Forefront SA, San Antonio's five-year economic development strategy, will focus on the City's emerging industries of information technology, cybersecurity, advanced manufacturing, new energy, aerospace, and healthcare/bioscience.
The San Antonio Economic Development Foundation (SAEDF), which is leading Forefront SA, hopes that by leveraging assets offered by current stakeholders operating locally in those target sectors, more businesses in these industries will want to come to town.
Foundation board Chairman Wayne Peacock and San Antonio Economic Development Director Rene Dominguez updated the City Council about this strategic plan on Wednesday. The ambitious plan – meant to capitalize on San Antonio’s economic development success stories, and sharpen the focus on business recruitment and retention – has been in development since 2013 when consulting firm Deloitte released a job-creation report for the Foundation.
Now, with recommendations from the Deloitte pared down into a workable action plan, the City and SAEDF are nearly ready to implement tactics, per approval of the City Council. During Council's B Session last week, Peacock described San Antonio as a city full of potential, and one with a diversifying economy. He said a local business-friendly environment is expanding around town, with "meaningful work" taking place in different places, further building up San Antonio's economic portfolio.
He noted the rental car facility expansion at the San Antonio International Airport, ongoing efforts to increase the number of direct flights from San Antonio, the revitalization of downtown, and the "building up of assets" such as Pearl as a live/work community in the urban core.
He added that venues such as Geekdom provide a valuable ecosystem for businesses rooted in emerging technologies. However, developments such as Pearl and the World Heritage designation placed upon the historic Spanish missions pay tribute to San Antonio's past and yet they can also help generate jobs and wage growth in the community.
But even with this progress, Peacock and the Foundation said there is room for improvement. The collective goal for Forefront SA, as Peacock put it, is to "propel San Antonio to an economically healthy and prosperous future." A primary focus, he said, is to spark innovation and speed up economic competitiveness in the industries that have potential to be powerful, reliable generators of jobs and wage growth further into the 21st century.
Peacock also said one desired outcome is for San Antonio to be named a best-performing city by the Milken Institute by 2020.
"We have to build a bridge to the future and focus on a clear set of goals," Peacock said, adding that the task of reaching those goals will rely a lot on capitalizing on emerging industries and economic trends that have boded well for San Antonio in recent years.
Forefront SA has a list of supporting objectives:
- Improve the economic development delivery system
- Further leveraging the private sector
- Optimizing existing resources while growing investment
- Create target sector clarity
- Improve the rate of growth in the target sectors
- Change the composition of the local economy
"We have to ask ourselves two questions: What are the areas where San Antonio has assets? Where are the industry clusters that represent growth in 21st century America? Then let's combine them," Peacock said. That's where expanding local industries such as cybersecurity, aerospace and healthcare/bioscience come into play.
According to Forefront SA, the "pillars" of San Antonio's economic delivery system are solid but need enhancement. Peacock said with the SAEDF continuing to serve as the City's lead agency for business contacts, the Foundation will double up efforts in attracting new businesses, retaining and expanding existing local ventures, improving entrepreneurial and workforce development, and collaboration.
Peacock said success would be measured by a rise in employment in the target industries, a surge of new entrepreneurs, aligning workforce capabilities with the needs of employers, and a higher level of awareness and a more favorable opinion of San Antonio. He added that while emphasis in the strategic plan is paid to the five aforementioned target industries, the City and the SAEDF will continue seeking ways to boost economic performance among older, legacy local industries.
Council members were pleased, overall, with the update on the strategic plan.
"The work that you're doing is critical to our community's future," Mayor Ivy Taylor told Peacock, agreeing with him that San Antonio must build upon its economic assets. "This will dictate whether we continue on an upward trajectory or decline. It's expanding much of the work we've been doing. It's going to come down to the workforce pipeline we're building. That will dictate whether companies find us attractive enough to come here."
Taylor and Council members Rebecca Viagran (D3) and Rey Saldaña (D4) stressed the workforce development and education components of the strategic plan. They said the City and the private sector should engage local school districts, and show how important it is to prepare students as best as possible for career choices. Council member Cris Medina (D7) said the strategic plan should acknowledge how colleges and universities, with their research capabilities, can act as economic/talent generators and help address "brain drain," when young talent leaves town after graduation.
Councilman Alan Warrick (D2) asked about the gap in workforce development and the efforts to expand the skill set and education of individuals who may already have one job but are not equipped to find a higher paying career.
"We (as a city) are nearly at full employment. Our issue is under-employment, to fill those other jobs," Rene Dominguez replied.
Councilman Joe Krier (D9) asked how competitive San Antonio is compared with other major Texas cities in economic recruitment efforts. Mario Hernandez, who is retiring this year following a 32-year career with SAEDF, including 25 years as Foundation president, answered Krier's query.
"When you look at location advantages of Texas and San Antonio, coupled with a conservative approach on incentives, we're very competitive," he said.
But Dominguez acknowledged that traditional economic development incentives don't work for the new wave of startups and tech-driven businesses. Local organizations such as Tech Bloc are helping the City craft a new kind of incentives package for companies run by the rising new creative class of typically younger entrepreneurs.
"This is the next-generation economy," added Peacock.
The City Council will consider the Forefront SA action plan for a vote on Thursday Feb. 18. The Council will also consider a one-year, $590,000 service agreement between the City and the Foundation. Some of the money will be used to administer the Texas/Japan office in Tokyo, where San Antonio retains a major presence in Japan. The office aids Japanese companies wishing to do business in San Antonio. The Foundation will return to the Council later this year with another Forefront SA update
Peacock also briefed the Council on the search for the next SAEDF president. A firm is helping to compile a list of candidates. A committee that includes Mayor Taylor's Chief of Staff Jill DeYoung, City Manager Sheryl Sculley and David Marquez, Bexar County's economic development director, will pare down the list and help with interviews. The SAEDF is also getting input from around the private sector. Hernandez said he would stay on as SAEDF president until his successor is named.
"We want this to be an inclusive search process," Peacock added.
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*Top image: Image from the cover of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation's Forefront SA report.