Why San Antonio’s Future is Bright

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A street vendor pulls his cart of ... unrelated merchandise infront of the Alamo before the 2013 Battle of the Flowers Parade. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

A street vendor pulls his cart of merchandise amid tourists and locals in front of the Alamo Cathedral, Mission San Antonio de Valero, before the 2013 Battle of the Flowers Parade. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Michael Girdley NEW 2013Every 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 heard the rhetoric, but it wasn’t always clear that our city was truly on an upward trend. Now, it seems 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 Play

We’ve all read the numbers, but they only hit me when I saw on Craigslist what a young woman had posted: “Needed, one bedroom apartment for rent. $1,600 or less.

$1,600? In San Antonio? For a recent grad?  That’s enormous. What was cool is she said she wanted it near her job on the Southside at I-37 and Loop 1604. A majority of 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.

Mexican National Immigration

Much is said about the “Sonterey” effect where wealthy Mexicans are fleeing inhospitable family environments in Mexico and taking root in the Sonterra/Stone Oak area on the north side of San Antonio. This is a huge shift from the Mexican 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 to the city. At the Whole Foods at Loop 1604 and Blanco Road 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 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.

A new city tourism website is unveiled at Geekdom, a collaborative technological workspace. Photo by Iris Dimmick

A new city tourism website is unveiled at Geekdom, a collaborative technological workspace. Photo by Iris Dimmick

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 Fort Sam Houston.

Health Care

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, traveling by plane is getting more difficult 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?

A street vendor pulls his cart of ... unrelated merchandise infront of the Alamo before the 2013 Battle of the Flowers Parade. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

More than 2.5 million people visit the Alamo Mission per year. Photo by Iris Dimmick from the 2013 Battle of the Flowers Parade.

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 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. 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 large premier 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, www.girdley.com, is an entrepreneur, real estate investor, budding start-up investor, reformed programmer and author, believer in San Antonio’s startup ecosystem and part-time Crossfit instructor. He can be reached at Michael@girdley.com.

 

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22 thoughts on “Why San Antonio’s Future is Bright

    • It is top-tier but they focus on too much. They work in several fields, taken from the website – http://www.swri.org/swri.htm none of which they truly excel in. This is unless my research is incorrect and a top leader from SWRI can prove me wrong.

      UTSA is the same way. Their research is spread out over a variety of fields and I haven’t really seen any metrics to prove that they have made significant headway in any of them. I know they have made a huge difference in the biomedical sector and they’re doing well in cybersecurity but maybe the other commentator is right about a severe lack of funding. They push for grants and have received a good amount of money so far but it isn’t enough.

      We need some major assistance from the entrepreneurs, banks, investors and others in the area to really fuel this need for research in our area. I don’t think we have to keep up the MIT’s or Harvard’s of the world but we can out innovate them in other areas.

      • SWRI’s space science program excels. They are the world leaders in a number of areas within that field, winning quite a number of major proposals and drawing top tier scientists from around the world.

        SWRI’s private sector research is also top-tier, but it is applied, for the most part.

        TBI (formerly SFBR), is also top tier in their viral diseases research, particularly with thei BSL-4 lab, one of only a handful in the US and the only privately owned facility).

  1. SA is not lacking in higher education. There are so many private educators. And public with SAC, and UTSA, A&M SA too. If UTSA is having an identity crisis, I’d recommend looking at UTDallas, and choose a field to be known for. UTD is an exceptional engineering school, and works closely with employers and graduate schools (law & medicine) who are looking for the talent the school produces. Seriously, the issue is not talent… The issue is jobs. These kids aren’t being trained for any job in SA. To expand out of a region to locate employment after attending a regional university, is asking a lot of these kids.

  2. And no wagon should be hitched to the military… Bases come and go, and so will the city who’s core is dependent on them.

  3. Decent article over all, but again the title is mis-leading… I would suggest working on the titles of the articles a bit more, the educational part was only about 1/5th of the whole story.

    Also the article was broken up more like a term paper then an editorial. It kinda works, but leaves something to be desired from my point of view.

