Laura Huffman, state director for The Nature Conservancy, talks about sustainability at the Texas Municipal League on Wednesday. Photo by Edmond Ortiz

Elected officials and senior city staff members from Texas cities are in San Antonio this week for the Texas Municipal League‘s (TML) annual conference to talk about the benefits and pitfalls related to growth.

Economic development, adequate city management, annexation, water, sustainability and public engagement are among the topics of discussion.

The conference began Wednesday and ends Friday afternoon at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.

TML is an Austin-based organization that has been providing various services since 1913. This is the first time since 2008 that TML has held its yearly conference in San Antonio.

An estimated 2,700 delegates and 1,500 exhibitor staffers attended the event, according to TML Communications and Programs Director Christina Corrigan, setting a new record for delegates.

San Antonio leaders, including Mayor Ivy Taylor, City Manager Sheryl Sculley and Councilmember Joe Krier (D9), got to boast some of the City’s recent achievements and innovative projects on Monday.

That’s when a handful of mayors from big Texas cities gathered for a day-long session at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. This meeting was organized as an informal review of issues that larger cities are facing, such as workforce development, the digital divide, transportation, long-range comprehensive planning and education.

“While sometimes we feel like we’re in competition, it’s better to figure out how to work together to benefit all of Texas,” Taylor told her counterparts on Monday.

Federico Zaragoza, the Alamo Colleges‘ vice chancellor for economic and workforce development, and HOLT CAT Senior Vice President Peter J. Holt, were among the San Antonians focusing on local workforce initiatives. The discussion included SA-TEC (San Antonio – Talent for Economic Competitiveness), a newly announced citywide effort meant to boost local workforce delivery.

“(Workforce development) is one of the things I have been very focused on ever since I was appointed interim mayor,” Taylor said. It was one of the main themes of her campaign for a full term as mayor this spring.

Clarissa Ramon, community impact manager for Google Fiber San Antonio, was part of the discussion about conquering the digital divide by widening Internet access to communities. She was joined by Renee Flores, AT&T’s regional vice president for external and legislative affairs. AT&T announced on Tuesday that San Antonio would be among a handful of U.S. cities to receive GigaPower, a fiber-optic, ultra-fast Internet network, very similar to that of Google Fiber, that’s capable of providing up to a gigabit of data per second.

Mike Frisbie, director of the City’s Transportation and Capital Improvements Department, talked about SA Tomorrow, the effort towards putting together a long-term comprehensive plan. VIA Metropolitan Transit President and CEO Jeffrey Arndt addressed VIA’s long-range transit plan, Vision 2040.

J. Bruce Bugg Jr., member of the Texas Transportation Commission, talked about local and statewide transportation challenges and potential solutions. Bugg’s presentation included Proposition 7, a state constitutional amendment that voters will consider this November. If approved, Prop 7 would dedicate part of general sales and vehicle sales tax to the state’s general highway fund.

State Sen. José Menéndez rounded out the big city mayors’ meeting with a presentation on public education in Texas.

Mayor Taylor said afterward she felt the gathering of mayors was successful.

“I received good feedback from the rest of the mayors. They felt the (event) agenda was well thought out and useful,” she said. Taylor added that workforce development, specifically, was a quality discussion.

“We shared (San Antonio’s) model. It’s a big topic affecting other cities,” she said. “We were left with the idea that there are some things the state could do legislatively to help improve workforce development. There is something we all can do to focus on career pathways, not just for teenagers who are in high school now, but for those who are entering college or the workforce now.”

Mayor Ivy Taylor starts the Big City Mayors' meeting at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts on Monday, Sept. 21, 2015. Photo by Edmond Ortiz
Mayor Ivy Taylor starts the Big City Mayors’ meeting at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts on Monday, Sept. 21, 2015. Photo by Edmond Ortiz

The TML conference features an array of discussions that some participants feel are important in ensuring a certain quality of life for all community members, from residents to city staff.

Mayor Taylor said she was happy she and fellow local leaders could personally highlight sustainability efforts in San Antonio. Some participants got to tour the San Antonio Water System‘s Twin Oaks Aquifer Storage and Recovery facility, and the William B. Sinkin Centennial solar farms. The City also showcased its B-Cycle program, as some attendees used B-Cycles to tour the Spanish colonial Missions, which are now World Heritage Sites.

Local sustainability and growth management tools received attention in breakout sessions Wednesday. John Dugan, director for the City’s Department of Planning and Community Development, and City Government and Public Affairs Director Jeff Coyle, talked about San Antonio’s planned new round of annexations. But Mayor Taylor recently wrote a memo, seeking a slow down in the City’s annexation schedule so that current needs in the inner city can be met. She later said she has received positive feedback from the San Antonio City Council on her suggestion.

“I’m not surprised by reactions of my colleagues. It is a complex issue and I look forward to the upcoming dialogue with them,” she said. “We will discuss it soon.”

Dugan and Coyle said San Antonio has not annexed any land in more than 10 years, and is primed to use annexation as a tool for responsible growth management. At the same, Coyle said, established smaller, yet growing cities near San Antonio should not feel threatened.

“We don’t want to give the impression that we just want to keep growing outward,” Coyle said. He added that while the City is mindful about addressing existing issues in older parts of town, it feels the need to get ahead of “growth and development happening in newer areas.”

TML Executive Director Bennett Sandlin said he understands the delicate balance between growing areas in a city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction and the pent-up demand for more services and better infrastructure in established parts of a city.

“Growth in a city will always be a struggle,” he explained. “Property and sales taxes will lag behind because a city will feel it must put in so much in services and infrastructure before someone buys the first home in a new development.”

Other TML participants said a commitment to progressive attitudes concerning growth and workforce development helps to improve the quality of life in cities big and small. This is true even for elected leaders and top city staff, which altogether set a public example and set the tone for a community’s priorities and direction.

Kilgore Mayor Ronnie Spradlin and Kyle City Manager Scott Sellers both spoke about what it takes for city administrators and managers to work with city councils to overcome challenges together.

Spradlin and Sellers agreed that a dynamic council should be open-minded and ensure everyone, from municipal employees to other local elected leaders, feel welcomed and not disenfranchised or singled out.

As a result, they added, whole communities can look forward to bigger and better things, attracting more people who want to live and work in those areas.

Foresight and openness among city officials are key, added Spradlin and Sellers.

“There’s a challenge between micromanaging as a city council member or mayor and looking at what’s happening 10 to 20 years down the road. You really can’t do both,” Spradlin said. “If you’re micromanaging, you’re not looking at the future.”

“It all depends on the vision of the council and of the city,” Sellers said. “There are cities I would call progressive and visionary, places where councils are unified and find it easier to attract top talent.”

*Top image: Laura Huffman, state director for The Nature Conservancy, talks about sustainability at the Texas Municipal League conference on Wednesday. Photo by Edmond Ortiz

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Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.