Hannah Whisenant / Rivard Report
On the last full day of his presidency and life, John F. Kennedy delivered his famous “Cap over the Wall” speech at Brooks Air Force Base in 1963. His words still echo there:
Whatever the difficulties, they will be overcome.
Brooks leaders, businesses, and friends paid tribute to that prophecy Thursday with a formal “Quincentennial” luncheon, complete with a three-tiered birthday cake and a Campanas de America performance of Las Mañanitas.
The event marked the founding of Brooks as a military base in 1917 – a centennial – and its rebirth as a mixed-used community 15 years ago, thus the quinceañera, the traditional Hispanic celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday.
“I still get teary-eyed when I hear JFK’s words," Brooks President and CEO Leo Gomez said. "He may not have known it then, but he was talking about so much more.”
City leaders formed the Brooks Development Authority (BDA) in 2001 just ahead of the Air Force’s official departure in 2005 as part of the Base Closure and Realignment Commission process. BDA has been working – as JFK foretold – to overcome the difficulties and repurpose the 1,300-acre area into a mixed-used community ever since.
“BRAC is a painful process because you want to maintain as much as you can because it’s about people’s lives and jobs and security,” said Charlie Gonzalez, a Brooks board member who, at the time, was representing the 20th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“But we’ve really undergone a major transition. … People now study Brooks to see how you do it. Because all members of Congress are very concerned that sooner or later it will be them [facing a closure]. So how do you turn something like that into a great opportunity that will continue to create jobs and be an economic driver?”
Under Gomez’s leadership, the BDA currently owns and manages Brooks, and it is governed by an 11-member board of directors appointed by the San Antonio City Council.
Gone are the security gates, guards, and chain-link fences. Gone is the school of aerospace medicine. After almost 90 years as an Air Force installation where the list of discoveries, innovations and patents is long, Brooks is now open to the public – for work, living and more.
Now home to more than 30 businesses, 1,500 residential units, a full-service hotel and spa, Mission Trails Baptist hospital and a new medical school, Brooks also provides the stuff of community: K-12 schools, event venues, retail and dining options.
In a variety of industries, Brooks directly supports over 3,000 jobs, more than when it was a military base, and many are considered high-paying.
An economic impact study conducted by TXP Inc. found that in the past 15 years, the value of Brooks and its surrounding acreage has increased to more than $607 million, up from $37 million in 2004.
In total, the economic output from within the Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone (TIRZ) the City of San Antonio designated in 2004, and where Brooks is situated, is $1.5 billion. The TIRZ supports the development of housing, commercial, retail and technology-based office space and other amenities through an incentive program.
Located on approximately 2,500 acres, the TIRZ is expected to capture $55.4 million in tax increment revenue throughout its almost 25-year lifespan.
“When I drive by the hospital and see some empty acres next to it … you know what I see?” Gomez told the crowded ballroom at the Embassy Suites Hotel at Brooks on Thursday. “An expansion of that hospital, medical office buildings, more medical-related development. That 50 acres isn’t going to keep looking like those 50 acres do today.”
When the Baptist Health System opened Mission Trails Baptist Hospital on the Brooks campus six years ago, it was the first hospital in 30 years to be built on the Southside, said Eric Schmacker, president of Mission Trails.
“Hospitals are so capital intensive and cost so much money because of not just the building but all of the technology you have to buy to go in it, and the people are skilled labor,” said Schmacker, who is also chairman of the Brooks Community Foundation Inc. that received a $40,000 gift raised at the Quincentennial event.
Since opening, Mission Trails has served 39,500 patients, performed 18,000 surgeries and cared for 326,000 patients in the emergency department. The hospital employs 550 people. Finding enough nurses has been Schmacker’s greatest challenge.
“The Baptist Health System is 100% committed to making sure the people on the Southside have an access point for their health care," he said. "They deserve to have health care in their community.”
Gomez also pointed to the light manufacturing industry at Brooks — with companies such as Mission Solar, DPT Labs, and soon Nissei Plastic Industrial — as continuing to grow in numbers and jobs. Industrial and professional office buildings are due to open in 2018 as well. The Greenline, a 43-acre urban linear park on the Brooks campus, will soon connect the community to the San Antonio River.
“It won’t be Brooks if there isn’t homegrown, native San Antonio involvement in the success of what we’re working on,” Gomez said as he introduced the event’s emcee, Erica Gonzaba, a local television personality and singer.
Another Southeast side native, Margaret Anaglia, has served on the Brooks board for seven years. When the Highlands High School graduate was first asked to join the board, Anaglia said she wanted to decline — until she drove to the area one day soon after.
“I realized this is my 'hood, and for so many years, everyone said it couldn’t be done on the Southeast side — you couldn’t do this, you couldn’t do that,” said Anaglia, the owner of Al’s Gourmet Nuts. “Having been a former City staffer working in economic development, I saw tremendous growth on the Northside. But the closing of Brooks [Air Force Base] was one of the best things that ever happened to the Southeast side.”
Describing the changes she’s seen in the area near Brooks, Anaglia also said “subdivisions” — a term for housing developments — was a word you didn’t hear in that part of town.
“Now I know people living in subdivisions there,” she said. “Some are Southsiders and others are new to San Antonio or are from San Antonio and because of work or other things, they moved there and haven’t looked back.”
South San Antonio Chamber of Commerce Vice President of Economic Development Andrew Anguiano also brings up a personal connection when he talks about the transformation at Brooks. “My mother worked at Brooks as a civil servant, so I grew up going there and having family picnics on the base,” Anguiano said.
“It had a fence around it and felt very secure so it didn’t really feel like part of the community. After the BRAC, when they started opening up Brooks to the rest of us, that’s when it really felt like the base became a part of the Southside.”
No longer did residents in the area need to travel into downtown San Antonio or even the Northside to shop or eat out. “Now there’s an economy down here, we finally got a Chili’s so we must be moving on up,” he said, half-joking. “There’s definitely a sense of pride here. It’s so well-maintained. … it really set the bar high for the rest of the community.”
But Anguiano stresses that there’s still work to do in order to attract more investment and development to the southern part of the city.
“Brooks is one of those shiny places where it’s easy to invest, but we still have challenges here. The Southside needs development. Brooks is not as challenging as other areas of the Southside.”
In yet another milestone for the century-old Brooks, on July 30, the first class of the University of the Incarnate Word School of Osteopathic Medicine located at the campus get their white coats in a ceremony that heralds the start of their medical school studies. Classes begin soon in the building that was the backdrop for Kennedy’s fateful speech 52 years ago.