    As for the actual content, I think that the observations are things that have been happening for years.

    I still find it interesting how people are reflecting on the recent shift of the immigration social strata.

    I also find it interesting people think the only immigrants we have had were poor Mexicans. Most of those “poor Mexicans” usually migrated to Austin not San Antonio, as this is a 3rd+ generation chicano town.

    The new breed of rich immigrants has been awesome to watch. All of a sudden the stereotypes that annoyed 09er’s about Chicano culture are accepted because of the cash involved (and I mean literal 10K’s worth of cash spent at once at their stores).

    San Antonio still has a good ol boy feel that Austin lacks. I look forward to a more progressive space being developed down here.

    I agree a tier 1 institution would help draw in top talent but also hender things. I believe UTSA is capable of doing such and is currently doing it. I collaborate with multiple professors and students, here are some examples:

    Chicana studies are reknown’ed and host the Gloria Anzaldua Conference.

    The Architecture program is very competitive and who is partially responsible for the renovations taking place around town. If you start asking around you will see the professors there have been doing many of the designs in South Town, South Main Street and more.

    In computer science you have professors doing Maker stuff with 10bitworks and even have their own Chip Tune band, Victim Cache (http://victimcache.com/)

    I know many graduate students at UTSA that come from all over America to come to the programs offered.

    One thing about San Antonio’s institutions of higher learning is that they are what you make of them. But then again that is what UT Austin is as well.

    Being a UT grad with 3 degrees from there I can say that while I loved UT, it isn’t without faults. They are facing a severe lack of funding, especially for the fine arts and liberal arts studies. While an institutional research agenda is nice for professors and the private community, actual teaching tends to suffer. The idea of having a tier 1 research university in a post information age maybe something of a 20th century idea as a whole.

    I believe we need intelligent students who are being trained to think analytically, while also being able to be creative and artistic. Whether they are accountants, artists, biologists, engineers or convergent media majors (ok I had to plug my students).

    Having professors that understand the 21st century challenges of teaching in a post information society is what is truly needed right now. We need institutional reform at the state schools. The idea of education needs to be rethought.

    As for my own institution, I think I am too biased to give an objective opinion. So I will make it clear I work for UIW and am a professor there. But I believe we have a pretty good balance. Yeah we have lots of growing pains going on, just like UTSA, but if you look at our institution we have programs in almost every field and are currently looking at opening a medical school. We are doing things that many public institutions are striving to do, while maintaining a teaching institution status (something I believe will pay off). By retaining a teaching institution status, it means we are here to support our community and bring students from all over south Texas.

    I believe having so many great institutions here we are creating a space for a diverse group of students and talent (both professional and recreational (ie. in order for us to have a diverse creative class we have to transcend the social norm that the creative class needs to be some hipster europeanan centric stereotype)).

    I wrote an article about this a year and a half ago on my blog: http://www.mygeekylife.com/?p=231

    It is pretty general, but gives some insight into what I think 21st century media production and consumption might mean for our society as a whole.

    I am currently working on some projects with multiple institutions and groups to create some cool projects. A lot of the mystery of working with institutions and groups in general is making an effort to truly understand them and make connections that are beneficial to both parties in terms of Capital ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Bourdieu ).

    Up until this semester I had only been on Trinity’s campus for TEDx. I had met a grant writer from there through a google group and asked if she would be willing to show me around. So low and behold she was kind enough to take an hour out of her day and literally just show me around Trinity and introduce me to people and learn about all the cool stuff they are up to. What did this do? It helped me understand their objectives and projects, how I could better collaborate with them. I ended up making some new FB friends. I learned about their 3D printer in their library that they are using much like people would use a laser printer in the 80’s. They allow students and faculty to submit 3D prints and cue them and then print them. It is awesome!

    With that information I got to go give a talk at Dorkbot Austin and include them in the details about all the cool maker stuff taking place in SA.

    Anyway, good things are going down in this town… 🙂

    • Not true! Cities across the world have utilized small spaces to create airports that can accommodate several planes at the same time.

