Imagine 400 acres of undeveloped land framed by a commercial-length runway, a newly-engineered roadway and a nearby rail spur – all located in the urban core of a major city minutes from downtown by a nearby expressway.
For prospective tenants and employers, there’s also an array of attractive city and state incentives, not to mention nearly a century of military aviation history that still lends the surroundings a special feel.
That’s exactly what became available Tuesday at Port San Antonio, site of the former Kelly Air Force Base, a master-planned aerospace and industrial complex that is home to 14 aerospace businesses and 13,000 employees, yet still has 60% of its 1900-acre campus available for redevelopment.
The completed extension of 36th Street into a major artery through the Port was the occasion for flag-waving celebrations Tuesday morning as Major Julián Castro and State Reps. Jose Menendez and Philip Cortez joined a tent-full of officials, local employers and Port trustees and staff to mark the occasion.
“We have a very strong vision for San Antonio’s future as a Brainpower capital,” Castro told the audience. “That means 21st century jobs, and aerospace jobs certainly fit that bill.”
The new acreage, said Port SA CEO Bruce Miller, is ideally suited for future industrial and manufacturing tenants and is spacious enough to accommodate 8,000 more Port workers.
“This is a milestone for us, and it sets the stage for new development at Port San Antonio,” Miller said. The roar of an Air Force jet overhead caused Miller to pause in his remarks, but only briefly. “Most of the time we don’t even stop talking when the planes pass overhead,” he quipped.
A roadway extension might not make big headlines, but the 36th Street extension is a $60 million project 15 years in the making, financed by an assortment of federal, state and city dollars throughout the years. The project was completed by the city’s Capital Improvements Management Services (CIMS) department; city bond funds have continued to help the Port undertake important infrastructure improvements, but much remains to be done.
The Port relies primarily on the rent it collects from its industrial tenants to fund its operations budget. There is not much outside funding to support base redevelopment or beautification.
For those who did not live in San Antonio, often called Military City USA, in the 1990s, an entire city fought tenaciously to keep open Kelly after it was first targeted in 1993 for possible closure by the Base Realignment and Closure Commission.
At its height, Kelly employed more than 20,000 full-time civilian workers, many of them Hispanics who became the foundation of the city’s minority middle class. Kelly did not survive the 1995 round of base closures, although then-Mayor William Thornton and other local officials were able to negotiate with the Clinton administration a unique, six-year winding down of the base mission and workforce that greatly softened the economic blow locally.
Over the last decade, excepting city bond monies, there has been little outside funding available to redevelop Port San Antonio to its full potential.
Today’s events and the recent formation of a city-county task force to identify growth and expansion opportunities could prove to be a turning point.
Miller and others believe the Port eventually could become home to 38,000 skilled workers, which would elevate the Port to one of the city’s and region’s top employment zones.
“This project has been so long in the making, I can remember zoning cases in the ’90s when I was on City Council, ” Rep. Menendez told the crowd.
Menendez then evoked the memory of a revered Southside officeholder, former state Sen. Frank Madla, a 33-year veteran Texas legislator who died in a tragic house fire in 2006, only days after the first Toyota Tundra rolled off the San Antonio assembly line, a manufacturing plant he helped establish with enabling legislation. Madla also was instrumental in the establishment of Texas A&M University-San Antonio.
“I think it would be a good idea to change the name of the street and rename 36th Street the Frank Madla Memorial Way,” Menendez told the audience.
“As long as it’s not downtown,” Mayor Castro, seated nearby, quickly responded, provoking loud laughter, a reminder that Rep. Cortez, also seated on the stage, made the original recommendation to change the name of Durango Boulevard to Cesar Chavez Boulevard while he as still on City Council, which proved to be a highly contentious project left to Castro to complete after Cortez left the Council.
“When I stand on this stage at the Port, I see one thing: jobs,” said Cortez. “Jobs, jobs, jobs. The Port is transforming the Southwest side of San Antonio, it’s become a great economic generator.”
Led by Castro, officials then stepped on to 36th Street and waved racing flags as the first trucks lumbered by in a symbolic inauguration of the roadway.
As Texas and the nation shake off the last signs of the Great Recession, it will now be up to local economic development officials to market the Port’s new offerings – particularly to out-of-state companies with healthy balance sheets searching for a skilled workforce available at competitive wages in a regulatory environment conducive to business growth.