Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran talks with former SAWS trustee and lifelong Southside proponent Roberto Anguiano, Southside First Executive Director Andrew Anguiano's father. Credit: Shari Biediger / San Antonio Report

Debbie Hernandez meets with a group of her neighbors once a week to talk about ways to reduce crime in her neighborhood. She formed a Nextdoor page to connect neighbors and report incidents, and she’s met with officials to talk about cleaning up the roads and highways near Lackland Air Force Base.

“We’re trying to network a group because as we started doing this, people from the other side of Kelly [Air Force Base, known today as Port San Antonio] started asking [if they could] join us because we’re trying to do similar things,” Hernandez said. “So, the word has gone out: What if we can get a Southside group together?”

A lifelong Southside resident, Hernandez was one of dozens of neighborhood, school, and business leaders who attended the Southside First Economic Development Council’s Wednesday launch of the community initiative, Thriving Together.

In conjunction with the South San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, the nonprofit council introduced Thriving Together to “promote investment and encourage revitalization, and energize local and prospective businesses and engage neighborhoods while providing economic accountability and sustainability for South San Antonio and Bexar County.”

Southside First Executive Director Andrew Anguiano introduces Thriving Together campaign. Credit: Shari Biediger / San Antonio Report

“If you want to go somewhere far, you have to go together,” Southside First Executive Director Andrew Anguiano told the crowd gathered at the Embassy Suites at Brooks.

“But changes bring challenges and amplify issues yet to be fully addressed. They also bring up an immense amount of opportunity for us to come together to [bring] life [to] the Southside economy, for the over-350,000 residents [who] call this side of town home.

“Southside First is a nonprofit whose mission is to be the voice of prosperity, community bridging, and responsible development.”

Rudy Garza, a senior vice president at CPS Energy, is chairman of Southside First. “We have great leadership in the right spot,” Garza said, naming Leo Gomez of Brooks, Roland Mower of Port San Antonio, as well as Texas A&M San Antonio and Palo Alto College.

“The timing is right to figure out a way to combine business with the schools and community, and that’s what this campaign is all about. It’s going to be a community-based approach for bringing together economic development strategies to the Southside and across the entire county. We’re going to be breaking down silos.”

The launch of Thriving Together occurred on the eve of City Manager Sheryl Sculley’s presentation of a $2.7 billion budget proposal for fiscal year 2018 Thursday morning.

The proposal will be the first to use an “equity lens” in an attempt to effectively allocate resources among the 10 council districts, committing more resources to areas and populations that have been largely ignored for decades.

District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran, who was recently appointed chair of the City’s Economic Development Committee by Mayor Ron Nirenberg, said equitable distribution of funds to improve and build infrastructure is an important part of economic development for the Southside.

“Our goal in the next two years is to get all of the streets in the city at least to a 70 PCI [pavement condition index] score,” she said. “This is going to help us move forward and attract those businesses here that we want to make the investment. But … it’s not just the businesses. It’s the neighborhood and the collaboration as we move forward.

“Growing up here, my family had a small business, and we knew it took the entire family to pitch in to be a part of keeping everything going, and that’s just like us here.”

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) said Southside First is a good name for the new economic development council. “Because we have so many firsts – we were first with Toyota, first with Brooks converting to a dynamic area of economic development, first with the new [University of the Incarnate Word Osteopathic] medical school here, first with Texas A&M, the fastest growing university in the entire state,” Doggett said.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas) speaks at the Southside First Economic Development Council event. Credit: Shari Biediger / San Antonio Report

Then, reflecting on his first meeting about the organization and its mission, he added, “I see what good ideas fueled by a little Southtown Mexican food can do for us.

“But all of you who have been part of the Southside know there are some lasts here. It’s how we turn those into firsts.”

According to Census data cited  by Southside First, the Southside is 81.3% Hispanic, has a per capita income of $15,752, and a median income of $36,896. There are 6,909 businesses, but only 30% of the San Antonio population lives and works on the Southside.

The numbers don’t lie, said Crystal Gomez, vice president of operations and management for Southside First, pointing to further research from the Institute for Child, Youth and Family Policy that shows children who grow up on the Southside have less opportunity than those in other areas of town.

“We do need to address equity,” she said. “The Southside is what makes San Antonio unique. Everything we love about San Antonio started on the Southside.”

Gomez outlined several initiatives that Southside First and the South Chamber will sponsor to promote Thriving Together, including monthly and annual networking events and workshops open to small business owners and neighborhood groups. The council produced a video that also plugs their concept, “We work, we build, we thrive together.”

“This is about overcoming challenges,” Anguiano told the Rivard Report. “I had to think long and hard about taking this job. The challenge is we have so much happening, a diverse group of folks, history colliding with the new. So, who’s going to take up the mantle for the future, even if we don’t know what the ‘future’ means yet?”

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.