David Barnett moved to San Antonio from Houston in 2000 to launch mysanantonio.com as its first CEO, back when New York-based Hearst Corp. and Dallas-based Belo Corp, the owners of the San Antonio Express-News and KENS-TV, jointly operated the website. Barnett had hardly unpacked his bags before he began lobbying the corporate bosses to relocate the web operations to loft-like offices on the San Antonio River. He wanted to send a message: the web operation was not a subsidiary of the print newspaper, and the people he intended to hire preferred working in a more open, nontraditional environment.

That particular initiative wasn’t funded, but Barnett and his family found a home in the city. He now works as a downtown-based strategic consultant, and as luck would have it, the two of us find ourselves working in offices along the San Antonio River more than decade later.

Barnett’s article today is the latest in series that began when District Nine Councilwoman Elisa Chan sent constituents a newsletter in March that questioned a proposal to use city subsidies to spur accelerated development of downtown residential housing. Chan argued that such subsidies would not necessarily lead to new job creation. Ed Cross, one of the most prominent developers building downtown residential housing, sent Chan, other city leaders and a variety of stakeholders in the debate, this Brookings Institute study that links housing development to job creation and downtown revitalization. The study, Cross argued,  supports the findings of a HR&A Advisors, a New York firm specializing in helping cities renew their downtowns, that had just presented its own recommendation to City Council. The housing subsidies were among the recommendations.

Chan’s original newsletter is no longer posted. The End of Subsidized Sprawl: Why Council Should Support Downtown San Antonio, was published here April 8, and was followed by a second newsletter from Chan’s office. That led to an article by Cross published here, and now Barnett’s piece. Posted comments on both sides of the issue reflect some strong divisions in the city between suburban and downtown residents and job holders.

The Rivard Report welcomes other writers who would like to submit a well-argued point of view on the subject, but as some have seen, we are not interested in name calling, anonymous assertions unsupported by any facts, or other uncivil discourse. 

by David Barnett

We have a problem and no one is talking about it. I’m not pointing the finger of blame at anyone. I’m saying it’s time to call 911. We need help right now. The problem: College graduates are fleeing San Antonio. Why is that a problem? If you think we will attract businesses, think again. They follow the work force. One of the excuses AT&T gave as they left was we didn’t have the work force and Dallas did. If you think we will create home-grown businesses that turn into the next Rackspace, think again. We are creating the work force for all the other cities. They win. We lose.

Why are they fleeing? I have my own thoughts. But I have no research. I wish the city would survey graduating seniors and ask them why they are leaving. We have more college students enrolled in our colleges and universities then Austin. Yet Austin is ranked #2 in the US as a percentage of 24 to 35 year olds with college degrees as a percentage of population. Detroit is ranked way down at #25. And San Antonio? We are at the bottom ranked at #46. We have a serious problem. And no one is ringing the alarm. Read this recent piece in Forbes ranking the best U.S. cities for finding a good job. Austin also ranks second in this survey. San Antonio? We don’t even make the list.

What can we do? We can start by better understanding the people we want to keep in San Antonio, and others like them we want to recruit from elsewhere to our city.

Young people want to live with other young people. They don’t want to be isolated in suburban cul-de-sacs. They want to find a mate. They want to socialize. Have a good time. Talk to people like them. Make new friends. Share ideas. Downtowns provide an urban playground for this group. But we don’t have a livable downtown. Austin does. Houston does. Dallas does. We do not.

Housing comes first. It attracts the creative population. Creative people in close proximity of one another creates intellectual density and that leads to idea creation. Rackspace was created by three college students in a Trinity University dorm. Three people from around the United States brought together in close proximity spawned a billion dollar company. We attract the workforce and we will not only spawn new companies, we will attract outside companies.

Let me give you an example: Geekdom. Geekdom is housed on the 11th floor at Weston Centre, a workspace for technology and creative people to hang out with other like-minded individuals, work on their own projects and collaborate with one another.  I have witnessed ideas turn into businesses there. A downtown urban playground would emulate Geekdom on a larger scale. We create a downtown that attracts creative and educated people… ideas will be spawned and businesses launched. Eventually a few more Rackspaces.

Downtown is a city’s brand. If you have a city with buildings being built and construction cranes, what do you think? You think things are happening in this city. What brand do we have? Why is there a bumper sticker that says, “Keep San Antonio Lame”? We have to change our brand. We have to make our downtown a playground for the young creative and educated workforce.

I want to unite, not divide. This isn’t a problem only for those living and working downtown. This is a problem no matter where you live in San Antonio.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.