Cisneros: Building for the Future

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Henry Cisneros, chairman of CityView and the former San Antonio mayor and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Clinton administration, was the keynote speaker at the annual San Antonio Chamber of Commerce gala at the Grand Hyatt Hotel . Courtesy photo.

Henry Cisneros, chairman of CityView and the former San Antonio mayor and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Clinton administration, was the keynote speaker at the annual San Antonio Chamber of Commerce gala at the Grand Hyatt Hotel . Courtesy photo.

Editors’s Note: Henry Cisneros, chairman of CityView and the former San Antonio mayor and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Clinton administration, was the keynote speaker at the annual San Antonio Chamber of Commerce gala at the Grand Hyatt Hotel Thursday night. The evening honored outgoing chairman David P. McGee, president and CEO of Amegy Bank, San Antonio chapter. The text of Cisneros’ comments to the sold-out audience follows. 

A wall of photographs in the Chamber’s offices displays the names of distinguished business leaders who have led the Chamber. It is appropriate that David McGee’s name be listed among those leaders who have made the greatest difference. That leadership difference was most evident in late October when the City Council voted on the Vista Ridge water pipeline. David deserves special commendation for the manner in which he personally guided this priority, spent personal time meeting with SAWS staff, board members, and City Council members. The result was a historic breakthrough for San Antonio.

The kind of leadership which David demonstrated on Vista Ridge is characteristic of the quality of contributions this Chamber of Commerce has made to San Antonio’s modern progress. Over the years I have observed that our Chamber is not only one of the largest and the most active in the country, but that it is different. Many chambers across the country speak with a narrow voice and with a short-term view. But I first noticed under General McBride and then saw under Joe Krier and now under Richard Perez that the San Antonio Chamber defines itself as the voice for what is good for San Antonio’s future. Sometimes that might mean taking a position that is not strictly speaking the greatest short-term advantage as when the Chamber recommends a sales tax increase to finance major capital improvements. But the Chamber uses its best judgment as to what is in the long-term interest of the city’s progress.

We know that the role of business is critical in the life of a city. Indeed one can say that cities cannot exist unless they build upon their economic purposes. The difference between a small town that languishes and a crossroads that grows into a great metropolis is whether economic potential is fulfilled. Business is the lifeblood of a growing city. So it is clear that while cities are places where people live, people gather, people pray, people govern themselves, at their most basic level they must be placed where people trade, work, and perform the economic functions of our society. We are blessed that San Antonio has a Chamber of Commerce where we can be constantly focused on the economics of building a great city.

It is in that spirit that I would like to share with you the discussion among the incoming Chamber volunteer leaders and staff about initiatives for the year ahead. Our first responsibility is to build on what David has begun. So we commit ourselves to a capital plan which supports the Vista Ridge pipeline, and we will prepare for the next round of military base cuts, and we will maintain our support for the position of budget responsibility which City Manager Sheryl Sculley has established as we seek a fire and police contract – which follows fiscal principles of importance to our taxpayers. Our first order of business is to follow a straight line of continuity from David’s agenda.

Beyond that we must call attention to the city’s future. We must determine what we can do on our watch to queue up solutions for Rene Flores, our chair-elect, and the leadership team that follows us. That is the strength of this Chamber: Continuity: building on the region’s accomplishments, preparing for the region’s future.

Our most precious resource is the time and talents of our volunteer leaders, so I would like to share with you how we hope to match our priorities with the treasury of proven leadership that exists within the Chamber. We have asked four outstanding San Antonians to serve as Vice Chairs this year and have asked each to take on special responsibilities. Let me explain:

First, odd-numbered years in Texas are special years because of the agenda that must be advanced in the state legislature which meets from January through the end of May. In order to advance our prospects in the most determined way possible, I have asked one of our new Vice Chairs, Joe Bray, to take on a special responsibility which is to develop a tracking system to monitor the status of bills, the dates of hearings, and the timing of floor action on priority legislation. The Chamber is uniquely positioned to drive the legislative agenda for San Antonio and make sure that our membership is engaged.

