There isn’t a single city in the United States with perfect credentials for hosting Amazon‘s proposed new headquarters and the 50,000 jobs and $5 billion of investment that will come with the move.
That’s why imperfect San Antonio should go all out to make the case for Amazon doing exactly what Toyota did a decade ago: Set aside its initial short list of destination cities for its new state-of-the-art vehicle manufacturing facility, and instead put it in San Antonio.
More recently, San Antonio fell short in its bid to persuade Tesla founder Elon Musk to locate his new battery factory here rather than Reno, Nev. Pursuing the deal, however, gave the city’s new, more unified economic development team the opportunity to act. I, for one, am eager to see Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, San Antonio Economic Development Foundation CEO Jenna Saucedo-Herrera, and others on the team, compete.
Dynamic leadership stands out. Not every city has it. San Antonio had it and then lost it. Now we have it again. It’s a visible advantage.
Some Cities Simply Do Not Qualify
Inland Texas cities have a strong case to make. If you take Amazon at its word, the company’s concern about cost-of-living virtually disqualifies East and West Coast cities. Even Chicago is pricey by comparison to other Midwest, Southern, and Southwestern cities. How sensitive company executives are to living costs will help shape their view of Texas: Dallas and Austin are considerably more expensive than San Antonio, where home and land values are rising, yet remain far below the national average for major U.S. cities.
With the current headquarters in Seattle, it’s only logical for Amazon executives to seek out a new geography, one with a stable weather profile. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and going back some years, Sandy, Katrina and Rita, all point to why every city from New York to Miami, from New Orleans to Houston, are likely to be struck from the list.
Not everyone yet believes in climate change and its potential impact on rising coastal water and storm ferocity, but I am betting Amazon’s leadership buys the science.
And then there is the “business-friendly” environment. The lack of a state income tax in Texas and its cultural aversion to government regulation of industry sets it apart from many states. Our reliance on real estate and sales taxes and low regulation can be blamed for a host of the state’s shortcomings, from low spending on public education to declining air quality, aquifer protections, and disinterest in conservation.
Those same factors, however, help make Texas attractive to corporations that want as little government interaction as possible. State incentive packages in Texas almost always trail those offered in other states competing for corporate headquarters and major manufacturing facilities. While the numbers will surely matter, I see this measure low on the checklist for a company whose market value climbs by the billions with every upward tick of the stock market.
The Real Competition
The New York Times published a fascinating interactive feature Saturday that ranks U.S. cities through a process of elimination as Times journalists waded through Amazon’s eight pages of criteria it handed to interested cities.
Click here to read the Times feature.
San Antonio makes the first cut of 25 eligible cities, but then falls off the list as Austin and Dallas make the next round of 14 cities that also offer strong labor pools of skilled workers. Cities like Charlotte, Raleigh, and Atlanta also remain in the running.
Ultimately, Denver prevails.I have written about the city at least twice as having the best mass transit system of any regional U.S. city, a thriving urban core animated by parks, public art, and many neighborhoods populated by smart young workers.
The Case for San Antonio
We are a warm and welcoming city unlike many metro areas where there is a distinct lack of regional government unity and engagement by the business community. I still remember Medtronic executives remarking that San Antonio was the only city to send a leadership team to its Southern California headquarters to make its case in person. That display of passion and purpose proved to be the deciding factor.
San Antonio’s team will have no problem putting a unified face on its offer to make room for Amazon here. We have plenty of open, affordable space, some of the least expensive and most reliable water and energy in the Southwest, and affordable homes and neighborhoods for workers.
Do not underestimate how much San Antonio has evolved since then-Mayor Julián Castro declared the Decade of Downtown in 2009. By 2020, we will significantly achieve and surpass most of the goals set by thousands of citizens who participated in the SA2020 process. We are a much more attractive city with many more talented, skilled workers now, and more arrive every week.
Cities like Denver, Austin, and Portland are years ahead of us in attracting a smart workforce to a more livable city, but that also makes them less appealing when looking at their cost-of-living, and the ability of an outside player like Amazon to help shape a city’s future.
Not everyone outside San Antonio recognizes our evolution, and only now are we beginning to tell a story that goes deeper than the Alamo, River Walk, and Sea World. This is a good opportunity for the local bid team to recruit some of our most talented young leaders from Tech Bloc, from the arts and culture community, designers and infill developers, educators, and yes, some of the best and brightest who now hold seats on City Council. All can be convincing voices of support.
Does Amazon have designs on Mexico and Latin America? It’s targeting everyone else, so the answer is probably yes. If it does have such plans, this is the city to establish a base as its move south of the border with our bilingual, bicultural workforce.
We have our glaring weaknesses. San Antonio International Airport is recording record passenger traffic, to its credit, and continues to incrementally improve its number of nonstop flight destinations. But we remain a very distant fourth to Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, and Austin. What we lack, ironically, Amazon might add muscle to by its very presence. All those packages have to move by air and move quickly.
Our failure to win voter support for long-term mass transit planning and investment is a major problem, but also an opportunity for Mayor Nirenberg, City Council, and VIA Metropolitan Transit to go to voters and make the case that without a firm commitment to long-term light rail and bus investment, and a real – rather than fake – network of bike lanes, our city will never achieve its full potential. Young, talented professionals will always have more attractive cities to welcome them. Showing Amazon we are ready to accelerate such plans would strengthen our hand.
Some in the private sector have suggested that San Antonio and Austin should combine forces to present a more formidable bid. I do not disagree that such a bid would accentuate our respective regional strengths and reduce some of our weaknesses, but I also think our two cities have yet to take baby steps together, so we are unlikely to suddenly start marching in lockstep. I doubt we have enough time or shared wisdom to reach such an accommodation.
San Antonio and Austin still compete more than they collaborate. Let’s hope that changes as the two booming metro areas with distinctive cultures continue to grow into a single megalopolis. In the meantime, let’s see how San Antonio stands on its own. No, we are not perfect. Neither is any other city.