. The generation born after the war, the Baby Boomers, controls a lot of the most influential leadership positions. We will be making our exit soon enough, even if we continue to work in some form or another for the next decade. Like it or not, we will be making room for younger generations, notably Millennials, who now number 300,000 in our city, with many on the cusp of celebrating their 30th birthdays.
They aren’t kids anymore, yet they feel treated like children when it comes to their push for change, for a voice in public life, for a chance to lead.
We Baby Boomers continue to believe we are the world’s most important generation and that we know what’s best, for ourselves and for everyone else. We think we gave the world rock ‘n roll, protest, and the counterculture. Our sons and daughters remind us that we saddled them with strip centers and sprawl, traffic congestion and unclean air, streets where you can’t walk or ride a bike, and a culture of consumerism, with a super-sized population addicted to junk food, sugar drinks, and television.
Don’t get mad or defensive. Let’s prove them wrong. Let’s become better listeners and see if they can make San Antonio a better city. There is ample evidence in other cities that becoming open to youth and creativity can spark a wonderful explosion of new growth, new jobs, new culture. It’s growth that no one can take away. It can’t be moved somewhere else by a restless CEO.
San Antonio has become a city of ambition, I believe, and we are right to be ambitious. Still, ambition must be matched with authentic values that exist not in rhetoric or marketing slogans, but are visible in daily life in neighborhoods, schools and workplaces. Ambition must be matched with creative approaches and risk-taking in order to compete in a very competitive world.
To win, San Antonio, we first have to get in the right game.
This story was originally published on Jan. 8, 2015.
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