Scott Ball / Rivard Report
By 2040, the San Antonio we know today will look and feel very different. The addition of more than one million people to the city over the next 25 years will bring exciting changes and challenges, especially to the local economy, which is already rapidly expanding with an influx of new ideas and methods to prepare for the city's future.
The time is now to focus on bolstering economic and workforce development in San Antonio, several panelists said at a town hall meeting on the local economy Wednesday evening. The forum, hosted and moderated by Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8), gathered nearly 200 residents and five local industry leaders to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing San Antonio and its growing economy, which is currently ranked No. 3 in Texas and No. 8 in the United States, according to the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation (SAEDF).
Amid speculation that Nirenberg is preparing to run for mayor in 2017, the District 8 Councilman said that these town hall meetings are completely unrelated. He's held similar ones over the past three years, he said, on topics such as transportation, water, and tech.
"This is a strategy to help our community be engaged and the bigger conversations about growth and the future of San Antonio. My passion and my bailiwick of my career has been spent in civic participation ... that's what drives me as a councilman," he told the Rivard Report before the panel discussion, later admitting, however, that he's "heard the voices in the community asking for change.
"I've been flattered by them asking me (to run for mayor)," he said, "so, sure, I'm considering it."
Appointing new leadership across the city has been something San Antonio has not shied away from. Nirenberg said that newer, more diverse leadership in key sectors of the city, such as panelists Jenna Saucedo-Herrera, the new SAEDF president and CEO, and Paula Gold-Williams, who was recently selected as president and CEO of CPS Energy, will help spur innovation and bring fresh ideas to thoughtfully grow the economy.
Preparing the next generation for that task is perhaps one of the biggest challenges that the city faces.
"The challenges will be multiplied in future as we talk about growth patterns and diversifying our economy," Saucedo-Herrera said.
Workforce development was a central topic of discussion, which included Roland Mower, president and CEO of Port San Antonio; Ann Stevens, president of BioMed SA; and Janie Gonzalez, president and CEO of Webhead.
Equipping San Antonians with the necessary skills to be workforce ready is one of the biggest challenges the city faces, they said, but it's one that each of the panelists' organizations are meeting head-on with various programs and resources, such as SA Works, a public/private workforce development coalition under SAEDF.
Other challenges include inspiring more interest among students for STEM studies, Gold-Williams said.
"We run into a mismatch — there's either not enough wanting to go into STEM fields, or not enough interested in technical fields," she said. "We're not seeing enough come into those industries."
Over the years, a change in culture in San Antonio's economy has began to shift from placing a heavy focus on attracting big businesses to the city to developing more opportunities and "growing talent" right here. But once that talent is fostered and grown, there's still a high risk of it leaving for a city with seemingly more opportunities and resources, or simply a more alluring live/work/play atmosphere.
Many locals and outsiders argue that San Antonio is not an attractive locale for 21st-century workers – at least not yet – but that's simply untrue, Mower said. The city's success as economically diverse and competitive depends just as much on those perceptions, or how we market ourselves, as having effective workforce development programs in place.
"We need to change the story we tell about ourselves," Mower said, adding that many focus too much on competing with other cities when San Antonio is home to innovative, driven, "people of quality."
Stevens echoed Mower's statement. San Antonio is home to a burgeoning biosciences and health community, one of the leading such communities in the state. Biosciences, Stevens said, is actually San Antonio's leading industry.
"We need to tell our story a whole lot better," she said. "We have an amazing community here with all kinds of incredible assets, but the word never seems to get out. (We need to focus on) leveraging our assets by talking about them and promoting them and investing in them."
Saucedo-Herrera added that improving the city's various "connections" such as public transportation systems and wifi availabilities will also help make San Antonio a more desirable environment for young professionals.
Continued collaboration between organizations, everyday citizens, and City leaders is essential to ensure San Antonio's economy continues to succeed and produce opportunities for local and outside talent. But advancing San Antonio's economic development will be nearly impossible without first addressing deeply-rooted inequities that keep a large portion of the population underserved, Gonzalez said.
"San Antonio has a big gap in inequality in income and education," she said, adding that younger populations in at-risk communities lack technology literacy. "If we don’t address those (inequities) in any way, we’re not going to be competitive."
Overcoming those obstacles, she added, means having a more civically-engage public that votes for leaders who advocate for those causes.
Despite the various areas still in need of improvement regarding San Antonio's economic competitiveness and growth, Nirenberg described the local economy as "ripe with opportunity."
The influx of people to the city will ideally be accompanied by an "additional half million jobs (that) will be hopefully created in industries that, if molded correctly, can really help us address some of the issues that San Antonio has struggled with over the years – low-wage, socioeconomic disparity, inequitable job growth in different parts of town," he said.
"If we focus our efforts on creating policy and a business environment that encourages job growth in these industries all over town we can achieve benefits for our entire community."
As San Antonio and its various industries continue to grow over the new few years, Saucedo-Herrera said, being thoughtful and creative in our approaches to support that growth will produce results.
"I think our opportunities outweigh the challenges, but it’s a happy balance of both to make progress."
Top image: Councilman Ron Nirenberg (D8) opens a discussion on the local economy at The Well in his district. Photo by Scott Ball.