Scott Ball / Rivard Report
One of the least covered topics in journalism is human error on the part of the working journalist, but I’ll use this Sunday morning opportunity to apologize to Mayor Ivy Taylor, the sitting City Council, and in particular, the City staff, for my failure to recognize until last week the full dimensions of the unprecedented Inter-Local Agreement (ILA) crafted with the City of Converse.
It’s not quite a done deal, but San Antonio City Council unanimously approved the ILA on Thursday and the Converse City Council is expected to do the same on March 21 after several more public hearings in that northeast Bexar County municipality of 22,000 people.
We reported the creation of the ILA when it was first announced in January, but injury from an auto accident, worsening back pain, and pending spine surgery were on my mind, and I failed to appreciate the dimensions of the deal at the time. I can’t hide behind the national opioid epidemic since I wasn’t on drugs, and in fairness, I saw no other media coverage that foresaw the historic dimensions of the deal.
As recently as last Sunday I wrote critically of the City’s annexation policies that are far too focused on adding taxable property and residents at the expense of inner city investment needs and the pockets of underserved residents passed over in past annexations.
Who knew a complex ILA negotiated between San Antonio and Converse would inevitably address the needs of more than 40,000 bypassed residents along I-10 East far better than any annexation?
It would be patronizing to describe the deal as the sole work of San Antonio City staff under City Manager Sheryl Sculley. While Deputy City Managers Peter Zanoni and Erik Walsh first shopped the proposal to Converse Mayor Al Suarez and City Manager Lanny Lambert, the small town leaders proved to be worthy negotiators. It began as a relatively modest proposal for exchanging commercial property on the tax rolls and moving boundaries between the two cities. It grew to be a deal that eventually will transfer $4 billion in property from San Antonio’s books to Converse’s and triple that city’s square mileage and population.
The population of Converse, currently at 22,000, actually will grow to more than the projected 62,000-plus over the life of the 17-year deal. Mayor Suarez said the once landlocked city had 11,000 people when he was elected a decade ago, and previously undisclosed development plans for the area will serve as the catalyst for accelerated growth. Not only will Converse become the county’s second largest municipality in the coming years, it likely will become a city of 80,000 people or more by 2035.
Last week, I listened as Dr. Milton Fields, the assistant superintendent of operations for the Judson Independent School District, addressed Converse City Council at a public hearing in support of the ILA.
“This is an excellent opportunity for you to manage growth in your area,” Fields said, making the case that the unincorporated areas would be better served by Converse than San Antonio. Recalling the years when he served as principal of Wagner High School, Fields said the response times by Converse police were always better than other law enforcement agencies.
As Fields departed City Council chambers, he was accompanied by San Antonio philanthropist and developer Gordon Hartman, who is quietly being credited by people on both sides of the ILA as being critical to the final agreement. Hartman did not speak at the public hearing, but his presence seemed to be message enough.
In recent years Hartman has been in news more for his philanthropy and the creation of Morgan’s Wonderland and its expansion than for his development work. As recently as December, the Rivard Report published an article, Gordon Hartman: a Model for Inclusion, updating readers on his family foundation‘s plans, with the help of many community partners to construct the $15 million Morgan’s Inspiration Island.
Officials say Hartman, who owns considerable property in what will become the expanded Converse city limits, has agreed to develop a new residential community of 600-800 new homes near Loop 1604 East. Those homes will be priced below the rising median price of new homes in San Antonio, which surpassed $200,000 in 2015. New housing priced at less than $200,000 will allow Converse to market itself to families as a more affordable, small town alternative to San Antonio.
Efforts to reach Hartman for an interview this week were not successful.
That new residential community, Converse officials believe, will only be the beginning of what’s to come. A growing tax base should enable local officials to address some serious infrastructure, code compliance, and public safety issues in the blighted subdivisions of The Glen and Camelot II. Those two neglected subdivisions have come to incorrectly represent all of the unincorporated areas. In fact, they represent a small portion of the total area, but the needs there are visible. Absentee landlords have been allowed to ignore the rights and needs of tenants there for years.
A decision by San Antonio planners in the 1980s to pass over these areas while annexing nearby commercial corridors at long last can be rectified in the coming years. Converse City officials say they are determined to make the most of the opportunity to shape their growing city into a more livable community for the people who already live there as well as those they will be adding to their rolls and the newcomers they will attract.
San Antonio City staffers would surely say that managing the $850 million bond, if passed by voters on May 6, presents a far more complex undertaking. True, no doubt, but the ILA with Converse does what cities too seldom do: pause long enough from growth strategies to take care of historically underserved residents, even those who happen to live just beyond the city limits.