  4. I’m not sure I agree with the statement that S.A. lacks a “top-tier educational and research institution”.

    One only need look at my alma mater (Trinity University) and how she easily stacks up to par with schools like Rice University to see the fallacy.

    San Antonio already has one school with 40,000+ students, we don’t need another one. Education is successful from quality faculty who love to teach, not from how many research projects it can get up and running. Size isn’t what counts in education; quality and commitment are.

    -Spoken from a Music Education and Pre-Medical studies double major, dating a very successful Neuroscience and Psychology double major.

    • I think Trinity is a terrific school. In the editing process, we left out a key word “large” in a revision. Trinity is small, which is why it doesn’t have as large of an impact as we would all hope it would.

    • As a fellow Trinity alum, it’s a great school but not top tier. It’s obsessed with comparing itself to Rice and isn’t a research institution. From a student perspective, being education-focused is terrific but it doesn’t have the impact of schools like UC Berkeley or UIUC.

  5. before the airport can bring in international flights from countries other than mexico, they have to do some major expansions. we only have 2 terminals and less than 30 gates. I hope there’s a way we can invest in better air connections especially if we want to be a world-class city, but considering the limited connections we have, we still have a pretty impressive tourist base that rivals Dallas or Austin.

  6. I would have to agree about the research part. I think the old military bases should be a big part of the creation of new research zones or centers which should be developed like the Medical Center – a medical cluster. We’re going to need a host institution like the UT Health Science Center and a strong incubator – to commercialize the research – like InCube Labs. Brooks City Base should have been developed and used as a research zone but they messed that up with Nexelon. A research area is still possible if the land is developed and linkages are made but that is just a dream.

    I would imagine the area around Lackland in and around Wolff Stadium to be a good place for a cybersecurity corridor like this one – http://www.homelandsecuritynewswire.com/i-95-corridor-become-us-cybersecurity-corridor however I think it should be focused on privacy as a way to differentiate us from Washington. It would be interesting to link St Mary’s and OLLU to this corridor as they are cybersecurity focused schools. Then we can welcome several privacy organizations and maybe even privacy oriented companies to join us. The area would be good for cybersecurity and privacy technology research. Again, just a dream!

    I think San Antonio has a pretty good start with what was mentioned in the article.

    Whether or not the story was true about Steve Jobs visit to PARC, my point is that there was a strong research component that helped Apple move forward and become what it is today. We need alternatives to SWRI! We need a kind of open research where developers, designers and maybe even artists get to learn and work with scientists and PhD’s. This is how we create the need for scientists and how we attract them here, by conceptualizing, innovating, and iterating!

  7. Good article, Michael. I would like to see more high tech jobs in San Antonio. It’s pretty cool to see Rackspace there, but they are an outlier.

    The military complex in San Antonio is a double-edged sword. I don’t see how we get to spending cut targets without significant cuts in the Defense spending. I’m afraid that could hurt SA.

    Regarding Sonterey, what happens if things actually get better in Mexico? Is this a temporary bubble?

    • Robert, I don’t know if those folks will head home to Mexico. It’s taken a long time for many of them to leave Monterey and MC, so I think things would have to get bad here for them to head back.

  8. I am one of the fairly recent California “escapees” and certainly haven’t discovered the specialness of SA yet. The people are very warm and friendly but everything else just sucks. The weather, food, culture, destinations, traffic. Yes, its true – No state tax but hell what an example of you get what you pay for!!!

  9. I think that San Antonios future is bright. I’ve seen all the condos and lofts going up around downtown. I’ve seen the new tobin center (which is the most technologically advanced music hall in the world) and haven’t you heard about the new frost bank headquaters and HEB headquarters that are planned to be made within the next couple of years, there is also the revitalization of hemisphere park and the expansion of the convention center. San Antonio is completely revitalization everything in downtown like the rivercenter mall. Right now San Antonio has a population of 1.4 million and is expected to grow about 1 million more people within the next 25 years, because whatever you do as work there is a job for you of San Antonio. San Antonio is a city of revitalization, development, and growth.

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