Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolf asked a question with the title of this year's State of the County speech: “Can We Be the Next Innovative Tech City?”
At the outset, Judge Wolff accentuated the positive.“Times are good,” he declared.
Then he quickly dove into San Antonio’s lag in the emerging tech industry. “We need to pick up our pace or we will be eclipsed,” he said.
Wolff compared San Antonio to Austin, a city that numerous tech companies call home, and one that has embraced Uber, Lyft, and Google Fiber.
Then Wolff answered the question he asked at the outset: Can we be the next innovative tech city?
"There is hope and a new rumbling in town,” he said.
Days earlier, Wolff had attended the inaugural Tech Bloc event at Southerleigh Brewery, when 700 or more of the city's tech community, from big name founders to Geekdom startups, descended on the Pearl to hear tech investor and former Rackspace President Lew Moorman issue his call to action for greater political involvement and civic engagement.
(Read more: @SATech Bloc Draws Huge Launch Crowd to the Pearl.)
There was no script, no master plan, but the energy at the event spilled out of the Pearl and into the city in a way that many, including Wolff, can still feel. Everyone there that evening wants that energy to be sustained and acted on.
“New leadership is stepping up to push our city forward. If we will step up and support them we could become a thriving innovative tech city,” he said.
Judge Wolff pointed to the "innovation table" in the room, where some of the key people involved in moving San Antonio forward in the tech world were seated, including cybersecurity entrepreneurs and founders of tech companies such as WP Engine. Lorenzo Gomez, director of the 80/20 Foundation and Geekdom, listened, laughed, and said Judge Wolff "gets it."
"I couldn’t agree more with everything he said about the kind of direction that we need to go," Gomez said. "As a city, if we don’t pay attention, we’ll get left behind and I think that the Judge sees that. There’s not a better person, in my opinion, that has the respect of the business community to take the lead and be a champion for it."
Gomez said he's noticed momentum picking up in the tech scene over the past six to eight months. Now is the time for San Antonio to accelerate, he said.
"This is a very recent phenomenon and I think that we are experiencing something very special," he said. "There is energy now that didn’t exist a year ago."
Judge Wolff commended San Antonio on its strong economy, and cited figures such as the city's 9.95% employment growth from 2010-14, and the historically low 3.8% unemployment rate. He said all three major rating services gave Bexar County a Triple A bond rating because of our “strong diversified economy, sound financial policies and consistent leadership.”
Both Mayor Ivy Taylor and her opponent, former state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte attended the luncheon speech hosted by the North San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and held at the Omni Hotel.
Wolff endorsed Van de Putte last week.
The Judge identified seven pathways for San Antonio to become an innovative tech city, most of which revolved around ways to educate, support, and promote technology using local government, the private sector, and academia.
Local government has embraced new technologies with BiblioTech, the nation's first all-digital library, he said, noting that two more locations on the way. Wolff asked the crowd, "Do you know where our Central Library is? Somewhere up in the sky. We don't need one (on the ground)."
In order to create a more livable environment, the Judge said the inner city needs to continue to be developed, along the Broadway corridor and the Mission Reach. City Council will soon vote on the Weston Urban proposal to build the new Frost Bank Tower and redevelop a number of square blocks downtown.
"It will be a tremendous step forward for the inner city," he said. "We are supporting this project by offering tax incentives and by investing in San Pedro Creek which runs right by the proposed tower."
The county has committed $125 million to improve San Pedro Creek and construction is expected to be completed by May 2018, just in time for San Antonio’s tricentennial celebrations.
Judge Wolff will travel to Germany in late June/early July to be physically present while representatives consider a World Heritage Site designation for the San Antonio Missions – Concepción, San José, San Juan, and Espada – and the Alamo.
"We've been a great support to the Missions and if we get this it's going to be a huge impact," he said.
He addressed the future of academic technology research and course offerings, adding that UTSA's cyber security program was ranked the best in the nation last year. The Judge said schools need to "stop teaching to the test and start teaching to the job," which is promoted under House Bill 5.
Wolff concluded his speech by saying, "We must create a collaborative community with the common goal of making San Antonio and greater Bexar County the next big tech community.
"We can do it if we all work together," he said.
View the entire speech here.
*Correction: A previous version of the story stated Lorenzo Gomez as the co-founder of Geekdom, when in fact he is the director.
*Featured/top image: Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff addressed the importance of technology during the State of the County speech on Friday. Photo by Joan Vinson.