Second, one of the most critical forms of preparation for the future involves education. We have asked one of San Antonio’s most respected business women and a leader in human capital investment, Elaine Mendoza, a member of the Board of Regents at Texas A&M, to serve as a vice chair of the Chamber. She has accepted the special responsibility of looking at how our workforce training programs match up with our economic development needs. Elaine will work with Denise Green who chairs our education committee and Maria Ferrier, President of Texas A&M-San Antonio and a newly appointed board member, to give us a better understanding of our K-12 systems as our city adds high-performing charter schools and networks of private schools. They will also support UTSA’s and A&M-San Antonio’s budget needs in the 2015 legislative session and help organize San Antonio’s many international training programs into a coherent network of institutions to enhance the city’s international profile.

Third, the economic foundation under a great city is a robust small business sector. We have asked Janie Barrera, the national leader of Accion Texas, to be a Vice Chair and to lead a team to strengthen our support for small business. The Chamber has a good reputation in supporting small business.   But we can enhance our effectiveness if we are part of a community-wide network of small services. The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce plays a role, other chambers of commerce have strong small business programs, the Asociación de Empresarios Mexicanos (AEM) is composed of entrepreneurs and investors, and public agencies and non-profits are active in this arena. We can delineate the gaps, avoid stepping on each other’s programs, and make it possible for San Antonio to emerge as the city in the nation with the most coherent system of support for small business. A person as respected in the field as Janie Barrera can work with Eduardo Bravo of the AEM, who will join us as a board member, and Al Aguilar, the incoming Chair of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Ramiro Cavazos, it’s President, to chart the logical sharing of responsibilities.

And fourth, I believe San Antonio would benefit from raising the profile of our long-term infrastructure. We know we need to expand our roads and freeways, we have a plan for our energy future, we have recently made great strides with water, and we–integrate our mass transit and economic development, I have asked Doyle Beneby, CEO of CPS Energy, who is coming aboard as a Vice Chair to take on the responsibility of looking at the way our infrastructure is integrated and whether there are gaps in the next generation of infrastructure, such as broadband. We can prepare an integrated document to share with prospective industries San Antonio’s preparedness for growth. Joining Doyle will be Alfredo Arce, Chair of our water committee; Steve Bonnette, Chair of our transportation committee; Eduardo Parra, Chair of our energy committee; and Berto Guerra, Chairman of the SAWS board, who has been elected to a three-year slot on our Chamber board. And we can call on Alex Briseño, our former city manager and new chairman of VIA.

In addition to these four Vice Chair initiatives, we have asked our former Chair for 2013, Arthur Coulombe, to lead a special task force. If there is one area of infrastructure that needs substantial work as we grow into a major American city it is our air routes, the question of whether or not the existing airport is adequate for the long run is one of those issues that we complain about, but we have not started a serious community dialogue. Arthur Coulombe, who was the Chamber’s 2013 Chairman will stay aboard and chair a special task force which will by the end of the year present major options for the future of our air connectedness and our airport.

So this is an approach that matches some of our vice chairs, a former chair and our important priorities. I would like to go over with you three other opportunities that engage the talents of others from our leadership team. One involves economic development opportunities, another involves new civic opportunities which we now know will present themselves in the year ahead, and a third concerns the opportunity to position San Antonio beyond our city limits.

First, in the economic development space. Several recent analyses show that one of the highest potential areas for American economic exports is biomedical devices and pharmaceutical products as the growing middle class around the world places a higher priority on personal health. It is time to look at how we can grow our biomedical business through exports. Dr. Steve Davis who wrote the strategic plan for BioMed SA has agreed to become Chair of the Chamber’s Biosciences Committee for the next year to develop ideas for biomedical exports as well as to focus on our private equity assets to grow start-up businesses in the biosciences.

San Antonio does a good job of economic development attraction and we have excellent leadership in the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation and our umbrella of public‒private economic development partners. But there are areas where the Chamber can strengthen local efforts. One of them is local film production and the other is to make sure that our businesses are maximizing the opportunities that accrue from Eagle Ford Shale production. Jeff Crabtree, our incoming Chairman of the Economic Council, will help to make sure that the Chamber is doing everything we can to include these promising areas of economic expansion for local businesses. We are honored that we can call on David McGee, who is a banker who understands the Eagle Ford opportunity to focus on enhancing its benefits for the San Antonio region.

