(Originally published on June 21, 2014.)
I love San Antonio. Until I moved here, my perception of the city was one shared by almost everyone else in the world. San Antonio: home to the Alamo, River Walk, Sea World, Fiesta Texas and Mexican food, and not much else. I’ve lived here for more than three years now, and have not been to any of the tourist traps. I also never needed to see a city-sponsored advertisement to know these tourist destinations exist, and neither does anyone else in the world. If you say “San Antonio” to anyone, nine times out of 10 they will say, “Remember the Alamo!”
I recently attended an event where young professionals from LOOP urged city leaders to embrace an updated approach to branding San Antonio. The city I know and love and experience every day is not the city of River Walk mariachi, souveneir coonskin caps and theme park water rides. The San Antonio I know and want others to know about is a city with a truly unique place with its own personality, just the kind of place that ought to appeal to young, talented people looking for a great place to live, work and play. In other words, a City on the Rise. The city can change its branding, but it needs to do so in a way that not only changes outsiders’ perceptions, but more importantly, stimulates insiders’ perceptions and values.
San Antonio’s political and private sector leaders say that they want to attract talented people and growing businesses, but that’s not the message gleaned from our branding efforts. San Antonio instead still continues to advertise itself as a city where you are welcome to come for a meeting or few days of fun and then leave. San Antonio has so much going for it and it is growing. It has the potential to go from a “City on the Rise” to a “City at the Top,” but unless city leaders start addressing how to keep talented young professionals from fleeing the city, it will always be a City on the Rise of the dry hill that lurks in the shadows of the giant mountaintops of Houston, Austin and Dallas.
People are moving away from San Antonio because there are better jobs in Midland. Just to be clear, young people would rather live in Midland.
Sure, there are 30 million tourists and convention goers that come to the city for a week and spend money at franchised hotels, franchised theme parks, touristy restaurants and shops, but that kind of spending provides more immediate benefits to the owners than it does to the broader San Antonio economy. Most residents of this city do not spend money at these establishments and most of us don’t work for these establishments. I’m sure the tourism industry employs many residents, but what kind of long-term growth potential is there for the average hotel worker or bartender or restaurant worker? The money that the city spends to brand itself as a tourist destination really only helps out those destinations; it doesn’t help San Antonio as a whole, it doesn’t help out the young college students that leave for greener pastures, and it doesn’t stimulate the young professionals who move here for work.
Sure, San Antonio’s population is growing but how much of that is due to newcomers with high-paying, sustainable jobs versus those who come to retire, or work in low-paying jobs, or decide to leave after a year? People who are from here or decide to stay will tell you that San Antonio is a great place to live because the cost of living is low and housing is affordable. Sure, the cost of living is low if you have a good job, but good jobs are not plentiful. Sure, housing is affordable, but what about the ability to sell your house to someone who’s willing to pay what you’re asking? Even though costs are low, compared to national averages, the average wages paid to the average San Antonio resident pale in comparison to wages paid in other cities. What is affordable to a couple of lucky people is expensive for most people here. Affordable cost of living and cheap housing is not what attracts young talent to cities; neither is tourism, for that matter.
The reasons I love San Antonio have nothing to do with the tourist attractions that the city spends so many tax-payer dollars to promote. Over more than three years of living here, I’ve learned that there is much more to this city than the tourist attractions. I witnessed the Pearl revitalize Midtown and watched new Southtown restaurants attract foodies.
I learned about Rackspace and saw its influence on other IT companies and start-ups and have been to Geekdom several times. I have seen lofts go up in the Museum Reach district and heard about proposed developments in Downtown. I’ve been to the Witte, the McNay, the Briscoe and SAMA. I’ve watched movies and Spurs games at the Friendly Spot and Taps y Tapas, been all over Blue Star and participated in First Fridays. I’ve seen live music at Sam’s Burger Joint, the Majestic, Maverick Fest, and the Japanese Tea Gardens. I’ve ridden bikes down the Mission Reach and kayaked down the river; and I love being close enough the Hill Country or the Rio Grande Valley to get outdoors.
San Antonio is not for everyone. It has its own culture and social dynamic that is very unique, but is not very amenable to changing norms and preferences. It seems to be a sleeping giant that would rather sleep than wake up and use its strength and size to promote change and innovation.
