I was born in San Antonio, I love this city and plan to spend the rest of my life here. I am also a huge fan of Mayor Julián Castro. His ambitions for San Antonio are large and he is making great progress. But his marketing of the city has one fatal flaw. In almost every speech, I hear him call San Antonio the 7th largest city in America. This talking point has become omnipresent in the positioning of the city, and I think it is a big mistake. In fact, it undermines our biggest advantage. Here’s how:
It is technically correct, but misleading.
The list on which San Antonio finds itself 7th largest is based on legal city limits. Benefiting from massive city borders, we include most of our full metro-area population inside our city. But, this isn’t the way anyone thinks about the size of a city. Is San Antonio bigger than San Francisco? Than Boston? Of course not. Metropolitan area population is what counts — and there we rank 25th.
[Correction: A previous version of this story stated San Antonio’s rank as 31st. After finding conflicting rankings of the city, we’ve settled on this U.S. Census report that places the city at 25th.]
People know this intuitively. When the Mayor says we’re 7th, you can see members of the audience scratching their heads. This claim hurts the credibility of any message that follows. San Antonio is many things — the demographic future of America, one of the fastest growing cities and more — but it is not one of the largest cities.
It sets the wrong expectations.
When people hear that San Antonio is the 7th largest city, their expectations are set unreasonably high. Where are the world-class museums? The scores of nationally acclaimed restaurants? The direct flights to other major cities (or even to New Orleans…)? The subway? The Major League Baseball and NFL teams? The big concerts? The thriving urban center?
Don’t get me wrong: we’re making great progress in most of these areas and the mayor is advancing them as fast as any predecessor, but we have a long way to go to match the country’s largest cities. The key to selling anything is to delight the buyer unexpectedly. We should be selling our historical charm, emerging cultural centers, and vibrant growth — not our size.
It undermines our biggest advantage.
To me, attracting and retaining young educated people is the biggest challenge facing the city. At Rackspace, we’re hiring lots of engineers and other educated young people from big urban centers around the world, and the thing they love most about San Antonio is the opportunity to build it into a great city. Forbes magazine, the Milken Institute, MSN and others rank San Antonio’s economy as one of the nation’s strongest. The city is growing rapidly in income, population, and sophistication. Yet there is still an opportunity for newcomers and natives alike to mold the city; to make it their own.
Many new residents take pride in San Antonio being “like Austin 20 years ago.” They want to be the architects who make it the city it can become. They cannot do that in the largest of American cities. San Antonio is undiscovered, emerging, distinctive, independent, inexpensive, and uncrowded. These are the benefits we should be selling. San Antonio should be convincing people to be part of the future of America. Our city should not aspire to join the ranks of those that are larger and less dynamic. As my friend Lorenzo Gomez recently wrote, San Antonio is a “City On The Rise.” That’s our advantage. That should be our pitch.
Mr. Mayor, I am all for dreaming big — and you are doing it. But, let’s be honest about where we are and let’s use it to our advantage. Tout our assets — our visual arts community, our rich Hispanic heritage and culture, our historical roots, our friendly, oak-shaded neighborhoods, our emerging parks and urban centers — and ask people in the largest cities why they are living in traffic jams and paying too much for their homes. Let’s entice them to come take part in building the next great American city. If we end up the 7th largest so be it. But first let’s build something great.
Lew Moorman is a member of the Board of Directors of Rackspace, and consults with the company’s top executives on strategy and product development. Lew joined Rackspace in April of 2000 and has served in a variety of roles, including as President and Chief Strategy Officer, while the company grew to $1.3 billion in annual sales. Before joining Rackspace, he worked for the consulting firm McKinsey & Company, advising technology clients on strategic issues. A native of San Antonio, Lew received a B.A. from Duke University and a J.D. from Stanford Law School.