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Companies interested in opening up shop or expanding their business in San Antonio have several ways to find a new location, including combing through real estate listings, using professional connections to get the lay of the land, and/or calling the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation (EDF).
While this is one of the private nonprofit organization’s primary functions, it can take four to six weeks or more for EDF staff to manually find a location that meets a business’ unique square footage, transportation, utility, and other infrastructure needs, according to officials. In an effort to reduce idle time, EDF will launch a free online tool that can connect these dots in a matter of minutes this Tuesday.
The SA Connect platform uses data from the Bexar County Appraisal District, CPS Energy, San Antonio Water System (SAWS), VIA Metropolitan Transit, Texas Department of Transportation (TxDoT), various City departments, municipal code, and geographic information systems (GIS) to display property options across the city. The tool has been online for months, but starting Tuesday EDF will actively engage with users and monitor traffic.
“We’re hoping that, like any other business around the world, we’re making our process more efficient and making (it) more convenient for folks that (are) interested in relocating (to) or expanding in San Antonio,” EDF President and CEO Jenna Saucedo-Herrera told the Rivard Report during a private preview of SA Connect last week.
While similar industry-specific tools exist, EDF was unable to find a comparable model in any other city while researching the SA Connect concept. “It’s such an innovative, yet basic concept,” Saucedo-Herrera said. “These plans exist, but what doesn’t exist is a platform that aggregates or collates all these different plans into something that tells a story like the way SA Connect does.”
Saucedo-Herrera led the development of SA Connect as an executive at CPS Energy before assuming her current position in June. The tool is the first of many changes and innovations she plans on implementing during her tenure.
“(Previously) if there was any need for a map or locating infrastructure, you would have to manually get a (GIS) file and throw it in, wait for it – it took forever,” said Colin Sherman, EDF research analyst. “So to have this so easily accessible and quick is really amazing.”
SA Connect has infrastructure, property, and building searches.
For instance, if a company is looking to build on land that has access to 300 kilowatts of electricity, needs a 12-inch water main and 100-megabit broadband internet access, and is close to a highway or major arterial road, bike routes, or bus stops, more than 50 properties will be indicated as a match. There are more than 60 other optional layers to choose from – including where development incentives, such as the Inner City Reinvestment and Infill Policy, apply and a list of direct flights to and from the San Antonio International Airport.
“This is a huge help when we get (requests for information) from a state or a business that needs assistance,” Sherman said. “There is a quick turnaround on these things.”
The time lapse feature even lets users know about coming TxDOT improvement projects. In a future version, the tool may include other public/private construction projects.
For now, SA Connect provides the general location of a property. Users can then call EDF to find out the address. “Previously, we have focused on connecting businesses to properties listed as ‘for sale,’” Saucedo-Herrera said, but many property owners not in the market could very well be for the right price.
“It’s all about being creative,” she said. “If you limit yourself to what’s on the market, you’re going to limit opportunities.”
The tool, while powerful, does have limitations.
Beyond having to call the EDF for more information, data is still manually input into the database. This is an arduous, seemingly endless process. Much like painting the Golden Gate Bridge or figuring out a large city’s budget, the rule that “once you’re done, you pretty much have to start again” applies.
(Technically, the Golden Gate bridge is constantly being touched up, rather than being completely painted end to end each year.)
“Right now, it requires us to visit with SAWS, CPS Energy, (and other partners) to annually renew and update this information,” Saucedo-Herrera said. “Hopefully, in future iterations we can figure out a way to actually facilitate direct feeds from the GIS system.”
SA Connect still requires a human touch.
“But keep in mind there will be different iterations of this tool,” she added. “We had to manage expectations – draw a line in the sand and say, ‘What will we focus on? What’s realistic for this first version?’”
While there is no specific timeline for future versions, EDF staff has already outlined potential uses and expansions.
As the city’s comprehensive master plan, SA Tomorrow, moves into the implementation stage, EDF will be looking to include regional and community plans into SA Connect. If the City is focusing development or industry growth in certain areas of San Antonio, it would behoove an established local company or newcomer to know that.
School district information, greenspace access, parking, housing market descriptions, and other City services and amenities can also be added to the map as it becomes more sophisticated. This would allow the tool to go beyond property statistics to showcase San Antonio’s culture and modern workforce appeal.
Another useful layer to explore, suggested CyberSecurity San Antonio Director and Build-Sec Foundry co-founder Will Garrett, would be one that indicates industry clusters such as the downtown San Antonio Tech District.
“It may not be initially the type of project that would care about that, but I know companies that are looking to be close to co-working spaces, incubators, accelerators, and coding academies because they want their employees to have that kind of interaction,” Garrett said.
The opportunities for expanding use beyond the business community are endless, given the right data.
“Room for improvement? Definitely,” Saucedo-Herrera said. “What I’m mostly excited about, just as a citizen of San Antonio, is that this is an additional tactic or tool for folks outside of our market to see us in a different, more innovative light.”
SA Connect started out under former Mayor Henry Cisneros’ leadership when he was chair of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce in 2014. CPS Energy facilitated and funded the project development until it transitioned everyday operations and maintenance to EDF earlier this year. Local veteran-owned firm Alpha Terra Engineering donated its time to finalize the technology. The Chamber and CPS Energy are still active partners, but the tool is now “owned” by EDF.
“Of course when Doyle got involved (in early 2015), he just took it to the next level,” Saucedo-Herrera said, recalling former CPS Energy President and CEO Doyle Beneby’s vision. “Let’s leverage technology, let’s leverage the resources that we have. All of these different entities are planning on GIS, so why not pull the consistent GIS data?”
Because San Antonio is one of the few cities that has publicly-owned utility and transportation services – SAWS, CPS Energy, and VIA – that information is more easily accessible.
“It took us a while to really gather all the information together but the entire community really rallied behind the concept,” Saucedo-Herrera said.
“Right now it’s the higher-level information, but we’ve talked about if there is a way to set threshold or subscription levels,” for both security and monetization reasons, she said. Some competitive private industry services like Google Fiber and AT&T’s Gigapower may not want to be listed in specific areas and the City may not want to expose critical utility networks to attacks.
Potentially, realtors could pay EDF to have their contact information readily available to people interested in certain properties.
One of the primary goals of version 1.0 is to find out what people want for versions 2.0 and 3.0, so EDF will be tracking user inquiries and improving the platform along the way.
“All these new ideas are also part of this tool, how engaged everyone is,” Sherman said. “There has not been one person I’ve presented this to that does not get it. They all get it and they all want to add something to it.”
In this way, SA Connect is far more than a map and statistics. It’s a dialogue.
“We think we know what they want, but we will be able – in the future – to make informed decisions on what people who are accessing the tool need and what they’re looking for,” Saucedo-Herrera said.
Top image: The San Antonio Economic Development Foundation’s new SA Connect tool. Screenshot via www.saconnect.online.