San Antonio has made strides diversifying its economy, supporting the growing tech community, and showcasing the city’s rich history and culture, but a lot more needs to be done before the city can claim to secure a bright future, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff told a luncheon audience of 450 that gathered at the Omni Colonnade Hotel for North San Antonio Chamber‘s annual State of the County address on Friday.
From July 2014 to July 2015, the population in San Antonio’s metropolitan statistical area grew by 37,479 people, while the economy grew by 35,000 jobs as the unemployment rate fell to 3.7%, the fifth best among cities with more than one million people. Some of that job growth came in the tech and cybersecurity sector, which Wolff said last year was lagging, especially compared to Austin.
“A year ago I told you that Uber and Lyft have left San Antonio while Austin embraced them. I told you that Austin had Google Fiber and we didn’t, and that we had to do a little bit better job of working on our tech industry … And now a year later we have a little bit better of a picture – Uber and Lyft have left Austin and have come to San Antonio, and now we have Google Fiber,” Wolff said to applause.
According to a recent study by SA-Tecosystem, the number of local tech jobs has grown from 15,000 to 34,000 in the last eight years. The industry’s total economic impact is $10 billion.
“We’ll continue to grow the industry, through tech firms, embedded tech departments in various companies” and maintain a large presence in the military with cybersecurity, Wolff said. The 24th Air Force at Port San Antonio employs more than 1,000 people in the industry, he added, and five cybersecurity firms opened their doors there last year.
Expanding the tech industry has been one of the County’s main focuses in the past year. The start of Bibliotech, the first all-digital public library in the U.S. and the implementation of the County’s $1 million innovation fund – which aims to attract tech talent, expand local companies, host talent competitions, and provide resources for talent development – exemplify the County’s commitment to insert San Antonio into the national tech conversation.
Wolff encouraged local business leaders to reach out to high school and college students with internship opportunities to “give them a taste of the job” and develop their professional skills, something he believes can help retain the existing talent in the city.
Beyond maintaining a strong and competitive workforce, San Antonio must not forget the “live” and “play” aspects of the city that are essential in retaining workforce talent. Hundreds of housing units are under construction in the inner city, he said, along with a number of condos and hotels, steadily following the growth of the Pearl and Southtown. The new Frost Bank Tower, set to be completed in 2018 or 2019, “will be like no other building in San Antonio,” Wolff said, although no architectural renderings have been shared publicly yet. The coming creation of the eight-acre Civic Park and mixed-use development in Hemisfair will become a major draw for both locals and visitors.
“That’s great and good, but we need more urban hubs around the community,” Wolff said, citing La Cantera, The Rim, and The Quarry as successful models. A development similar to the Pearl, complete with walkable paths between the different parts of the multi-use development, is in the works for a 114-acre parcel of land off I-10 and UTSA Boulevard.
“That will, more than anything else, help with traffic jams that we have in our community today,” he said, adding that the County has invested more than $527 million in 21 regional mobility projects “to keep our county moving.” Other lane expansion projects on I-10 and U.S. 281, and a major project on Loop 1604 between Culebra Road and U.S. 90 be decided next week by the Texas Department of Transportation in Austin.
Other advances have come in arts, culture, and entertainment. San Antonio FC, the city’s first professional soccer team in the United Soccer League (USL), is nearing the end of its first season in June, and a strong fan base developing across the city has demonstrated San Antonio is a soccer-smart city eager for the Spurs Sports & Entertainment to win the rights to a Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise in the next round of league expansion.
MLS has announced plans to expand to four new markets by 2020, Wolff said. Sacramento is considered a lock, while San Antonio is in the running against St. Louis, Detroit, San Diego, and Austin for one of the three remaining expansion slots.
“Soccer is the fastest growing sport for (U.S.) Millennials, and a perfect fit for San Antonio,” Wolff said, adding that a 2011 City-County study concluded that San Antonio “is ready for Major League Soccer.
“With Spurs Sports and Entertainment as owners of San Antonio’s USL franchise, we are partnered now to pursue an MLS franchise,” he said.
Joining the league would require voter approval to expand Toyota Field, the stadium San Antonio FC calls home, and would also signal the end of the USL team. Wolff is unsure exactly when the MLS will decide on the cities for the new franchises, but expects developments “probably within the next year.”
The next year also will see extensive planning for for the city’s 300th birthday in May 2018. Bexar County has invested in a number of projects in line with the Tricentennial celebrations to come, including a $125 million commitment to restoring San Pedro Creek.
“Most of you probably know our community was not founded on the banks of the (San Antonio) River, but actually on San Pedro Creek,” Wolff said. “Along San Pedro Creek we have the first Mission de Valero there, and we have the first Spanish presidio…” The County and its design team will transform the creek and its banks into a cultural and historical venue that will “tell the story of the first settlements” along the creek.
Other cultural investments are focused around the urban core, and include the expansion of the San Antonio Botanical Garden and the Witte Museum. A new VIA route – “Viva Culture” – will soon connect visiting transit users all along the Broadway and Museum Reach. Wolff also hopes to further explore San Antonio’s growing film and music scene, and said the community needs to “step up our support” of the 72-member San Antonio Symphony that struggles financially and at the box office.
“If we don’t support the Symphony and our performing arts groups then the main purpose of the Tobin (Center for the Performing Arts) would be lost,” he said. The Tobin is the performance hub of the Symphony, and is ranked number one in the world amongst theaters with 2,000 seats or less based on performances and attendance. Wolff invited several members of the Symphony’s String Quartet to perform after his address.
“Great American cities are defined by (their) commitment to classical music,” he said. “Our historical and cultural roots are tied to classical music.”
Top image: Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff speaks about the importance of supporting local arts. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.