Why San Antonio's Future is Bright

(This article also appeared in the Rivard Report here.)

Every city government loves to trumpet that Good Times are ahead and San Antonio is no exception. Having lived here most of my life, I’ve long heard the rhetoric. But, it wasn’t always clear that our city was truly on an upward trend. Now, it’s clear to me that the stars are aligning in favor of our fair city.

Why? A number of macro and micro trends are aligning all to our city’s benefit:

Eagle Ford Shale: We’ve all read the numbers but they only hit me when*I saw on Craigslist a young woman had posted: “Needed, 1 bedroom apartment for rent. $1600 or less.*” $1600? In San Antonio? For a recent grad? That’s enormous. What was cool is she said she wanted it near her job on the south side at I 37 and 1604. Only jobs that far south are (a) farmer and (b) at one of the new oil company offices. I’m guessing she was in the oil company category.

Hispanic Immigration: Much is said about the “Sonterey” effect where wealthy Mexicans are fleeing and taking root in the Sonterra/Stone Oak area on the north side of San Antonio. This is a huge shift from our hispanic migration of decades earlier where immigrants were mostly the poor and uneducated. Now, we see the educated and wealthy moving here. These folks are bringing an entirely different feel in the city. At the Whole Foods at 1604 and Blanco last week, I was the only person out of a queue of four to order in English and the only one not to drive away in a Mercedes-Benz or BMW.

Internal (Southerly+Easterly) Migration: The intra-USA migration towards the south from the rust belt has been going on for decades. What’s relatively new are the California/Arizona escapees migrating east. One particular friend of mine picked San Antonio as a place to expand her business from Arizona. Her whole family is here now.

Noble Cause Philanthropy: San Antonio’s most recent crop of philanthropists here don’t care to have their names on buildings like earlier generations. Instead, they’re interested in investing in “places” like The Pearl or Geekdom where communities of like-minded, energetic people develop and flourish. They get that people and relationships, not buildings, are what makes a meaningful community.

Military: Nothing special in this category except for the fact little has changed. Physical war is as old as man. What’s new are the cyber wars. The most recent publication of APTs (Advanced Persistent Threat) groups operating out of China and elsewhere means continued heavy investment in cyber security. It doesn’t hurt that San Antonio is the home for much of the military (and NSA’s) cyber security work as well as the central training place for many military healthcare workers at Ft. Sam Houston.

Healthcare: Similarly, nothing has changed on national policy on healthcare in America. Our national healthcare system is still a ‘ginormous’ mess. That’s good for San Antonio. Where the healthcare system is inefficient, there’s opportunity for companies large and small to exploit those gaps and profit. The medical sector centered around the South Texas Medical Center will only grow as an economic driver.

Tourism: As we know, travelling by plane is getting harder due to security concerns and more expensive due to rising fuel costs. What better choice for a destination than one clearly outside of the firing line of terrorism and in driving distance? If you are going by plane, what better city to visit than one with a small but accessible airport?

Tech + Austin: Austin’s gain is San Antonio’s gain. As Austin establishes itself as the nation’s #4 tech hub (#1 SF Bay, #2 Boston, then tied #3 New York City & Austin) in the US, that’s only going to help San Antonio due to our proximity to our “Weird” neighbors 70 miles away. Things are happening in San Antonio. Besides Rackspace, dozens of IT companies are springing out of Geekdom at a torrid pace: TrueAbility and Par Level Systems being two of the most promising.

What’s missing? The biggest missing part of the puzzle is a top-tier, scale educational and research institution. Something on par with those in Boston, San Francisco and Austin that will attract the most special people from around the world. UTSA is trying hard but it has a systemic problem in that UT-Austin will always be the big brother and thus get to pick projects and people first.  Trinity is small so its impact is limited.

But, times are changing for the Stanfords, MITs and UTs of the world. The extreme cost of college combined with the potential disruption of online education means San Antonio’s lack of a premier and large educational institution might not matter as much any more — and prove the leaders who decades years ago hitched San Antonio’s wagon to tourism and the military were very prescient.

Even so, San Antonio is riding trends that are hugely in our collective favor. Cities like Cleveland or Las Vegas would kill for a list that included one or two of these things. There’s much to get psyched about and I’m glad to be part of the ride.

Michael Girdley