Most cities that are attracting and keeping young professionals have a little bit of everything for all sorts of different people in one or a couple of centralized areas, and they are constantly changing or setting the course for new national trends. San Antonio is not that way; many aspects of this city are very insular, stagnated, and uninviting to outsiders or transplants. A couple of examples that come to mind:
- Politics mean more than individual performance. Who someone knows or who they’re related to is more important than what potential a person has.
- Income disparity prevents introduction and implementation of new ideas. The majority of those with wealth and power invest in the status quo, but not the potential for future innovation and progress of new ideas.
- Geographic and socioeconomic divisions leave the city disjointed and lead to a lack of overall civic integration. The Metro area is divided between wealthy, independent municipalities and poor, dependent neighborhoods.
- San Antonio has 140,000 college and graduate students, but most of these young people leave the city for places like Austin, Portland, Denver, New York City and San Francisco. These are just a few of the realities that define San Antonio and disenfranchise talented young newcomers.
Even if San Antonio can change its branded image in print ads and targeted marketing campaigns, the above realities would still be the same and would continue to make outsiders feel unwelcome, unchallenged, unfulfilled, and unconnected. You can’t create an image or brand that misrepresents reality. You can’t just put lipstick on a pig.
I read somewhere that, “A brand is more than a logo or a tagline. It’s a collection of company values, product designs, customer experiences, and all sorts of intangible elements that other brands try to distill and repackage. An industry-leading brand is much more. It’s a constant source of knowledge and expertise that drives the industry forward as a whole and sets the pulse for innovation and discovery.”
San Antonio’s current branded image is a collection of city values and city designs and resident desires aimed at tourists, convention-goers, and the city’s pride in a ready store of cheap labor, as well as other intangibles that perpetuate San Antonio’s current reality. No other city tries to repackage that brand because it’s a stale brand. The problem is that people who live here trust in this brand because that’s the brand they are accustomed to. Most are okay with this brand because they are apathetic to the city values, its design, its experience, and other intangibles that define reality in San Antonio. If San Antonio wants to be a leader and actually be more than just a City on the Rise, it needs to change its values and its designs internally, not just the image it creates for outsiders.
The new brand needs to be aimed at insiders just as much, if not more, than to outsiders. If the majority of insiders believe in the current brand, why wouldn’t they believe in a new brand? The image San Antonio puts out will follow the cultural change that can only occur if city leaders and business leaders allow it to change to accommodate changing ideals and values. The branding needs to focus not only on how to attract young professionals, but how to keep young professionals who will be a constant source of knowledge and expertise that drives the city forward as a whole and sets the pulse for innovation and discovery.
If San Antonio doesn’t focus on branding itself, aligning an image with changing values, designs, experiences and other intangibles in a way that both attracts and keeps young talent and new businesses, then the city will be a constant source of worn-out knowledge, aging expertise, and fleeing young people. It will keep the city from moving forward as a whole and will set the pulse for stagnation and lost opportunities.
San Antonio’s landscape is slowly changing, but only to those who have been here and can notice the changes. People who aren’t from here will still experience all the realities mentioned above unless city leaders address the systemic realities that gave rise to the current brand.
Here are a couple of ideas that city leaders can use:
- Abandon the downtown street-car project that will solve no problems and only make a couple of rich people richer. Instead, invest in a rail system that connects UTSA, St. Mary’s, UIW, Trinity and other colleges, Stone Oak, Converse, the South Side and East Side with Downtown. It will get young people involved in different parts of the city and connect the poorly-planned city around a vibrant downtown.
- Don’t let Google use tax-payer resources for its fiber network so that it can make more money and pay little to no tax. Instead, do some research for a city-owned network and lease it out to new home-grown providers . It will allow residents to invest directly in the city’s future, create jobs to lay the network, create competition in the industry, and create long-term revenue for the city.
- Start a city-sponsored film, music, and arts festival. It will attract outsiders, excite insiders, and promote cultural exchanges.
- Provide real tax incentives to all land owners, not just big businesses, to install water conservation systems. It will help our water crisis, create competition among installers, and make residents invested in the future of this city.
- Put up a website where residents can propose, but not argue over, other innovative changes and hold quarterly referendums that allow community members to vote for the best changes. It will help awake the giant so that it can promote real democratic change.
*Featured/top image: View of downtown San Antonio from UTSA’s Downtown Campus. Courtesy photo.