The second opportunity involves national‒level entities which can be established in San Antonio this year. The Chamber can help. One opportunity that has high potential to advance over the course of the next year is to capitalize on our city’s sports assets, particularly professional sports organizations which are considering San Antonio. We know that there is interest on the part of Major League Soccer and we know that the National Football League continues to regard San Antonio has an attractive site for a team. A person joining our board who will be very instrumental in helping us advance the ball is Russ Bookbinder, President of San Antonio Sports. If these opportunities come to fruition, we will need to mobilize the entire community to be as supportive as possible.

To function at peak economic potential a city must have a mix of housing types for its workers. We are blessed that San Antonio has been chosen by one of the most effective affordable housing organizations in the nation to expand here. That is the Local Initiative Support Corporation or LISC. In order to be effective in San Antonio LISC will require partnerships with existing organizations. We are doubly blessed that we have a person joining our board, Dennis Noll, President of the San Antonio Area Foundation, who is the person most responsible for getting LISC to choose San Antonio for its first expansion to a new city in a decade. Dennis will chair a special committee to settle LISC in San Antonio in the year ahead and fill this gap in the spectrum of housing which is so important to our workforce.

Similarly, an area where we can add to our quality of life is preparing for the aging of our population. Cities across the nation are beginning to act on the concept of “a city for all ages”. The tsunami of aging Americans, the doubling of the over 65-year-old population, the tripling of the over 85 years olds, means that cities must think about how they function not only for their present residents who are aging, but for others who wish to retire in a city with amenities geared to people of older ages. One of the specific efforts we have underway now is to attract the Virtual Village Network to San Antonio. It is a national network now active in 150 cities to link together seniors within the community to expand the range of services for an older population. The network is ready to add San Antonio and Dennis Noll will be our lead contact with the Virtual Village Network.

The final opportunity I want to put before you tonight has to do with relationships we can build to enhance San Antonio’s position beyond our city limits. One of the dialogues which David began is forging a better working relationship with Austin. That begins with Chamber‒ to‒ Chamber contacts, but it also expands on the existing Austin-San Antonio Corridor Council and on specific projects that will allow us to bring together the region we are becoming. San Antonio standing alone is a region of 1.8 million people. San Antonio with Austin is a region that approaches 3.5 million people and therefore a region that will be viewed fundamentally differently by investors, airlines, entertainment producers, professional sports teams, and retailers. I have made a special request to Rene Flores, our chair-elect and an executive at AT&T to lead our working relationship with Austin.

And then, a logical next step beyond our San Antonio‒Austin focus is project the significance of the Texas Triangle: Dallas Fort-Worth at the northern tip, the Houston metro at the eastern anchor, and Austin-San Antonio in the southwest corner. The Texas Triangle is becoming one of the premiere metropolitan complexes in the world, one of the most attractive and powerful economic regions globally.  A conversation between us about how we can present ourselves to the world together is overdue. We will begin that dialogue this year. Bruce Bugg, who chaired Texas’ economic development efforts for Governor Perry, who is respected across our state, and who joins us as a chamber board member, has agreed to undertake this project.

So you see that our team has prepared a challenging list of initiatives building upon David’s leadership. A Chamber by definition must be able to act on a wide range of priorities. This is a large, dynamic region and we have to be able to lead on a comprehensive front. And I do believe that we are so blessed to have such a capable array of talent in our Vice Chairs, our Council Chairs, our Committee Chairs, our Board Members, and our Members at-large―a reservoir of two-thousand engaged business people―that if we delegate to good leaders and if we each push hard in our respective areas, we make progress on these priorities in the next year.

Even the more complex, longer term challenges can be divided into their component parts and we can make progress this year.

Again, the moral of this story is continuity.

  • We honor the work of those who have brought our city to this height.
  • We pledge to do our best on our watch.
  • And we will pass the baton in a strong position to those who follow us.
  • We each choose to live and work here for good reasons.
  • This is our home.
  • This is where we make our stand.
  • This is where together we achieve goals that are bigger than we could accomplish individually and goals that enable us to touch the future.

This is the San Antonio area business leadership, this is the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce building a region that is more prosperous, more united, stronger, better, and greater.

*Featured/top image: Henry Cisneros

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