(From left) Graham Weston shakes hands with UTSA President Taylor Eighmy following the announcement of a $15 million gift in support of the UTSA downtown campus.
(From left) Graham Weston shakes hands with UTSA President Taylor Eighmy following the announcement of a $15 million gift in support of the UTSA downtown campus. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Taylor Eighmy and Graham Weston were a true portrait of leadership last week – two visionaries coming together to announce a stunning $200-plus million dollar transformation of the downtown campus of the University of Texas at San Antonio.

Eighmy has been president of UTSA exactly one year this month, and already has established himself as a leader with big ideas, last month launching his Presidential Initiative on Research Excellence. Weston, a Rackspace co-founder, has emerged in the last decade as the driving force in the resurrection of downtown San Antonio. The new Frost Bank Tower, which will be completed by the end of 2019, is the signature centerpiece of Weston Urban’s planned redevelopment of, literally, acres of western downtown.

This massive investment in downtown and higher education represents a huge win for Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Manager Sheryl Sculley, and follows the City’s public-private partnership agreement that led to Weston Urban’s ambitious master plan.

Weston’s philanthropic profile has grown steadily since he first became a tri-chair of former Mayor Julián Castro’s SA2020 initiative, and now, with his $15 million gift to fund UTSA’s School of Data Science at the downtown campus, he can be credited with one of the biggest single philanthropic gifts made to a San Antonio institution of higher education.

Pray for his gift inspiring others.

Eighmy and Weston are not alone at this moment in San Antonio’s upward trajectory. Depending on how you tally the numbers, there is either a little more or a little less than $1 billion in research dollars flowing annually into San Antonio leading research institutions. That money funds thousands of jobs for some of the city’s most talented individuals and teams, and will help spark new discoveries, breakthrough treatments and procedures, and the emergence of new commercial enterprises.

Take brain research and the ambitious consortium that has formed in San Antonio, one of the city’s best kept secrets. Earlier this year, UTSA hired Jenny Hseih, a nationally recognized researcher as its Semmes Foundation Chair in Cell Biology and director of the UTSA Brain Health Consortium.

There are now five top-tier research centers working collaboratively in San Antonio:  UTSA’s Neurosciences Institute,  San Antonio Cellular Therapeutics Institute, and South Texas Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases; the UT Health San Antonio/UTSA joint venture  Center for Innovative Drug Discovery, and the Institute for Health Disparities Research.

Construction on Methodist Hospital in the Medical Center.
The South Texas Medical Center, which started 50 years ago, has become a destination for medical services and education in San Antonio. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The Rivard Report, in partnership with Methodist Healthcare Ministries and the San Antonio Medical Foundation, will shine a light on quite a bit of this research activity at a Monday luncheon program titled, “The South Texas Medical Center: A Look Back at the First 50 Years, a Look Ahead at the Next 50 Years.”

(Click here for tickets and more information.)

The event aims to celebrate the Medical Center’s founding in 1968, a catalytic year for San Antonio – one that also saw the opening of HemisFair ’68 and the city being ushered into a new, post-war chapter in its 300-year history. The heart of San Antonio’s smart jobs economy is in the Medical Center, which continues to grow robustly alongside the city.

The event also will focus on the nexus of institutions working together in the city to build that research and development combine.

The luncheon panel I will moderate will include Dr. William Henrich, president of UT Health San Antonio; George Hernandez, president and CEO of University Health System; Dr. Colleen Bridger, director of the City of San Antonio’s Metropolitan Health District; and Jenna Saucedo-Herrera, president and CEO of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation.

Medical Foundation President Jim Reed will deliver the keynote on the Medical Center’s history, and then panelists will explore its future and the implications for providing health care services in a city expected to grow by more than one million people in the next 25 years.

Time and space required us to limit the panel. It ought to include UTSA, the Southwest Research Institute, and the Texas Biomedical Research Institute, too – all major players in this realm.

I connect last week’s news to this week’s luncheon forum to highlight other visionaries and city builders whose relatively low profiles belie the important roles they play in San Antonio. It seems like a particularly important time, with elections looming Nov. 6, to remind citizens of our city’s many accomplished leaders and the direct connection between the actions they take and the prosperity, opportunity, and quality of life we too often take for granted in San Antonio.

Last week saw the last-minute cancellation of an on-stage debate between Nirenberg and the firefighters union President Chris “No-Show” Steele after Steele suddenly pulled out of the event and tried to substitute a proxy. Steele’s unpredictable behavior comes as no surprise to those of us more familiar with him than, say, the tens of thousands of people who signed the union petitions seeking to fundamentally alter the City Charter.

Steele is always a “no-show” in the broadest sense of the words. His public appearances are carefully staged and controlled. He refuses to give interviews to reporters who ask  tough questions. He and his team are usually unavailable to explain their own actions. He parades around in a phony “fire chief” uniform. He has never served in a public office of any kind, and lacks the background or education to serve in any position of public trust.

He’s the boss of the firefighters union, answerable only to his members. He cannot explain why, in San Antonio, the firefighters union believes an attack on the council-manager form of government will benefit anyone other than Steele and his allies. Under his rules, every City Council decision of any import could be subjected to a petition drive and election.

The firefighters union, like the police union before it, has vilified Sculley and made her compensation an issue, cynically playing to a populist audience whose members compare their own earnings to hers. People should compare their responsibilities and their skill sets to hers, too.

Sculley’s compensation is actually less than what several of the leaders I’ve mentioned in this column are paid. All are compensated competitively for their abilities to deliver transformative results, yet only Sculley comes under attack. Ask yourself: Why?  Her compensation is more than justified relative to the return on investment for taxpayers, yet the unions have conducted a multiyear campaign to tear her down, and her office is specifically targeted in the three measures on the Nov. 6 ballot.

San Antonio is at a crossroads. Do we want to continue to build a better-educated, more prosperous, and more equitable city? Or do we want to turn around and go backwards and let a public union call the shots?

Last week in San Antonio showed us both worlds – one where leaders showed up to lead, and one where a pretender went absent and showed us the very different alternative.

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.